I am a menopausal Athlete, by Sara Harris

I am 51 years old, and I am a menopausal athlete. I have been active all of my life, which is something that my parents instilled in me. I was never brilliant at anything, but average to fair, excelling in some things (I had a fantastic breath hold ability as a freediver), and in others, average to middling.

I have always enjoyed the outdoors. I was brought up in Africa in warm climates and we were encouraged to be outside. There was no television until 1975, so there were no alternatives! As I have grown older, and especially in the last 15 years, I’ve become more involved in team sports or sports where there are 1000s of participants. Triathlon, cycling, open water swimming, I dabbled in rugby (far too painful for my liking), and in the last couple of years, kettlebell training. If there is one thing I have noticed is that women over 40 are generally overlooked, and forgotten.

I started noticing “weird stuff” going on with my body at around the age of 45, weight gain, night sweats, and lethargy. I raced a season with the Urban Ultra Women’s Cycling League in 2016 at the end of which I thought that I’d never be able to get that energy again. I tried everything, “dieting”, more training (with difficulty as getting out of bed was a chore), to the point of frustration and injury. There was no one to really talk to about it and coaches didn’t seem to have any topics going at the time. My biggest resource was the Women for Tri Facebook page and Dr. Google. I bought the book ROAR and started following Dr. Stacy Sims.

I went on a girl’s weekend and cycled across the Emirates with the Journey of Hope, and over several good dinners the world of menopause opened up in conversation and I was recommended a gynaecologist who literally changed my world and got me on to Menopause Hormone Therapy.

I have come across a couple of athletes who “didn’t go through menopause” and did not have any symptoms and sailed through. To be honest, two people have said that. Over many bikes rides over the last 6 years, I have spoken to 100s of women about this, and please believe me when I say you are not alone. Training becomes more difficult, we cannot find a training plan to suit, our bodies are continuously inflamed, and we suffer from fatigue, and very often, very dark days. With our flatlining hormones, we have cognitive changes, loss of mojo, and decreased sensitivity to insulin.

Every menopausal athlete will have an issue of her own, but very likely, we all have common issues. Fibromyalgia, previously broken bones/old injuries, divorce, heart break, food intolerances, awkward children, awkward partners, battle of the bulge, loneliness, and so on. We all have our battles, and if there is one way to approach those battles and feel like you belong, is to become part of a group of women who will welcome you into their own world of hope.

Most of the training plans, nutritional advice, and sports research that you read online are results of studies based on tests done on young male college athletes.

Most of the research you see about women, is usually based on two age ranges:

  • Pre-menopause or what do we do when we are on an Oral Contraceptive.
  • Or, after you’ve gone through the cessation of your periods (Post Menopause) but they are mainly on public burden diseases.

As an athletic woman over 40 or 50, we are not really covered in either age range, and we need to discuss more openly about what’s going on. Menopause has been known to start as early as age 14 yet there is often very little support for these women, or, they have just not been diagnosed as menopausal and get treated for something else.

Most commonly, peri-menopause starts in 40s, and menopause can kick in around the age of 46. It can be a difficult subject for many, as many women suffer from memory loss, brain fog, disorientation and often get misdiagnosed as have depression or even the onset of dementia. We experience cognitive changes and mood disorders that occur when estrogen crosses the blood-brain barrier and affects our neurotransmitters, and when we have an increase in serotonin and serotonin activity, and then we get a serotonin dump. It feels like we are depressed, we suffer from anxiety, and a feeling like we’ve lost our mojo. Many women choose to take the Menopause Hormone Therapy route, and there are many different ways of introducing exogenous hormones and also, your response to those hormones will differ to someone who has no uterus or ovaries, for example. What is important to know, is that hormone therapy will not induce protein synthesis and so we really need to work on our protein intakes and exercise stress to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

The anabolic effect that you get from your natural estrogen does not have the same effect when it is a synthetic estrogen. It does help maintain lean mass, but it does not help build it. It is also known that in pre-menopause, we have sex differences in day-to-day intensity and recovery. For example, if a man’s training plan is 5 days straight of long distance cycling, and his recovery day is a 60km ride, this is definitely not going to work for a female athlete of a certain age. As we age, that doesn’t change. There are specific sex differences to remember with regards to day-to-day intensity, to deal with more of the muscle enzyme activity and the muscle structure, not so much the hormone effect. Recovery is crucial for maximum training gain. It is often said that you get fitter while you are recovering, and not actually when you are out training.

