Turns out having a normal cycle and all the hormones to go along is obviously an amazing beautiful thing, but it really makes Stacy Sim's mantra hold true: WOMEN ARE NOT SMALL MEN.
After two years of normal menses the issues that come with a regular cycle are nothing new to me, but here's the difference: My autoimmune condition this year led to some further realizations that I still was tending to push myself too hard, and sometimes I'd ignore what my body was saying to some degree in order to instead get in my workout, finish a work project, or whatever demanding and often stressful thing it was. Plus I do believe in those 2 years, it's taken time to get "more normal" meaning that my cycle lengths were a bit all over the place for a while (now they're generally averaging 28 days minus some outliers that were more likely due to travel this year), and I can imagine the initial cycles after years of hypothalamic amenorrhea were probably anovulatory and I still had some hormonal imbalances/low hormones; overall my periods were rather "light." Nowadays, they are about as real as real can get. I feel more womanly than ever, in fact. Ha. So after recovering from the autoimmune ordeal--all symptoms still gone!--I am being kinder than ever to my body these days and doing my best to keep mind and body in sync. No bullshit faking it, my health and wellness come first, and let fitness fall into place from there. As such, I have pretty stable energy and moods and I haven't had a "crash" day in a while aka when I fall apart after pushing myself over the edge (that's another story, but I used to often push myself with work+training+life until I crashed). Patience is really being practiced!
On that note, I actually have new data that matches how I feel, with my hormones all booming this year, even better than last year. In late July I did another DUTCH hormone/adrenal stress test, plus the BioHealth full-month salivary hormonal panel with daily BBT monitoring from January. Progesterone and estrogen doing their thing at the high end of normal, ovulation taking place, DHEA and T looking fine and normal. There was one red-flag, high cortisol (ack!), but I'll get to that in a later post because I have a lot to say on the matter. For now, what a feeling coming from someone who had none of this for a decade. Btw, a PSA: don't rely on blood tests for your sex hormones if measuring these are of importance to you. A lot is wrong with testing hormones via blood and you're essentially losing out on valuable info--probably a post I should write to delve into more detail. The DUTCH, on the other hand, is where it's at, and you can even get this test through my services now if you want, just email me!
So that said, I got in a couple really great weeks of consistent exercise ("training") starting just after Day 1 of my cycle (when I did the MAF test) and was feeling so on top of the world and proud. But not getting greedy and going above and beyond by adding more than what I feel is healthy volume right now. Meanwhile, still keeping in all my recovery things a priority like sauna, walking, ocean soaks, and bikram yoga! I've also stuck to pretty much no alcohol since coming off "the party phase" and that's been going well, helping me really feel things out without alcohol interfering (even 1 glass a night has an impact IMO). On average, I'm drinking no more than 1 night a week (sometimes 0 in a week), and those few times I've drank it's been just 1-2 glasses of red wine. Meanwhile, diet on point including appropriate carbs and certainly not too low carb at all!
Then.... ovulation.... and it was gradually downhill from there. Ha.
Actually, that third week I, way in advance, planned it to be a "recovery" week to be proactive and make a conscious effort not to get greedy with volume and pushing too much too fast. I could have done more that week, I felt ok still, but held back thinking I'd keep things as 2 weeks on, 1 week off. However I'm getting second thoughts.
Week 4 hit and instead of being fresh and fired up, I was still blah, in fact worse. Why? It happened to be my (very) high-hormone luteal phase right before my period. PMS is real. And PMS doesn't just stand for bitchy, there's so much more that PMS entails, and for me it's feeling sluggish and gross and over it. I still worked out but had to be kind given the circumstances.
So, that all said, I think I'll stick to a 3-week on, 1-week off schedule from here on, with my recovery "off" week being that 4th week going into my period i.e. the premenstrual phase in the later half of the luteal phase. I highly advise that women who have normal menstruation consider something similar and/or at the very least be kind to yourself and don't get too frustrated on that 4th week if things are looking and feeling crappy. If you have to race, that's one thing, we can often dig into our toolbox to overcome and still perform, but generally why fight nature during this time?! We're just simply not going to be able to tap into our peak performance levels.
|Don't let your period shy you away from training, this is when you're likely at your peak performance potential!|
But you know when we are at our peak? We women are actually our best on Day 1 when we start our period (menses), and that whole week or two of the follicular phase before ovulation (generally Days 1-14) is the time to get at it. Even though we are bleeding for several days, this is actually when we're most like dudes being that our sex hormones are lower and our performance potential is at its best. So if you are going to have your period when you race, consider it a GOOD thing! And if you have cramps upon and after you start, you're better off getting out there anyway to take advantage of this timeframe, and cramps usually can be mitigated with exercise too (I know this is the case for me--I feel so much better exercising than laying around when I get cramps those first couple days; and I also don't take any drugs/pain-relief meds for cramping so I can say that exercise is a great all-natural pain relief). I alluded to all this in my honeymoon backpacking post and podcast edition--where I felt shitty before I started and like a new woman who could build an empire after I started.
