Midlife - when female athletes struggle most with fitness
The slow weight gain of adulthood can be a motivator to take your exercise up a notch. But if you remember the big hair and waterfall bangs of the 80s, exercise might be getting more challenging. Being a female athlete means you have special needs, both nutritional and lifestyle-related, and these considerations become exponential as you race towards the finish line of your reproductive years.
It’s not you, it’s your hormones
While the hormonal transition can be a positive and empowering journey, as with any journey worth its salt, it is often riddled with obstacles (consider that a little obstacle course race humor). Even if you get past the mood issues, some of the physical challenges of perimenopause, including fatigue, aches and pains, and frequent illness, can directly impact your ability to train.
Perimenopause - the struggle is real
Although very few women know when they are in perimenopause, it can feel like an uphill battle, and start earlier than you think. Progesterone lulls commonly begin in your 30s, and can leave you nervous or unmotivated, and in your 40s, periods, moods, and energy often get very erratic. Despite feeling otherwise, you are not alone!
Athletes can be hardest hit
Unfortunately, female athletes are not exempt from the transition into menopause, and the ensuing complications. In fact, serious athletes may be disproportionately prone to issues like menstrual irregularities, fatigue, joint pain, and a slowing metabolism with central weight gain, because these symptoms, related to low progesterone, can be triggered not only by decreasing fertility, but by over-training.
So, what can we do?
1. First, don’t give up.
Although overtraining is no good, staying active is very beneficial, especially in peri-menopause. Some of the most powerful interventions for hormonal imbalance (and ensuing effects like weight gain, depression, bad sleep, fatigue, decreased libido and bone loss), include exercise and sunshine – so DO stay active - especially outdoors, when you can.
2. Next, avoid training too frequently, intensely, or for too long.
Athletes like to push themselves but try to be gentle. Although an expanding waist, hips, and back can make tight workout wear even tighter, over-training will likely fail as a weight-loss measure. This happens because your body supports exercise and blood sugar with cortisol.
If the body thinks you lack blood glucose, or if you exercise too much, in a pinch, it may frustratingly steal pregnanolone - the source material for progesterone – to make it, causing symptoms of low progesterone, including weight gain around your waist.
3. Try adding more minerals to support your adrenals
The adrenals manage the delicate balance just mentioned, and they may need extra minerals, like magnesium, calcium, potassium and sodium, for support. A supplement like Calcium Magnesium can help support the nervous system, muscles, cardiovascular system, and bones.
As athletic women over 40 need extra minerals, this means they should be careful with keto, since ketosis can necessitate extra minerals. Regular keto can disrupt your delicate hormonal balance. A professionally planned, female-focused, green-heavy version of keto, with mineral supplements and carb-ups, may help avoid compromising your immune system, health or performance.
4. Take stock.
Look for symptoms, note patterns, pay attention to your body. It might help you to figure out if the fatigue or weight gain you experience is accounted for (not enough food, too much food), or unexplained (and potentially attributable to hormones).
Track your cycle too. This way, you can plan your rest and recovery on days you will likely be fatigued - day one of your period, plus a couple of days before and after, and again on ovulation day.
Sometimes, midlife hormone changes can cause (terrifying, let’s be honest) flooding periods. Fibroids, which get more common, are another potential cause. See your doctor, they may have an intervention, like progesterone injections. Don’t feel bad if you use NSAIDs for discomfort – even if you normally avoid them. They can reduce blood loss, reducing your risk of iron deficiency, a serious concern.
5. On that note, do pay attention to symptoms of low iron.
31% of female athletes are iron deficient! It can be caused by repetitive foot strikes or body strikes from running or impact sports, menstruation, gut microbleeds, or hepcidin bursts. The resulting fatigue, inability to exercise, poor concentration, muscle cramps, and a bad appetite, can obviously affect athletic performance, and there are more symptoms, like cold feet, cravings for ice and hair loss.
It is safe for female athletes to take a preventative, low dose iron supplement like Floradix, particularly if you are experiencing any of the symptoms above. If you have heavy bleeding and got a blood test, your doctor might even insist on extra doses.
6. Be on the lookout for signs of estrogen imbalance – it could save you from catastrophic ligament injury.
Signs like spotting, irregular or missing periods could mean that some months, no egg is released. When there is no egg, we don’t produce a corpus luteum, and we won’t have any progesterone that month, so estrogen alone is running the show, otherwise known as estrogen dominance.
