Christine Yu, UP TO SPEED: The Groundbreaking Science of Women Athletes

Christine Yu, UP TO SPEED: The Groundbreaking Science of Women Athletes

Zibby interviews award-winning sports and health journalist Christine Yu about her important new book, Up to Speed: The Groundbreaking Science of Women Athletes. Christine describes how athletics are finally changing for women after decades of oversight and lack of research. She also discusses diet culture, body image, youth sports, sports bras, and menopause! Finally, she shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Christine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Up to Speed: The Groundbreaking Science of Women Athletes.

Christine Yu: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: Thank you for coming on. I know we have a special connection too, which is . Up to Speed, you start this book, you’ve just heard your knee pop. You have had a torn ACL in the past. Now you have a new injury. Talk about how that is just such a perfect introduction to all of the science and everything that you’ve uncovered about women athletes.

Christine: It’s funny because I was very resistant to actually including my own story in writing this book, but my editor very much encouraged me to do so. I was running, hurt my ACL for the second time, and just was so mad. I was so angry at myself and at my body. I have an injury-prone body. I don’t have a body that’s made for sports. Just feeling out of place, in a way, and always blaming myself for it. I recognized in myself — I’m a sports and health journalist. In talking to other athletes, there’s always this sense that women kind of feel like they’re an anomaly in sports. Even though we’ve done so much and we’ve come so far in sports, there’s still a sense that we don’t quite fit. There’s something wrong. Women are so much more prone to injury and all of these things. It led me down this rabbit hole to really try to figure out why. Why is this? What’s going on here? Really uncovering and realizing that we actually don’t know a lot about female physiology specifically within the sports science world. Only six percent of sports science studies focus exclusively on women. It was as recent as 2020. It was just mind-boggling to me that this is the world in which we live in.

Zibby: It is crazy. I had heard in the past that most studies involved men for many things, not just sports, but really, a lot of medical research. I liked when you were saying, was it an oversight? Was it intentional? Do they not care about women? No, your assessment in the book, at least at first, it’s that they assume it’s the same. Women just happen to have reproductive organs. It’s not the same at all, obviously.

Christine: I think it’s reflective of this idea that men are just the standard in everything, in every aspect of life. Sure, we can just apply the same findings that we see in men to women. It’s just the reproductive organs that are a little bit different. Not really recognizing the tremendous uniqueness and differences that can exist as well as some of the similarities that do exist. We just don’t appreciate the overlap as well as the difference.

Zibby: You also wrote about how doctors often miss things that they should catch about women athletes, which of course, derail their careers. You had an example of one woman who was really anemic. Somehow, they had missed that, and so she had all sorts of fatigue and other symptoms. Yet she kept going to doctors and had to miss a whole year of her career until they found the right diagnosis because women sometimes are just not listened to as much.

Christine: Which I feel like, again, isn’t just specific to athletes, but I think it can be more heightened in athletes, especially because their bodies are literally their jobs. If we’re talking about elite athletes and pro athletes, their bodies are their jobs. They depend on it. Yet if you don’t have the right or the contextualized research — in that case, her blood panels all looked normal because they look normal for a normal person, but for an athlete, they don’t look normal. There are subtleties there that can be hidden that aren’t always appreciated.

Zibby: What are some of the takeaways for the average athlete, the recreational athlete, if you will, not the elite athlete, from your research?

Christine: It was really important for me that this book apply to folks like you and me who are physically active, who aren’t necessarily out there competing at the Olympics or stuff like that. For me, it really was just, again, reconciling this idea that I always felt like there was something wrong with my body. I always felt like I wasn’t listened to. I think part of it is becoming body-literate, in a sense, really just paying attention to what is going on with your body. So often, we’re kind of encouraged or told to just ignore it, especially within sports. Just push through it. It’s no big deal. Especially if it’s anything to do with a woman-specific issue, you don’t talk about it in sports at all. Part of it is just empowering ourselves to pay attention to our bodies. What is going on? Asking questions and advocating for ourselves if there is something that comes up.

Another big lesson really is around the one area that — whenever I talk to people and ask them, “What would you want people to know?” it really is about taking care of our bodies, and particularly, around nutrition and just fueling it. I know that you’ve talked about this too. There’s so much pressure around women to look a certain way or to be a certain way or feeling bad about the way that our bodies look. Because of that, it can actually end up doing harm to ourselves. We end up restricting. We end up on this roller coaster. We’re not actually doing our bodies any good. That was another big aha moment for me. Having grown up in the eighties and nineties where it was so entrenched in what we grew up with, about dieting and low cal this, no fat this, and all of this, and just really recognizing, oh, wait, I actually need to treat my body well if I actually want it to be healthy and to do the things that I want it to do.

