As she aims for next year’s Commonwealth Games, Kiwi distance runner Lydia O’Donnell is also teaching young girls their periods are far from a curse, in part three of our series, Out Into the Open, on female athlete wellbeing.

For as long as she can remember, Lydia O’Donnell has loved running. Not just for its physical benefits, but for the way it nurtures her mental health, too.

Despite frequent setbacks to achieving her athletic goals, and surviving countless lockdowns from her residence in Melbourne, the New Zealand champion distance runner continues to find solace in lacing up her shoes, heading out the door and pounding the pavements.

But the 31-year-old and running haven’t always had a smooth companionship.

During mental health struggles at the age of 18, O’Donnell called time and stepped away from running altogether.

What followed next – and the journey she embarked on – has not only changed O’Donnell’s life in how she’s viewed, treated and nourished her body. It’s also shaped her career path of educating female athletes, globally, about their menstruation cycle and how it can empower, rather than hinder, their ability to train.

“I grew up in a world where we were told if we had a menstrual cycle, it was a bad thing, and we needed to go on a pill to get rid of it. If we lost our menstrual cycle, it was a sign we were training hard enough,” she says.

Now she’s teaching girls that regular periods are healthy, and balanced hormones help them to feel good about themselves.

Lydia O’Donnell on her way to winning the 5000m at the Night of 5s in Auckland last December. Photo: Michael Dawson. 

Growing up in Tauranga, O’Donnell was first introduced to running at seven. She then joined the Tauranga Girls’ College running team, under the tutelage of Rosemary Wright, the Commonwealth Games 800m gold medallist for Scotland at the 1970 Games in Edinburgh.

“We had 15 girls who really loved exercising, but it was more of a social thing for us to get together and have a good time,” O’Donnell recalls. “Rose was very much focused on just enjoying running and having fun. She never put pressure on us to be the best in New Zealand at that age, because she was always so focused on the long term.”

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said when the talented O’Donnell ventured to Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, on a scholarship to further her running potential in the NCAA college system.

“It exposed me to the negative side of sport,” she says. “The NCAA system is so serious and competitive. Anyone would do anything to be making teams over there, and I wasn’t used to that.”

O’Donnell had only been in Texas for six weeks, and was already grappling with mental health struggles.

“I moved to the other side of the world when I was 17, the first time moving out of home, so there was a lot going on,” O’Donnell shares. “The competitive side of the sport and being exposed to the seriousness of some of the coaches, I ended up coming home and quitting running for about 18 months.”

That time away from the sport made O’Donnell realise how important running was to her.

“It showed me how running complemented me as a person and really helped with my mental health. It gave me purpose and confidence, which I think all sport can do for females.”

An exhausted Lydia O’Donnell after running the second-fastest 5000m in her career at the 2020 Auckland Night of 5s. Photo: Michael Dawson.

O’Donnell returned to the competitive athletics circuit around New Zealand, and began to carve out a successful career on the track and road in a variety of distances.

She is the owner of seven national titles – four over 10,000m, two in the 5000m and a half marathon title – as well as a plethora of silver and bronze medals from New Zealand championships.

She has represented New Zealand at the world university cross country championships, and Oceania championships in both the half marathon and marathon events.

A bout of appendicitis scuppered her plans of qualifying for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, while the Covid-19 pandemic saw every race O’Donnell had planned to compete in to try to qualify for Tokyo 2020 cancelled. This included the world half marathon championships O’Donnell was selected for, which would have been the pinnacle event in her career to date.

O’Donnell has an eye on a big year next year. But the qualifying standards for the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games have just been released, and to say they are difficult to meet is an understatement.

“This time around, [some] standards are just as hard, if not harder, to meet than an Olympic Games standard, so it’s extremely hard to make the New Zealand team for athletics,” she says.

O’Donnell acknowledges the tricky spot Athletics New Zealand are in, with a new international quota system meaning athletics has been allocated just 18 athlete spots for Birmingham, at this stage.

With only one female runner on the track in the black singlet at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (Camille Buscomb in the 10,000m), there’s a certain level of frustration for O’Donnell and her fellow runners.