While estrogen improves muscle mass and strength, and boosts collagen in connective tissues, it decreases tendon and ligament stiffness. High estrogen levels often accompany low progesterone and can decrease power and performance and make us more prone to injuries such as sprains.
7. If you do suspect estrogen dominance, think of magnesium
Most midlife women are deficient in magnesium, which can impact over 200 important magnesium-dependant body processes. As we age, we tend to consume less of this mineral and absorb less of what we do consume. This impacts our energy, because our cells need magnesium to produce ATP.
Another critical function that magnesium supports is the production of an enzyme in the liver that promotes the healthy excretion of estrogen. There is some evidence that healthy function of this enzyme may reduce the risk of conditions associated with the estrogen excess. Low function of this enzyme is connected to health issues such as fibroids.
We can put foods like dark leafy greens, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, and dark chocolate in our diet daily, and take a supplement like Magnesium to ensure we get enough – aim for 320 mg per day.
8. Get your hydration and electrolyte strategy masterfully dialed in.
A classic sign that our hormones are changing is that our heat tolerance can be lower than before, leaving us uncomfortable and flustered. When combined with an increased potential for fluid retention and for heart palpitations, we may get dizzy, have a headache, or even a panic attack.
Make it a daily habit to eat high water-content produce and drink mineral-rich liquids, like broths. If you get cramps, headaches or heart palpitations, you’ll likely feel better with more minerals in your diet. Again, supplementing with a Magnesium or Calcium-Magnesium formula could help.
9. Take your sleep routine seriously.
Your sleep-wake cycle is so important. It helps balance cortisol, melatonin and energy. Do get moving and into daylight early in the morning and get away from blue light after dark. Decrease your bedtime gradually, until you hit the sack by 10:30 pm nightly. This helps you accomplish another helpful habit; restricting food to a 12-hour window (for example, between 8:30am and 8:30pm). If you have trouble sleeping, you may find after supplementing with magnesium for something else, that insomnia resolves as well.
10. Switch up your drinks.
It can be very powerful to gently reduce caffeine. Having green tea instead of coffee might help with many symptoms. Also, reduce alcohol. Try replacing your nightly glass of red with unsweetened sour cherry juice. This is also a great time to take that magnesium, to reduce inflammation, and promote better sleep. Another good time is before exercise.
Most commercial electrolyte beverages do not supply magnesium! Try using beet juice instead. It naturally provides many electrolytes like sodium, potassium and magnesium, along with energy-boosting plant nitrates, a source of nitric oxide. Flora distributes delicious tasting Red Beet Crystals, which mix well with water and are great a couple of hours before and during exercise.
11. Meet the pandemic challenge.
You may miss training groups and event competition and the way they help build community and confidence. You may miss hiking in National Parks. However, if you’re an athlete, physical training is non-negotiable. Getting outside if you’re able, for a solitary run and at home workouts are some of the options left to us during the current crisis.
DHEA and testosterone might fall at this time of life, and even more so if you are stressed. To offset the resulting loss of power and muscle, engage in short bouts of high intensity plyometrics and heavy lifting more often, and do fewer hard endurance sessions. This will also help to offset the increase in belly fat from being low in these hormones and high in cortisol, which can fuel stress eating.
12. Eat like the athlete you are.
Speaking of eating - a balanced diet works best. Consume plenty of high-fiber, complex carbs to help remove excess estrogen. Get enough high magnesium foods and eat healthy fats for better cognition and less inflammation.
Proteins, including red meat, help to maintain muscle and iron, and vegetarians may wish to supplement with iron. Strategically timed, high-quality, lean protein is important on days with high-intensity training sessions. Have a little protein prior, and a full portion more 20-30 minutes afterwards.
For endurance sessions, you can replace an additional 15 g of carbs with a tablespoon of MCT oil (to avoid gut problems, use C8 or C10-type MCTs only, like Flora uses in Omega Sport+ and the Flora Organic MCT Oil).
During events, lower your intake of fiber and fats and make up the caloric difference with low-fiber carbohydrates. You can use Red Beet Crystals not only as a source of nitric oxide and electrolytes, but as a no fiber source of carbohydrates for fuel, as well.
I hope this helps you feel empowered in your training, your events, and your journey through midlife.
Dana Green Remedios, RHN, RNCP, is a Vancouver-based educator and coach. She is a regular contributor to the FloraHealthy blog and can answer your questions in English, French, and Spanish as a Product Information Specialist at Flora.