Recently, I had an email from a lovely lady that I thought was so cool. I didn't know her at all, but she's been devouring my blog and podcasts, and using my resources to guide the changes she needed to make in her own life. With my example, she realized this recovery process is not as scary as some make it out to be. She's had immense success, in a relatively short time, and I thought it was so rad that she's not even a client of mine yet the resources I've put out there were enough for her to reach her goals in health, hormones and happiness. I was so inspired by her email that I asked her to write a guest post about her journey and how my work has helped her...
Taking the Balanced Approach To Healing
By Amelie C.
“Stop running, eat more, and gain weight”. Easier said than done, right? That’s pretty much the advice that I received from 2 different doctors at the beginning of 2017, when I finally decided to talk about the fact that I hadn’t bought a single box of tampons in 3 years. It also summarizes the advice that I was finding most of the time when I started desperately googling “how to recover from amenorrhea."
Now that I think about it, when I look back at my life of those past 3 years, I realize that I had put together the best cocktail for amenorrhea:
- Moved to the US at the end of 2014. That was quite a change for me, moving away from my family and all my lifelong friends and literally starting a whole new life in another country. That certainly brought some stress in my life…
- New job, very stressful and demanding. I was working 70-80 hours/week in my first year in the US.
- While working like crazy, I trained for and raced in many half marathons, 4 full marathons, and also some triathlons including 2 half-Ironmans. I had been an avid runner for almost 10 years and recently discovered triathlon and I was doing pretty well. I love it so much! But when I moved to the US, I found myself very lonely at first so I trained much more than ever before. And Southern California weather makes it so enjoyable to train outdoors all year long!
- On top of all that, yes, I was under-eating. Not that I was restricting or dieting, but sports and stress seem to suppress my already small appetite so I wasn’t even feeling like I didn’t eat enough. I was also (and am still) dealing with gut issues, so I had banished a lot of foods that did not make my tummy happy.
And then my blood test confirmed it: My estrogen levels were completely down. I sure was concerned with the consequences of too many years of amenorrhea on my bone density and on my ability to have a baby when time comes, but the “stop exercise” and “gain weight” part scared the heck out of me and held me back from taking concrete actions to recover. I was very confused, frustrated, and lost. Why does it have to be black or white, all or nothing?
The past few years up until 2017 were amazing triathlon and running years for me. I was often placing top-3 of my age group. I hit so many PRs in all running distances and qualified for the 2017 Boston Marathon on my first attempt at the LA Marathon in February of 2016. I had also dropped quite a bit of weight in the process and I must admit that I kinda liked it, even if I had never been overweight. But how can I go from Boston qualifier to couch potato to fix my hormones? No way. I was very stubborn.
At that point I had already started to realize that maybe excessive exercise, combined with under-fueling and stress, were the main factors that lead me to amenorrhea. So after the Boston Marathon, I decided to not sign up for any other long distance race and I made a commitment to myself that I would take some concrete actions to recover. But my only condition was that I would do it my own way. My point is, between the 70 miles/week I was running and…0 miles, there is a wide range. I thought I could certainly find a point somewhere between that, a point that would still make me feel good with myself AND allow my body to stop freaking out and resume my menstrual cycles.
In the meantime, I consulted with a sports nutritionist, to help me determine what my daily needs are, and see how far I was from there with my current daily food intake. I was concerned because I had often read advice on some websites that let me perplexed, like, "Eat more and eat all the foods." I understand the concept of eating enough calories when trying to recover from amenorrhea, but to me, junk food is still junk food. I have always eaten very clean (I love my veggies!) and I don’t think that eating cheeseburger, fries and ice cream is the absolute key to success here. Luckily, I had a great nutritionist, who helped me navigate through all of this.
But all my worries were still not addressed. I was always afraid to come to a point where I would have to stop all exercise completely if my plan didn't work. I thought I would lose my identity as an athlete and become fat. I was still not sure whether I was doing the right thing or not.
It was only at the beginning of June this year that I came across Tawnee's blog and started reading all the posts since 2013. One specific post about amenorrhea (“Is Amenorrhea That Big of a Problem?Helping Those Silently Suffering”) spoke so much to me! I couldn't have found better words to express my own frustration with traditional medicine's approach to my health condition. And I finally had a good example that, yes, it is possible to recover from amenorrhea and be cool with the process, with a gradual approach, without having to quit completely doing what you love, and while still eating pretty clean. I learned about REDS, a concept that was totally new to me, no doctor had ever talked to me about that. I also started listening to Endurance Planet podcasts and was learning a ton of other useful information. This is all it took for me to let go all my fears, continue to do my own thing, trust the process and not stress about it. It made me realize that it's not about giving up something you love, but it's about finding good balance, changing your mindset and training/fueling smarter. Gosh, I wish I had found this blog and these podcasts earlier!