Zibby: Obviously, body image issues are exacerbated and often almost a precondition for elite athletes when they are losing — you wrote about losing their periods and having these things just be standard. Okay, sure, this is going to happen because I’m an athlete. Should that happen? Is that good? Shouldn’t we be working on things like that? That’s not such a small thing, to lose our reproductive abilities because we’re bicycling champions or something.

Christine: Those myths are still so pervasive in middle school, high school levels even now, and above, the coaches and athletes themselves that think that this is normal. I don’t want to have my period because then it’s a sign that I’m really fit. I’m really in shape. I’m training really hard. I think it is indicative of the lack of education that we give girls about our bodies, about menstrual cycles, and what it actually means. I personally didn’t really realize or recognize until probably my late thirties, early forties that, oh, wait, my menstrual cycle is more than just the couple days that I’m bleeding. There’s actually this whole orchestra of hormones that are going on in our bodies that play a really important role in so many different aspects of our health. I never learned about that. I never learned about this in school. I never learned about it when we were younger, that it’s important for bone health. It’s important for cardiovascular health. I feel like if we provide more of this information at a younger age, we can set girls and women up with a solid foundation to move forward in a healthier way.

Zibby: Very true. You also wrote about kids’ sports, which of course, is such a hot-button issue. How much is it okay to push kids? All this emphasis on travel soccer and specializing early. The same goes for girls. Tennis, all these repetitive motions. Talk to me more about that.

Christine: It’s really hard. I have two boys who are thirteen and sixteen. Definitely, when they were growing up, I felt like we were the weird parents who didn’t put them in all the crazy club and travel — they played baseball mostly. We didn’t do all of that, in part because I didn’t want to tear up my weekends to travel all over the place. There’s such a pressure on early specialization, and I think in part because we’ve heard stories about Tiger Woods and Mikaela Shiffrin and all of these people who started really early and have gone to such great heights. We want that for our kids. I think as parents too, many of us have had experience playing sports. We loved it. We want to give that to our kids. One of the experts that I interviewed describes it as this youth sports industrial complex, which it really is. It’s become this really big business. It feels like if you don’t get on the moving walkway with it, you’re doing a disservice to your kids. Everyone else is doing it, so shouldn’t I be doing it? What it kind of misses is it doesn’t really acknowledge the actual physiological development and maturational development of kids at this age. It’s a tremendous period of growth and change, almost as much as when they are babies. Yet these systems of youth sports, they don’t pay attention to that. We’re almost piling on all of this work and volume and asking them to do all this crazy stuff and train year-round and train six days a week or seven days a week without recognizing that their bodies are growing and, frankly, I don’t want to say fragile as if they’ll break, but it is this vulnerable period of time in which their bodies literally are morphing and changing in shape. They are more pliable, if you will. They are most susceptible to injury. I worry about that a lot and what we set kids up for.

Zibby: I did one season of travel baseball with my son, who didn’t even really like baseball that much. We were at some double-header that was an hour and a half outside the city. I have four kids. I had to leave the other three kids to sit there and watch him sit in the dugout and eat the snacks I packed him. I was like, this is ridiculous. I’m not doing this. “Do you like this?” He was like, “I really like football.” I was like, forget it. This was fun, but first of all, I feel like it has to come from the kids. This could be a whole other conversation. So many parents push their kids into a particular sport or to do it so competitively or whatever. I feel like it’s different if the kid wants to do it. If they’re begging to do more, okay, that’s one thing. The parent pressure on the kids because everyone else apparently is doing it, that’s where you really go wrong, I think.

Christine: Absolutely. We ended up doing one and a half seasons of travel baseball for my younger son. It was the same thing. I was like, why am I traveling to Maryland to play these teams? Can’t they just play in Prospect Park? It’s right there. There are a lot of children that play baseball in Brooklyn. We don’t have to travel four hours or whatever it was.

Zibby: Who even thought of this travel teams? Shame on them. Stay in place. Treadmill teams. No, I’m kidding. Oh, my goodness. You talked about, in the book, how innovations in exercise things, even like sports bra technology — one woman talked about how her breasts were different sizes. How do you do deal with that in a sports bra? Why have sports bras just been these big smooshing machines for so long and all of that? Talk to me about how innovation plays into everything.

