We’re kicking off 2020 with the launch of The Future is Female Coaches, celebrating the women of our sport who are leading, inspiring, and making us all stronger. In this series we’ll interview female coaches about their experiences and insights working across a variety of aspects and disciplines within and around the running space. We want to get the perspective of women working with youth sports and adult clubs, to highlight coaches training recreational and competitive runners, and hear stories from tracks, roads, and trails.
This week we’ve interviewed Pam Geisel, who brings her perspective as an exercise physiologist and manager of performance services at the Hospital for Special Surgery. Follow Pam on Instagram at @pamcakes_ontherun. She is also a 2020 Bakline brand ambassador.
Athletic History & Experience: I’ve been a Distance Runner for the last 11 years. I’ve done 10 marathons and 24 halfs - I truly love to run and lift weights!
Current Athletic/Running Interests: Personally - exploring my “fast & strong”. I never thought I could be a “fast runner” but I’ve become so inspired by the NYC running community - I’m going to give my best shot at one hell of a 26.2 in Chicago.
Current Coaching Role: Exercise Physiologist and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
How did you get your start in the sport? How have your involvement and interests changed over time?
I was a total book nerd growing up and I did not participate in sports, nor was I very athletic. Unfortunately, I chose self harm and destructive behaviors as a way of dealing with years of being sexually abused by my stepfather. When I finally reached rock bottom, I knew I needed to change my life or I wasn’t going to make it. I had dabbled in running in high school so I signed up for a race and started lifting weights. Running saved my life and while it tooks years -- I’ve healed. Now running is what I do for pleasure and to connect with others. Tie that in with my career, and it’s what I get to do for work and fun.
What has kept you engaged over the years?
Honestly, the movement of female runners and female athletes in general. It is absolutely inspiring to watch their stories unfold and how they are redefining their sports. It makes me want to do more for my community and the next generation of females.
Did you have any female coaches in your athletic history? Did that change your experience in any way?
My first female coach was when I hired my first run coach in NYC -- Jess Underhill. I feel very lucky for my experiences with her because she shaped my early years as a marathoner and she is a large part of why I fell in love with the distance. There is something special working with someone who understands the female athlete and the challenges that come along with it.
What inspired you to start coaching?
I take such pride and pleasure in helping others find strength they didn’t know possible which then allows them to pursue all of their life goals. Exercise looks a little different for everyone, but working with someone to find what that is is a fun adventure. I feel very grateful I get to wake up everyday and work with my clients on their health and fitness goals.
In addition to being an active coach and athlete, you are also engaged in the sport in your professional work as an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery. Are there specific aspects of training or athlete wellness that you find are of particular importance to women?
I am lucky to work at an institution that recognizes the unique needs of women, particularly through the work of the Women’s Sports Medicine Center -- a multidisciplinary center with a care team of physicians, nutritionists, sport psychologists, exercise physiologists, and physical therapists. This group of female professionals are experts in topics like bone health, pre- and post-natal exercise, RED-S, Female Athlete Triad, and changes with menstruation or menopause. All of these topics are so important and we should be talking about them more as an industry.
Your work with Fly With the Owls benefits youth in your community. Given your perspective as a coach, athlete, and physiologist, how do you think we can engage girls in sport and keep them involved throughout their lives?
It will take a village and we each have a role. The two keys: making sports both accessible and visible to females starting at a young age (and I’m not talking about “typical” female sports -- I mean all sports!). This includes seeing female athletes on their television and prime time slots at their high school and colleges. We also need to change the language that goes along with this -- men are often praised for their skills and excelling at their sports while females are often praised for looking a certain way or their physical characteristics.
So much of the messaging to women surrounding fitness is focused on weight loss and body image rather than performance and strength. How can athletes and coaches shift the conversation and foster team cultures to support women as athletes?
ALL OF THIS. I still have to battle this notion every day in my clinic. The ideas of losing weight, fear of bulking up, desire to have “long, lean muscles”, etc are still very present. When goal setting with my clients, I ensure that we don’t use goals that focus on their body image and instead a performance measure. It’s so important to shift their focus from a number on a scale to a personal victory in the gym or on the track. This translates to the team culture as well. It’s key to avoid placing the focus or paying compliments from someone’s weight or appearance to their performance measures. We can also normalize conversations around mental health and provide resources throughout the lifespan of a female athlete.
Do you have any favorite resources (organizations, books, people, blogs, etc) when it comes to health or training information specifically for female athletes?
YES! In terms of options for the female athlete - the Women’s Sports Foundation is a wonderful organization that has dedicated decades to advancing females in sport. In addition, every female runner should read Marathon Woman by Kathrine Switzer. For general female health, womenshealth.gov is an excellent resource for mental and reproductive health.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your experience as a coach that you wish you’d known as an athlete?
How much more goes into being a successful athlete than the workouts! With experience I’ve learned to put more of an emphasis on the “other” - recovery, sleep, mental toughness, mobility, etc. That’s where the magic happens.
What’s your coaching philosophy?
To use a combination of evidence-based research and past experiences to tailor an individual plan for each client to achieve their goals. There is a lot of misinformation out there on social media and various publications, so there is a responsibility to provide sound information and resources to our athletes.
What areas of the sport have most evolved or improved for women in the time you’ve been involved?
Women are finding their voice more and more and it’s been amazing to watch. Look at the USWNT who used their platform to advocate for equal opportunity and equal pay. Allyson Felix who detailed the treatment she received from Nike while pursuing motherhood. Mary Cain, Serena Williams, Aly Raisman….the list goes on. The more we push the conversation, the more potential for change.
What’s the most important area of growth or change you’d like to see for the future of female running?
Resources! Female runners should have access to female coaches but also access to registered dieticians, sport psychologists, strength coaches, etc.-- a comprehensive team that can address their needs and concerns.
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