It’s interesting how sometimes, when you let your fears go, everything seems so much easier. First week of August, I read Tawnee's post "My Full InsiderTracker Interview on Amenorrhea," where she talks about her experience with overcoming amenorrhea. And this happened to be the exact same day that I got my period back!! My first period in 3 years, while still keeping an active and healthy lifestyle (more on that below).
Yes, there were some moments where I was afraid of losing my fitness because I wasn’t pushing myself that hard anymore. I was missing those Sunday morning long runs (because that was actually my favorite part of marathon training!) but hey, it's not like I can't go back to it. I also knew I had gained a few pounds compared to my weight before the Boston Marathon, even if that change was nothing that others could notice. If I compared my weight now with my underfed and constantly dehydrated marathoner's body weight, the change on the scale was inevitable. I had been obsessing over my weight for so many years, even dealing with some eating disorder issues back in high school. I knew this weight gain, even if it was small, would be a very hard pill for me to swallow. But those pounds are what I needed to start having menstrual cycles again, like a real woman.
What helped me cope with that was to break down the weight gain in different gains:
I had gained muscle (from lifting more often), and muscle = strength.
I had gained wisdom.
I had gained knowledge of my body and how it needs to be fueled.
So really, this weight gain was not about me getting fat. These pounds were not undesired pounds from letting myself go. And as a bonus: My fiancé actually liked the fact that I did not have a pancake butt anymore, haha.
Tips for Recovery
Here are the gradual changes that I made and some tips that I think helped me recover so fast without quitting running. Turns out I probably did a couple things right after all!
- Fuel: I never eat junk food because it doesn’t make me feel good. But I became much more conscious of my eating habits and my food intake. I increased a lot my consumption of healthy fats (avocado, nuts, PB, oils). When I had amenorrhea, I used to always train/run first thing in the morning, fasting. Even when I went for hard tempo runs, sometimes up to 8-9 miles, I wouldn’t eat anything before. I was too scared to have GI issues during my run. I now make sure to get a little something before ANY workout and I feel like I can get higher quality workouts. I prefer to deal with an occasional burp ;)
- Running/training: I kept my runs short, and only ran about 3-4 times a week (it may seem like still a lot, but compared to my old training regimen, it was a huge change for me!). The other days I would usually swim (I found that when I swim, I never push as hard as when I run so that was a moderate to low intensity exercise). Or I would lift weights. I discovered a new passion for weight lifting when I realized how you can get very creative in the gym and make workouts fun!
- Racing: I still did some races, just much less, and shorter distances, with no goal time and no pressure to perform. I ditched the Garmin, ran by feel only! I also chose races that I could run with my fiancé, who is a not an avid runner like me and therefore runs slower paces. We got to cross the finish line together which was fun! Something we had never done together before.
- Stress: I learned how to chill to f… out. In life in general (got a new job, better work life balance), but I also stressed less with my training. I used to take it so seriously; all my time was planned around running/training. I mean, running is a hobby, it’s not like my paychecks depended on my performances (I once placed 1st woman in a small local race and won a Frisbee, that’s the only earning in my running “career” I can brag about lol), so why stress so much about it? I did not have a training plan anymore and no target paces. I just did whatever I felt like doing. If I woke up and felt like doing squats and planks in the gym, I went for squats and planks. Or if I decided I wanted to swim a couple laps in my pool, that’s what I went for. Get the idea? No plan, no stress, just appreciate keeping my body moving. At least for now.
Bottom line, I am not saying that it’s wrong to stop exercising. It is not wrong if it’s what the person needs. Some women may be suffering from injuries or extreme fatigue from overtraining who knows…and they may need that break. That being said, I have a lot of respect for women who chose to go all in. But in other cases, like it was for me, to stop all exercise would just bring more anxiety and negativity; I don't think it was the right solution for me. At the end of the day, it’s all about finding the right balance for you, and unfortunately that’s not how it was presented to me when I was diagnosed with amenorrhea.
I am still learning from this process. I will get back to long-distance running and racing when I am ready because this is what I love the most and I am still competitive, but I will do it with a different approach this time.
I really want to thank Tawnee for sharing so much on her own experience and the lessons she has learned. Without even knowing it, Tawnee, you really made a difference for me!