Christine: It’s wild to think that the sports bra wasn’t invented until 1977, which is just about fifty years ago, which isn’t very long ago. It was the height of the jogging boom. At the time, there were these three women in Vermont who were like, there’s got to be a better way, there’s got to be a more comfortable way, and ended up sewing two jockstraps together and created the first sports bra, which is bananas. Again, it’s an example of how we never paid attention to women’s breasts. What does it have to do with sports or sports performance? I feel like breasts are so sexualized in that way or associated with reproduction that we don’t consider them as an important part of how a woman moves. Anyone who has breasts know that it plays a big role. It can be really uncomfortable. It can be painful at times if it’s not supported right.

Scientists have studied, and breast movement can actually affect your running gait and how efficient you run. It does have all of these impacts. Scientists really didn’t have the technology to study breast motion in depth until twenty years ago. If you don’t study how breasts actually move, which is, frankly, a pretty complicated pattern — they described it to me almost as this figure-eight butterfly situation going on. If you don’t actually study that, if you assume breasts just go up and down, you can’t actually create a garment that can effectively control or support that movement in a comfortable way. That’s why we were stuck with terrible sports bras for so long. We’re starting to see more brands incorporate this research into their product design process from the beginning so that we’re starting to get better products and hopefully will continue to get better and more affordable products.

Zibby: I just bought these sports bras this weekend, the over-the-head kind, and struggled to get out of them all sweaty and disgusting after. I’m like, why? Why is this still happening? I know there are some with hooks, but they’re few and far between. They’re not as easy to find. I was in Athleta or whatever. Not to say it wasn’t cute, the design. In other words, I think there are still progress leaps and bounds to be made for the sports bra.

Christine: Then the other one that really surprised me was soccer cleats. There hasn’t been a women-specific soccer cleat until 2020. It’s only three years ago, which is really surprising given how popular soccer is amongst girls and women, how much women’s soccer has grown over the last several decades. The fact that there wasn’t a shoe that’s designed to accommodate a woman’s foot — a woman’s foot, anatomically, is different from a man’s. There can be differences in how it feels, how a woman might plant and load her feet. If even the cleats are placed in the wrong spot, it can create pain. Again, it’s wild to me that all of this has kind of been an oversight and women have just been, I guess, making do with whatever it is that’s available.

Zibby: Crazy. What about the benefits? People talk all the time about all the benefits of team sports and collaboration and cardiovascular health and all of that. What are some of the unique benefits to women?

Christine: There definitely are so many benefits to sports, or not even playing sports, but just being physically active, like you mentioned, cardiovascular health and muscular health, especially as we get older, it being even more important. Exercise can help mitigate some of the symptoms around perimenopause and the menopause transition. It can make those symptoms a little bit less debilitating in some cases and especially help address some of the age-related muscle loss too that happens at that time. Other than that, just playing sports in and of itself, there’s been research that’s found that, I want to say it’s over ninety percent of women in C-suite positions in corporate America all played sports when they were younger. It’s this interesting realm in which women can almost experiment a bit and test their limits not only physically, but I think also in terms of their personal limits. There are so many lessons you learn on the field that you can then take into life. It’s an opportunity to kind of dismiss a lot of the myths about what women are capable of and what you yourself think you’re capable of in a way that is really powerful that girls and women can take with them as they get older.

Zibby: What sports are you playing these days? How is your knee and everything?

Christine: Ironically, I tore my ACL again in February skiing, but the other side this time. Currently, I am doing a whole lot of physical therapy. I’m figuring out whether or not I’m going to need surgery. Pre-injury, I do mostly run because that’s where and how I feel most grounded in my body, and trying to be good about things like weightlifting, especially as I get older. I’m noticing a lot of these changes that are happening in my late forties.

Zibby: They are not fun.

Christine: No, they’re really hard.

Zibby: My daughter was literally like, “So tell me why your body has started looking like this. I want to know what I need to do to not have it happen,” basically, is what she was alluding to. I was like, “Part of it is that the things you used to be able to do, you can’t do anymore. You can’t and all of that.”

