On a recent Tuesday night, among the crowd of seasoned runners circling the Gordon Indoor Track at Harvard University, there was a group of much younger racers. The young runners were members of Title IX Girls Running Club, a nonprofit started in 2007 by veteran marathoner Stacy Rodriguez-Rennard. Also a licensed mental health clinician, Rodriguez-Rennard has spent her career working with adolescents exposed to trauma.
The running program, which is held three times a year, centers around what’s called the Whole Girl Curriculum. Drawing on her background, Rodriguez-Rennard designed it to not only focus on building the girls’ physical strength, but also to enhance their emotional development, by incorporating lessons on how to be confident, mindful, compassionate, and strong.
“We know this developmental stage is tricky for [girls] and their families,” said Rodriguez-Rennard. “Typically this age range is categorized by intense emotionality, impulsive behavior, and of course, puberty. If you look at the science and literature of sports and the benefits to overall health, it became obvious to build something athletic with a mental health focus.”
Each session of the running club lasts eight weeks. In the winter, the group meets on Tuesday nights at Harvard. The first 45 minutes of a recent session were spent working up a sweat. Volunteer coaches led the girls, who hail from 18 cities and towns across Massachusetts, through a series of warm-ups, strength exercises, and stretches.
Then they ran. The girls were each given a tailored workout, and divided up into smaller groups according to ability level.
As they ran lap after lap, they were not only coached on the physical components of running, such as proper form and stride, but were also instructed on proper breathing techniques, which can be beneficial both on and off the track.
“In order to pace yourself, you need to use your breath,” said Rodriguez-Rennard. “So whether you’re running a 5K for the first time or going on a date or to a dance and feel really nervous, they are learning how to manage their emotions through breathing. And that’s something that will last for a lifetime.”
Helen Buckley-Jones, who is in her third season, says the club introduced her to a sport that she is now passionate about.
“It makes you really love running,” the 10-year-old said. “Before I joined this program I thought, eh, it’s OK. But everyone is so supportive and is constantly saying ‘great job’ and it motivates you and makes you want to do better.”
Her teammate, 10-year-old Abigail Rabieh, agreed.
“I like running because it clears your mind and it’s like flying on land,” Rabieh said. “When I come in here I feel really energetic and want to move every second and when I leave I’m tired but I’m still really happy. I feel great after I run, like I accomplished something.”
Another component of the Title IX club involves journaling. When they were finished running, the girls broke off into three groups. They sat in a circle and wrote about their thoughts and feelings, or any issues they were having at school or at home.
“We find that journaling is very helpful because it provides some space for reflection and for the girls to practice articulating their needs, being heard, and validating each other,” Rodriguez-Rennard said. “There are friendships that are formed in a special and unique way.”
The makeup of the group is diverse. But regardless of the girls’ backgrounds, or any challenges they may face, running acts as an equalizer.
“One of the beautiful things about this club is that it’s designed to be all-inclusive. From the girl who is a multi-sport athlete to the girl who cannot stand gym class to the girl struggling with disordered eating or unhealthy coping, there’s room for everyone,” Rodriguez-Rennard said.
More than 500 girls have participated in the program since its inception. Title IX recently teamed up with researchers at Tufts University to collect data from post-season evaluations, which they hope to publish in a study. So far, the results have been positive, with 79 percent of parents reporting an improvement in their daughters’ confidence as a result of participating in the club. They’ve also noticed an aversion to risky behaviors, and an overall sense of well-being.
“It was amazing the first time she did it,” said Joyce Majewski, mother of 12-year old Sydney Down. “She came out of it so strong. She’s never not been confident, but it was a new level. It was so noticeable.”
Linda Rabieh, whose daughter Abigail is in her fourth season with the club, echoed similar sentiments.
“What I’ve been most impressed by is how this has helped her develop goals. And it’s really important, growing up at the edge of tweenhood, to feel strong, to know about what it means to be healthy, to have a sport, and to have what it takes to be part of a team,” Rabieh said. “To do it in this wonderful environment is really unique and I feel really lucky my daughter is part of that.”