About 12 months ago now I received a phone call out of the blue from a work colleague of mine who basically said “Wanna come and do Everast Base camp with us?”
Obviously the answer was “hell yes” with many exclamation points but it was a question that I didn’t know at the time would create a whole other series of questions about my health, my relationship to doctors and medical practitioners and training.
It started in October last year with an innocent visit to a random GP (because I have never had a regular one, I just to go who ever is available at whatever clinic I want) to get a refill on my birth control pill and to find out what the vaccination recommendations were for the trip to Nepal.
This particular GP was a lovely little Indian man, in his mid 40’s with a kind and generous nature. I haven’t had many positive experiences with GP’s which is why I’ve never had a long term relationship with one. I go in, I ask for what I want and they give it to me. Most of the time they don’t even do the things they are supposed to do with giving me the prescription like taking my blood pressure. But that is all by the by, this guy was great. “Have you completed your family?” he says to me with a thick Indian accent. I tried not to laugh, “umm yes” I reply, “you are getting on a bit if not”. I liked this guy.
He seemed very concerned about the particular birth control pill I was on, Yaz, and it’s side effects and risks as I get older, especially going to altitude. He said he would give me a prescription for three months but that he wanted me to look into alternative contraception.
I walked out of that office more curious that concerned. Even the doctor who first gave me the pill almost 10 years ago didn’t explain the risks, other than the DVT risk.
I got home and down the rabbit hole I went. I listened to podcasts, ordered books, and shuffled around Google and Instagram until I forgot what I was actually looking for.
I was a bit shocked to learn that hormonal birth control could mask the symptoms of all sorts of medical conditions such as hormone disruption, irregular menstrual cycles, bone health and low energy availability. I had no idea that I effected muscle development and muscle mass. Some researchers even suggested that being on the pill influences the type of partner you are attracted to and indicated that some women when they stopped taking the pill weren’t interested in their partners anymore. Mind blowing.
I spent exactly 3 months researching and to be honest, stressing about going off the pill. Just like the list of side effects of going on it, the list of things that can happen when you go off it was long as well. Hair loss and alopeca, severe cystic acne, weight loss or weight gain, heavy periods. Essentially whatever you had gone on the pill to fix might come back 100 times worse. I was scared.
But I had read enough that when that last pill was taken, I didn’t refill the prescription. I ran out 2 weeks before my goal race.
I didn’t know what was going to happen but I knew it would probably take a while for my body to find its new normal.
(Nothing out of the ordinary happened at my race. I got my PB, it was all good)
When I got back from New Zealand, I started tracking the data and trying to work out my cycle. I had been following the work of Dr Stacy Sims and a few others online who had stated that you can actually see greater improvements in VO2 max and muscle strength and gains if you schedule your workouts around your cycle.
I hadn’t put on muscle in about 5 years, despite having bouts of reducing running and increasing strength training to specifically improve body composition.
I had also had a spell with an injury, two stress fractures in my pelvis that at the time we couldn’t find the cause of. It wasn’t overtraining, it wasn’t a vitamin deficiency, it wasn’t bad bone health and they said at the time (the GP!) that it wasn’t hormonal because that test came back fine. I didn’t know then that the pill effected that, that the test was useless on the pill. Looking back on that now I think the cause of my stress fractures was low energy availability. I got on the bandwagon of intermittent fasting and training without fuelling. I wasn’t aware that this isn’t appropriate for active women (most of the research is done on obese, inactive male populations). I just believed what I read about the long term health benefits of fasting. I think that if I wasn’t on the pill, I wouldn’t have had a period anyway.
So with that background I was keen to see if I could actually make some changes using the topics Stacy Sims discusses in her book ‘Roar’ and signed up for her online course “women are not small men”.
The course focused on highlighting the issues of using generalized sports research usually done on young men and applying that to women who have completely different biologies. I got the most out of the nutrition section and the training section but there was also some great info on heat and altitude training and hydration for women.
I started tracking my cycle using a basal body thermometer and the app ‘Kindara’. I also started tracking my body weight. I mapped the two things on a single graph of grid paper as well as water consumption, exercise and take away food (Thai makes me swell!) so I could see exactly what was happening with my body at each phase of my cycle. It sounds obsessive I know but as someone who hasn’t always had the healthiest relationship with my weight, it really helped me to see exactly what was causing the fluctuations.
In the first month after stopping the pill, I ballooned and felt rubbish. I don’t know if it was fat or water, but I swelled by almost 3 kg (a lot for my 163cm frame). I also saw big weight fluctuations over the course of the month and did research to try to find out why I was seeing such big changes. I reshuffled some different supplements (DIM, B2, magnesium and zinc mostly) and managed to get my weight to stabilize over the past 4 months. I feel a lot leaner as well.
I also had some irregular cycles. One short (10 days), one long (37 days), and now they have settled into a regular rhythm of 31 days.
Then I started matching my training to my cycle. I focused on high intensity sessions early in my cycle (the follicular phase) including fast running sessions or heavy weight sessions. I pushed steady state runs to the week after ovulation and just do easy runs leading into menstruation because to be honest, I’m not at all used to the temperature shift and I’m still getting used to training when I feel so hot.
Nutritionally, the light bulb moment as I said was the under fuelling piece. I was training without eating most days, not eating until lunch time and not eating enough protein. Dr SIMS recommends 1.8-2g of protein per kg of fat free mass per day for active women in the low hormone (follicular) phase and 2.3g for the higher hormone phase (luteal) phase.
But it was the food in and around training that I was missing. I now eat before I train, even if its half a banana or a drink of BCAA’s, and after every single session I have a protein shake (hemp) straight after. Women have a much more reduced recovery window than men so it’s important to get something in within 18-21 minutes of finishing your workout.
I’ve only been doing this for a few months but I’m really stoked with how I feel and how much I have learnt about my body.
This is working for me but what I have learnt is that what works for everyone else doesn’t always work for me, so experimenting and implementing only one thing at a time has been a game changer.
Take notes so you know how you feel and what differences each change makes.
Useful info links:
- Beyond the pill- dr jolene Brighton
- Roar – dr Stacy sims
- Sparta chucks radio eps 99, 95, 59,21
- Bib rave – 194
- The physical performance show- 207
- Koop cast- 33
- Ben greenfield fitness- jan 9,2020 beyond the pill
- Dave Asprey- 665, 655, 658, 675, 670,
- Broken brain- 94
- the period party- not necessarily athlete specific but heaps about the female body