Increasing your protein intake and strength are not mutually exclusive, you need to do both. You cannot compare yourself to male athletes in your community, and their training and nutrition. You are not a “small man”, you have so many hormonal considerations and also the regulation of your body fat composition will be so different to the way your average male athlete is managing his.

There are considerations that you should be making with regards to training. I sound like a stuck record with my athletes, when it comes to strength training. I insist on it. Plyometrics, or kettlebell training, core strength training or weight training sets, and even barefoot work, are all useful for building lean muscle and increasing bone density. All of these strength training options work to decrease visceral abdominal fat, increase our insulin sensitivity, increase our lean-mass development and the way our muscles fire, reduce our total body-fat accumulation. It helps with our mood and cognitive focus. It helps with overall health, but also helps with our performance potential.

When you reach 40 and start your peri-menopausal era you need to consider the metabolic, muscle and bone changes that you are going to go through. When talking about the perimenopause aspect, where all the hormones are a bit all over the place, and all we know there is an estrogen dominance and progesterone usually antagonizes it, but when it starts to fall off, we start to have all these different changes within body composition, our response to different types of foods that we eat, sleep, all these different metrics. Choose healthy over skinny, as a starting point. You should also talk to your coach often about your state of mind, and physical state. If you don’t give your coach specific information, then planning the training schedule is difficult and may not be optimal.

The other thing to remember is that with age and with the changeover of estrogen progesterone, which do modify our fuelling mechanisms, we end up having a decrease in the amount of fat that our body removes on a daily basis, as well as for exercise, but there’s actually no change in fat uptake. So by default, we end up storing more fat, normally across the belly. If this is not addressed through training and nutrition, then this contributes to the menopausal spread, and the attenuation of lean-mass development. You can thank Mother Nature for this one!

So why am I talking about Forgotten Athletes? The reason is that we need careful consideration, care, and our training needs to be specific. It is important to know that a coach can only help you if information is provided. A great way to do this is to use the Wild.Ai app, which will require daily input from the athlete. This can be linked to Training Peaks or the coach can be given access to the health data and understand where the athlete is at in terms of the menstrual cycle, or if in menopause, the general well-being and physical state of the athlete. Tailoring plans for women is not an easy task. It can take several months to get to know an athlete, and get down to the nitty gritty of what is going on there. It takes patience, communication and also the coach is not a divine, so the athlete needs to provide as much information as possible.

To ladies over 40, there is hope for you. Not all is lost and there is definitely an amazing sporty life ahead of you. I am happy to sit and chat about it all, and tell you about my personal experiences and how I am managing my health and fitness. I am not perfect by any stretch, I still have days where a nana nap seems like the only way forward, my mood can swing and I am not feeling very people-friendly. You don’t need to apologise. If you are going through menopause you will absolutely relate to some of this and I want you to know that there is help available, in Dubai.

Whether your goal is to do a 10km run, a 50km ride, a 5km run, a 1km swim, or simply being able to be more agile and mobile, you must stand tall and be recognised as a cyclist, a runner, a swimmer, an active person. Insist on being respected, cheered on, uplifted, and made to feel like a person again. Find those feelings of self-worth, confidence, and stand up in your favourite outfit and feel fabulous. If you come to our training session you will be received with smiles, open arms, and feelings of positivity.

Every women has an athlete inside. Your size, age, and experience does not matter.

It’s time to bring more Forgotten Athletes back on to the sports scene, find their purpose and feeling that they BELONG.

Posted on 23rd Oct 2020