Christine: At the same time, we don’t talk a lot about this stage of life. These changes are normal and natural that happen with folks who have female bodies. It’s part of life. It’s the bookend to puberty, if you will. It’s really hard to navigate when we don’t talk about it. We don’t know what’s going on. No one tells us what’s going on or what to expect. It just feels so different in your body. That’s really disorienting.

Zibby: Not so long ago, I would’ve been a grandmother by now. I would’ve been in a rocking chair. Nobody would’ve glanced at me twice. Then now instead, I’m bopping up and down in DanceBody with twenty-year-olds being like, I’m going to dislocate a disc again here. I can’t do these burpees. My grandmother, she did Curves or whatever. She was not doing burpees at almost fifty.

Christine: No. Absolutely. My mom keeps looking at me funny.

Zibby: My mom is in amazing shape. It’s insane. She’s in better shape than I am. I’m like, did my grandmother have all this pressure? Could I just go sit in my rocking chair with gray hair and opt out of this whole complex? I don’t think I’m going to be changing that single-handedly, so I’ll have to get with the program. Back to Athleta and all that. What advice do you have for aspiring authors? The process of writing this book itself must have been a huge undertaking. You have so much research and data and just so much that you coherently put together and made engaging and informative.

Christine: It was a lot of work. It was a lot of reading very esoteric science journals and talking to experts. My advice for writers really is, what helped me was really breaking it down into smaller chunks. This is my first book. Prior to this, I’ve written magazine articles, which are three, four thousand words at most. Thinking about putting together a ninety-thousand-word manuscript was really intimidating. It took me a really long time to just get started because I couldn’t get past that idea of, oh, my gosh, I have to write so many words. Even if I write a little bit, I still have to write so many words. It was really helpful for me to break it up into chunks, so definitely by chapter, but even within that, breaking it up into different sections and almost thinking of those different sections as mini articles, if you will. It kind of tricked my brain to get started. Having a good support squad behind you, too, really helps. Having writer friends that I was texting in the midst of this who would cheer me on or listen to me vent was beyond invaluable.

Zibby: That’s so nice. I have to do that too when I write. How many scenes? I’m just going to write a scene. A scene sounds easy. An essay sounds easy. A book sounds like, forget about it.

Christine: Absolutely. I know all the tricks to trick your brain.

Zibby: In closing, tell me a Stacey story or something about your relationship with her. Maybe I’ll cut this part out.

Christine: No. Stacey and I really got to be closer friends in junior/senior year at Andover. She literally was the rock, in a way. She was so grounded. She was the one that I knew wouldn’t be totally going bananas or lose her mind about some little thing. She was always really steady and stable and someone that I knew that I could really count on. We ended up doing our — I guess it was senior year. We took, it was a class on the Vietnam War, but it was an art and English class, double period mixed together. We did our final project together. She was creative in thinking about how to — we ended up doing kind of a multimedia installation type thing — so creative in thinking about how to put that together, but also just down to business. She was like, “We’re doing this. We’re going to the store. We’re getting the paint. We’re getting this done today.” I can’t untangle my memories of Andover without Stacey there. She was such an integral part of it. Amazing and incredible person. I’m so happy to get a chance to talk to you too because I remember freshman year, her talking about Zibby this. I was like, who is this Zibby person?

Zibby: Aw. So sweet. I bet she would be working out like crazy now. Her rowing far in the past, I bet she’d be — I don’t know. What would she be up to? Spinning or something.

Christine: Absolutely. Just her dedication to everything and dedication to the other athletes on her team too, writing all of her psych notes, I definitely remember that, people talking about that all the time. She was just an incredible and fierce person. She had done a summer program in Montana the summer between, it must have been sophomore and junior years. She came home and talked about it. It was amazing. I ended up doing that same program the following summer. The way her influence has just threaded through my life has been amazing.

Zibby: My younger daughter just finished reading a book. I think it was called Crush, a graphic novel. I guess at the end of it, they said something like, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s who’s on your team that matters. That’s so nice.

Christine: I love that.

Zibby: Christine, thank you. This was so nice. Thank you for the book. You’re a great writer. Oh, my gosh, all the information you compiled, it’s really, really impressive and thought-provoking and needs to be discussed. Thank you for that. Thank you for another Stacey connection in the world out there.

Christine: I love it. I know. Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m really happy to finally make this connection. Now I know who this Zibby person is.

Zibby: Thanks so much. Take care. Buh-bye.

Christine: Bye.

UP TO SPEED: The Groundbreaking Science of Women Athletes by Christine Yu

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