Me Mallorca 1024x683

What I wish I knew at 40… as a competitive female cyclist

Women's Training - Blog - Part 1

Training around your menstrual cycle is a hot topic right now. I’ll high five that.

I’ve lost count of the studies focused on active females and the hormonal fluctuations of our menstrual cycles, and that it really does influence how we perform. I’m finding this incredibly liberating and so revealing. It’s answering questions like, ‘why don’t I have the energy to get out on a ride one week… yet the next I’m out-sprinting everyone to the signpost’?

When your sleep, nutrition and hydration are on point, the only other week-on-week variable is where your hormone levels are. In particular, oestrogen and progesterone. With the raft of studies widely available, coaches and athletes are sitting up, taking note and using the menstrual cycle as a powerful metric to plan training programmes. Finally, women are not being viewed as ‘too confusing’ to coach anymore. The movement is strong, and the conversation is becoming normalised.

The transition

What really happens when your menstrual cycle starts to change and it’s not the usual 21–35 day cycle? Not all periods are 28 days, ok? If you’re over the age of 40, this could be an early sign you are heading into peri-menopause. Yes, that’s right, any woman over the age of 40 should be prepping for the menopause.

Let me just clear this one up first. Menopause is a moment in time. That time is when you have not had a period for a full 12 months. Before this, you are in the peri-menopause, which you could be for a number of years. And after that one moment in time, you are post-menopause. That’s how it is. Western culture, however, has put a twist on the meaning. Menopause here is seen as the time when a woman is ‘old’ or ‘past it’ – time to take a step back – slow down and see the rest of your years through. In contrast, Eastern cultures see a woman who has gone through the menopause as ‘free’ and full of wisdom. I’m liking this viewpoint more.

So why am I, as a coach, going into such depth about it? Because I want you to know that it’s time to acknowledge what is happening. This. Is. Happening. And that the change ahead is not a negative change or one to be feared. It is a positive transition. Celebrate it. You are moving towards being free, not tied to a monthly cycle, not dictated to by your hormones. Yeah! However, while we are going through this hormonal change, we do need to admit it to ourselves in order to understand it, work with it, and continue to compete and enjoy exercise at the level we want to. We can also prepare for this time to give ourselves a head start and an easier ride.

I thought I was overheating, over-training…

I am 46. I’ve not had a period for 9 months. If this keeps up, I’ll be post-menopause before my 47th birthday. Now I had no idea this could even happen before 50, thanks to mainstream media myths. Enlightened by the quality information Dr Stacy Sims is putting out, I now know differently.

I know I started showing signs when I was 43. In fact, I can still remember my first hot flush. At the time, I had no idea that’s what it was. Then I had a couple more. At first I wondered whether I had misjudged my fuelling due to doing some pretty heavy training at the time. In reality, my fitness was in a great place; great at the gym, great on the bike, confidence was high. So I tried eating more. I prioritised my sleep time. And I just kept going. Months later, my fitness still felt great, but I just seemed to struggle to put out the power on the bike that I used to. I started overheating on rides (that never used to be a problem). I remember one particular outing with the youth team. They always kept me on my toes, but I liked that. I developed my group riding skills and race edge riding with these guys! On this particular ride, though, a nice hilly Devon 40k, I got dropped on the first hill, overheated, then struggled to breathe. I abandoned the ride and went home, questioning life. Had I over-trained? Not enough calories? Was I coming down with something? I had never experienced anything like this before. So many questions and even more anxiety, which was another new thing for me.

This happened a couple more times over the next few months. Plus, I’d noticed my periods were out of sync and PMS symptoms I’d not experienced since starting my periods at 14 returned with a vengeance. Knowing what I know now, this was the start of it all for me.

Menopause is a moment in time. That time is when you have not had a period for a full 12 months. Before this, you are in the peri-menopause, which you could be for a number of years. And after that one moment in time, you are post-menopause.
Sue Allen

Symptom watch

The other symptoms I have also experienced over the past 3 years are:

• Fatigue – like deep down in my bones fatigue. I would go out on an easy ride with friends and just be sooooo tired

• Weight gain – I hadn’t changed anything, was eating the same, training the same, but I was putting on weight. Did you know that due to the hormonal changes, women on average will put on 4-8 lbs (mainly around the belly)? I didn’t!

• Change in breast size – This was different from putting weight on. It was like someone had pumped them up

• Lack of strength – I have always been active and loved the gym, but it felt like someone had flicked a switch

Add in all the usual sore ankles, lack of sleep, drop in libido, brain fog, some anger… and I think that covers everything.

We are all individuals and will all have different symptoms – and timeframes. Some may head into menopause earlier for medical reasons. What I wanted to highlight, from what I’ve learned and experienced, is that we can be more prepared for this. Even put things in place to help us manage the weight gain (FYI crash diets are not the answer) and the loss of strength and mojo. That is why I wish I had known all of this when I was 40.

In part 2, I’ll go through how to change up your training to take into account the extra rest required to allow our bodies to adapt. How LHS (lifting heavy s**t) will counter the strength losses, strengthen tendons and ligaments – and help you burn more calories so the weight gain (that will happen) doesn’t get out of hand. It will also help you to put in place a routine you can continue for many more years to come. So that you can keep exercising, racing, competing at the level you want.

Sue Allen / Coach