Shelly (not her real name) sat in the car with her boyfriend, driving home from a wonderful play at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in downtown Los Angeles. Although the evening was pleasant, the conversation in the car was not. It had veered severely and hopelessly off course. Shelly could feel her blood pressure rising as she got angrier and angrier. Out of the blue her boyfriend asked, “Have you gone through menopause yet?” Shelly was stunned. She was only 47.
“What the hell kind of question is that?” she snapped. “Well, my ex-wife went through that,” he replied weakly. Shelly’s boyfriend realized too late that he was walking on a minefield. When they arrived back at his house, Shelly grabbed her things and stormed out. Before leaving, she spun around one last time. “Hey, I know you haven’t dated in 20 years, but to ask a woman if she has gone through menopause is not exactly going to rate real high in winning you points!” (She may or may not have slammed the door on her way out.)
His question had struck a nerve. It made Shelly feel old and unloved. At the time, Shelly had been recovering from a difficult breakup, while her current boyfriend was going through a contentious divorce. He was an ultrarunner and had introduced her to the wonders of endurance.
Shelly had been slowly increasing her mileage and training hard, but feeling exhausted. She attributed her fatigue to the added mileage and the stress of her breakup, but she was also experiencing off-the-charts mood swings (think: Jekyll and Hyde). She had lost her sex drive (not like her) while gaining vaginal dryness and discomfort during sex.
Her boyfriend was patient and understanding. He showered her with gifts, which Shelly loved…sometimes. Other times she felt ambivalent or annoyed. She liked him. Then she didn’t. Then she did. Same thing with running.
A few weeks later, they broke up for good. Shelly’s mood swings continued to get worse and now that she didn’t have the relationship to blame, she had to face the reality that perhaps her boyfriend’s tactless question made sense. Could this possibly be menopause?
After much contemplation, Shelly reluctantly visited her OB/GYN and had tests done. She learned that she had entered full-blown perimenopause and was put on a program of medications. Her symptoms subsided almost immediately. Her sleep improved, her diet got better and her running took off.
Since then she has raced numerous ultramarathons and has tried to get back together with her ex who first suggested menopause. Unfortunately, that ship had sailed. He was and remains unwilling to try again. Shelly feels she lost a valuable relationship at the hands of her hormones. She’s moved on now, but wishes she could have understood her symptoms sooner. Today, she advises any female athlete in her forties to be mindful of menopause since it may be the root cause of many training and relationship woes.
Shelly is not alone. Several of the women I spoke to reported going into menopause with little to no understanding of what was happening to them biologically, especially in an endurance or training context.
Sally Hulbert had been running for 33 years when she found herself struggling with pre- and post-menopausal issues. She searched for information on the topic of running and menopause, but found nothing. She battled for months with lethargy, dizziness and short-term memory loss so bad that the symptoms scared her. When she finally had blood work done, Sally was shocked to discover that her body was already three-quarters of the way through menopause. She also uncovered a thyroid imbalance. That knowledge changed her training approach and gave her some much-needed peace of mind.
Even in this Internet age of over-sharing, there is a glaring lack of information about active women and menopause. In one study, women undergoing menopause listed the fictional character Edith Bunker of All in the Family as their chief source of information about what to expect. Another reported that when she asked her doctor about menopause he replied, “Ask your mother.”
This section consists of details that women like Shelly and Sally wish they had known.
1. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms, and not just the common ones. This will save you the grief of blaming yourself for hiccups in training that may have a biological root. Symptoms of menopause can easily be mistaken for signs of overtraining.
2. Get a blood test to rule out thyroid imbalances. Thyroid issues are common and can be helped with a proper diagnosis.
3. Listen to your body and don’t be afraid to lower your mileage when you need a break. Your hormones, muscles and bones are changing. Even your sleep patterns may be changing. One of the biggest lessons in menopause is accepting yourself for who you are. Go ahead and set lofty goals, but go easy on the self-judgment.
4. Try herbs and natural supplements. A few women swore by black cohosh and red clover in copious amounts. The ancient Chinese also used dong quai and acupuncture techniques to treat menstrual and hormonal irregularities.
5. Drink, drink, drink. If you experience hot flashes and night sweats, you may be underestimating how much water you’re losing in a 24-hour period. The amount of water that used to suffice in the past may not cut it anymore. Also keep a close eye on dehydrating beverages like alcohol or caffeine.
6. Keep tabs on weight changes brought on by hormonal shifts. It is estimated that nine out of ten American menopausal women gain weight. Your metabolism is shifting and you may find yourself with a reduced ability to get away with junk food, refined sugars and/or alcohol.
7. Start a body journal. Keep track of your diet, your symptoms and your training to spot patterns and learn how your body is responding. Knowledge is power.
The good news is that running and menopause seem to be good companions, according to several anecdotes. Women reported that long distance running helped them vent excess sexual energy, manage their weight, improve sleep quality and stabilize mood swings. One woman reported that wearing pretty running skirts helped her channel her inner girly-ness while long group trail runs helped her bond with other older women going through similar life challenges.
According to one study, exercise can also reduce the metabolic risks associated with declining estrogen and offset the decline of bone mineral density. The ideal exercise prescription includes endurance aerobic training, strength work and balance exercises.
Women in endurance can and do remain highly competitive in their later years. When I asked active women online how they deal with menopause, Lisa Bliss jokingly typed: “I don’t pause for men; I try to run them down.”
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