Menopause – The missing discussion for female athletes

I am 56 this year, and I hit menopause, at the age of 51. Exactly on cue, at the average age. I’ve always been someone who somehow fits in with being average. I’m an average height for my age, an average weight, and an average shoe size. Maybe being average is where I should remain. I’ve always thought of myself as fairly mediocre in life and achievement too – average job, average house, average physical ability too. Not particularly good at anything, but able to hold my own too. But once in a while ‘average’ just doesn’t seem good enough, and I’m certain that’s what drove me to take on a World Record challenge in 2020. For once in my life I wanted to be more than just average, even if it was for just 1 day, although it turns out that almost 2 years later I still hold that record. I was curious to find out if an average woman could take on such a challenge and be successful. It turns out that they can.

But getting to that fitness level was hard. I’m not just talking about the physical efforts of improving my speed, power and endurance, but also dealing with all the added symptoms I was dealing with by going through the menopause. My sleep was dreadful, often barely getting 6 hours sleep a night, I couldn’t regulate my body temperature, and my mood was swinging all over the place. In many ways though my menopause symptoms have been mild. I took some additional supplements, which helped to stop the night sweats and hot flashes, and adapted to the shorter sleep patterns. The lack of sleep though affected my recovery. My mind was all over the place, so I would often make poor decisions. Nine months ago I finally went onto HRT Patches and these have helped a lot. I am sleeping a bit better, but more importantly it seems that some of my mental health issues that I suffered last year appear to have been exasperated by the Menopause. Within a month of being on HRT it felt like a heaviness had been lifted on my mood. Who knew?

But despite all this, there were also big advantages to the menopause, the main one being that the lack of periods meant that my perceived fitness levels didn’t peak and trough like they used to. Therefore a ‘bad’ training day could most likely be pinned down to something to do with my training or fuelling, instead of wondering if it was because my period was due. That made performance issues much easier to pin down. However, it might not have been the whole story. I’ve also struggled much more with keeping my weight in check, and fatigue generally (other medical issues notwithstanding). Is there more about the menopause, and staying fit that I’ve not been considering?

Why talk about this now?

Menopause has become a hot topic, or at least now that I am in meonpause, I’m noticing it more. Women are encouraged to stop ignoring the symptoms and seek out HRT, to the extent that there are now shortages thanks to the sudden demand. It’s being spoken about as something that should no longer be discussed as being just one of those things that ‘women of a certain age’ have to put up with.

With the average life span of developed nation’s women being around 81, it is a fact that women will spend almost half of their life being either peri menopause, in menopause, or post menopause.

Just take that in for a moment!

It’s one of those things like taxes and death that women can’t avoid in life, so yes, it’s really important that it’s not only discussed, but also researched and addressed. If men experienced menopause, you can bet your life that there would be $billions spent on research and remedies.

Thankfully, there is one woman, who is changing the research narrative, and that is Dr Stacy Sims PhD. She has spent most of her post graduate life challenging the assumption with sports science that you research on men, and then just scale it back in size for women. Her motto is ‘women are not small men’. We are physiologically different from men, and utilise our hormones in very different ways at different times of our lives and so many of the results from research on men, just aren’t as relevant to women. In 2016 she published her hugely successful book ROAR, which explains in depth why so many training regimes, and nutrition plans designed for men, need to be significantly redesigned for women. There are chapters relating to each phase of a woman’s hormonal life, and the best ways to work with your hormones to get the best training and performance results. It’s become the go-to reference guide for millions of women athletes and their coaches.

Next Level

Realising there was a lack of research and information for women athletes around training in your late 40’s and beyond, she got together with Selene Yeager, and has spent the last couple of years specifically researching menopause for female athletes. The result is her latest book NEXT LEVEL, which is just been released this month. It is described as ‘your guide to kicking ass, feeling great and crushing goals through menopause and beyond’.

Since I’ve been struggling recently with energy levels, legs feeling like they are constantly riding through treacle, and still not getting enough sleep to properly recover, I shall be reading the book from cover to cover, and taking action to see how I can change the status quo. I need to find my mojo, and lose the constantly sluggish feeling in my body that seems to overwhelm me. I’m sure I’m not alone in this feeling, and maybe this is why we see so few women in their 50’s in the long distance cycling space.

The book starts my explaining in some detail about what is going on in your body during each menopause stage, and the significant role of oestrogen. There are in fact 3 different types of oestrogen that we use, which was news to me. However, what is different about this book is that she not only describes the process going on, she also explains a lot of why and how these processes affect us. The book talks about some of the different ways that women can manage their symptoms and then hits training.

She explains how and why HIIT (high intensity interval training) and SIT (spring interval training) are hugely important for menopausal women, even for endurance athletes. She tells us to ‘lift heavy sh*t’. No more should we go for lower weight and high reps, instead, load up the weight and start with say 4 reps, and then increase to around 8 as we adapt.

The book then talks about nutrition, and how many women try to reduce their food intake to try to reduce the increasing waistline, but why it’s the worse thing we should do as it actually causes us to make more fat. Instead we need to consider our macros, but more importantly pay attention to the timing of what we eat, so that we don’t end up with low energy availability. This will help us build lean muscle, and reduce fat.

It’s written in a tone that’s not too sciencey, which makes it very readable, and I think should be part of every active woman over 40’s reading list.

I’ll let you know how I get on when I put it all into practice, and report back on progress over the next few months.

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