All this got me to thinking to old times, i.e. me in 2003-'13 when I was mostly depleted of hormones for those 10 years and hadn't put in the real effort yet to truly regain my health. Back then, in that state, I was A WOMAN WHO WAS LIKE A SMALL MAN. Back then I didn't deal with any sex hormone fluctuations or menstrual cycle issues. My sex hormones--progesterone, estrogens, LH, FSH, DHEA, prolactin, etc--were bottomed out and I didn't deal with any womanly issues outside of being more emotional than most men, ha.
On one hand, I hate to even say this, that made training and racing easier. I never had to worry about hormones or my cycle getting in the way of performance or what was on tap on the triathlon schedule. I didn't even have curvy hips or boobs to deal with, and I can even recall joking that my body was like a 12-year-old boy's. It's true, though, I was probably much like a dude on the inside. Argue that this was great for endurance sport performance (for a while, it was), but was it a great way to live and good for me? Hell no. Way too many negative side effects and risks, and as the story goes, all that caught up eventually to where I was not well off even in my performances. Women can't live in a state of stress like that and expect to thrive, and even if it doesn't catch up to you now in the moment it can and very likely will in your future--whether that's infertility, osteoporosis or some other condition. So don't try this at home, gals. And if you're in a position where you currently feel "less than womanly" so to speak, it's in your best interest to action to put an end to it. I hate even writing that the state of my body made training/racing "easier" because it was just so unhealthy and I would never recommend this strategy to any woman. We can still operate just fine and achieve our peak performances with a healthy cycle, healthy hormones and a bit o' curve on the body. Go read Roar by Stacy Sims for some how-to inspiration.
Granted, at that top level I know many female athletes are making health sacrifices for the sake of elite performance. They are looking lean and mean and many are without a cycle, but that's choice and hopefully they only let it be temporary. Chrissie Wellington comes to mind as a good example; she turned it around and now has a healthy baby. She still looks pretty dang fit too--it's not like you have to let yourself go lol ;)
Speaking of weight, hips, curves and boobs. Starting in 2015, I actually started to "fill in" getting a bit more hippy and whatnot. At first it scared me and trigged some old ED thoughts, I could feel part of me wanting to put a stop to it, and for a while in 2015 I reached a lower weight again for a few months and--wouldn't ya know--I had period issues. (So sensitive!) But then I said "F that" and I embraced my body, embraced the changes and embraced healthy womanhood. I think for so long I expected and needed to be at a certain weight (just an arbitrary number I came up with), but in fact that weight was probably not the healthiest for me nor my natural weight, and I was lacking basic energy availability* to thus operate like a healthy woman. So fuck the weight on the scale. How about just letting your body find it's set point, and getting comfortable with whatever that weight ends up being? It took me a while to gain acceptance of my "new weight" but I think I'm there. In fact, I love how I've filled in. The other night I had a rare moment looking in the mirror where I was 100% happy and in love with what I saw--the added curves, extra muscle, and event the extra bit of body fat. All of it.
I'm not sure what my body fat percentage is, but I'm certain it's increased by at least 5% or more (it was still low at 15.7% in 2014, the last time I measured). Body fat below 17% is just red-flag territory, and 14% or below is straight-up dangerous, and while these ranges may (to some) look "hot" in pictures and on social media, and/or portray the message that you're fitter, work harder, and more of a badass than your "softer" counterparts, I think that's just bullshit and a dumb way to assess things. I hate that social media has made it practically a contest on who can be the leanest and have the most muscles and veins popping out. In fact, tangent, but this is one reason I stopped fitness modeling--it was not healthy for me, and I was quite frankly disgusted with things I started seeing the more deep I got into it--that world has issues that I didn't need in my life. I think there can be healthy fitness models, so I am not entirely bashing it, but anyway....
Back to sport and leanness: I know power-to-weight ratio is a real thing and that the leaner endurance athletes generally perform better, but this reaches a point of diminishing returns (especially for your health and often your performance). Not to mention I think if you're at your natural healthy weight (i.e. find your set point regardless of what you want it to be or what the scale says) you can still do some major damage in racing--you'll have the extra lean body mass to carry you there, and the right amount of body fat--not too much not too little--to be healthy, high-performing and still looking ripped. To be honest I think I look much better than my very skinny self did. And I just feel much better this way too, even mentally I feel stronger and more empowered; meanwhile, the skinnier me was always weaker (mentally speaking) and lacking confidence.
Anyway, this last month has been very eye-opening and exciting. It's nice to by in better sync with the body. I still have a longs way to go! But at least I'm not getting pissed off or frustrated with myself, nor trying to "punish" myself with harder workouts and restrictive behaviors.
Meanwhile, lately I've been spending so much of my free time immersed in the research again, digging into the science on females, and female athletes in particular. Even though I've figured out a lot for myself, I want to keep learning, and I realize I can't guide others just based on my n=1 life experience. So the more knowledge I can attain, from reliable sources aka science not just random person on internet, the more of an expert I'll become to help this population of ladies who needs guidance! Last year I felt like it was all about researching eating disorders, and this year it's all about female health and hormones, the menstrual cycle, issues with female athletes, nutrition and dietary needs, and especially menstrual dysregulation in female athletes plus scientifically proven ways to recover the menses. I'm finding out the answers for myself instead of trusting anyone else at this point. And I can't get enough of all the good info I'm uncovering.