“My biggest thing is inspiring and encouraging the next generation of female athletes to want to do our sport,” she says. “I can’t see a 16 or 17-year-old girl looking up to someone like myself, seeing that hard work and still not seeing us represent our country. Why would they want to do our sport?”

Despite her heart sinking when she sees the qualifying standards, that won’t stop her from trying to meet them. The passion she has for putting one foot in front of the other allows her to keep pushing on.

“If I was only there to make teams and represent the country, I would’ve given up long ago. But I just love running so much,” she says.

And that love is what sustains O’Donnell on the most enjoyable and also the toughest days.

Lydia O’Donnell training on the streets of Melbourne. Photo: Matty Smith

It’s also her prime motivator in sharing how the enormous benefits running can have on health – physically, mentally – and also as a way of socialising and seeing new places. Not to mention it’s accessibility, with not requiring any equipment other than your body.

From her role as the Nike head running coach throughout the Pacific for over six years, through to writing personalised running plans under her original company, LO Coaching, O’Donnell’s enthusiasm for the sport knows no bounds.

Now, she’s ramped her busy schedule up even more by founding her a business with best friend, Esther Keown, called Femmi. It’s particularly close to their hearts, drawing directly on experiences they both went through as young athletes.

“At Femmi, we want to grow a community of females who feel really empowered within themselves, but within a safe environment,” she says. “We think there’s a lack of space for girls to share content and feel really confident in who they are, and be able to speak about things that until now have felt quite taboo to talk about.”

One of those taboo topics is menstrual cycles, and Femmi is changing the landscape by breaking down barriers associated with talking about a completely normal process that’s often met with frowns and abrupt changes of topic.

Stemming from this previous experience, O’Donnell has put together a team of top female trainers who provide running and strength coaching to women. But their services have a beautiful point of difference: every woman’s programme is tailored to her body and her menstrual cycle.

“We’re running coaches who are coaching females to their menstrual cycle, but it’s so much more than just the running and programming,” O’Donnell says.

“Through growing female confidence in their bodies and helping them to have a healthy menstrual cycle and balanced hormones is part of them feeling good in themselves.

“Taking that confidence they gain from loving their body, from getting out moving and running and going to the gym, into all industries and societies they’re surrounded by.

“For me the dream is to break down the gender equality barrier.”

Lydia O’Donnell is developing an online course on guiding sports and teachers how to work with female athletes effectively. Photo: Matty Smith. 

The lack of understanding about menstrual cycles and how they affect female athletes in training or competition is widespread around the world. It’s rarely taught in high school health classes, and it’s not something coaches or trainers have been systemically educated about to pass the knowledge on to the athletes themselves.

It leaves many women and girls at risk of being overtrained and in a precarious situation physically, and potentially at risk of long-term effects.

Helping these women to understand how their training programmes safely interact with their cycles means they will be able to train sustainably, rather than approaching particular times of the month dreading not being able to train or their training being affected.

It will also give them more knowledge about what a more holistic picture of wellbeing looks like, something O’Donnell discovered to be so important earlier in her career and strives to maintain every day.

However, O’Donnell and her crew aren’t content with being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. They want to head off a significant lack of education at the pass.

Femmi is in the process of developing an online course for sporting organisations, teachers, coaches, trainers and athletes to become certified in understanding how to work with females more effectively.

It’s an initiative that will begin to address the widespread stigma in performance sport and the subsequent negative toll placed on female athletes.

“We’ve got the physiological point of view from a dietician’s perspective, as well as a physio and an endocrinologist pulling together the science side of it,” O’Donnell reveals.

“And then Esther and I are putting together more around how you communicate with girls so when you’re in a position working with a young female, how do you talk to her about menstrual cycles or body image or confidence or pressure? It’s about having these conversations where you open it up to the female athlete to make sure she’s comfortable having the conversation back with you.”

In 20 or 30 years time, O’Donnell wants to be able to look back and know that she had a part to play in women being on equitable ground with their male counterparts.

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