I recall a time, back in high school and college, when I thought it was a good thing to not have a normal menstrual cycle. I knew it happened to girls who were active and worked hard at their sport, and truthfully at the time that was all I needed to hear. It seemed too good to be true: I was pushing myself to be better, I didn’t have to worry about feeling crappy for a week of every month, and saved so much of my hard-earned Publix cashier money on feminine hygiene products.
I cringe as I write this, but unfortunately this is a falsehood that plagues many young girls and women in the sport of running. There are so many layers of stigma surrounding girl’s bodies in sport, and running is absolutely no exception. As young girls look around at who is having early success in cross country and/or track and field, it is difficult not to notice a theme of long and lean bodies. The same narrative plays out in instagram feeds and professional fields. This is not to say that just because someone is thin or lean that they are unhealthy and that we can assume that they struggle with amenorrhea (lack of a menstrual period) or an eating disorder– all bodies are different and many different body types can have success. This brings me to two truisms of female athletes:
If you do not get a regular period, you are not a healthy athlete
To maximize individual success, you have to work with your innate physiology.
You have to get your period. Period.
Unfortunately I think loss of the menstrual cycle is normalized by many top athletes either currently experiencing amenorrhea or having dealt with it in the past.
In endurance athletes, the most common cause of amenorrhea is low energy availability– or insufficient caloric intake to meet energy needs. In basic terms, cessation of the menstrual cycle occurs as a survival tactic– if food is scarce, certainly procreating is not the priority in that season! Physiologically, this change is mediated by hormonal changes that stop ovulation and therefore the normal cycle of hormone levels. These hormones are important not only for reproductive function, but also bone health, energy levels, emotional stability, sleep quality, muscle recovery…the list goes on.
This can occur due to a lack of knowledge about one’s individual energy needs, a desire to achieve an ideal “race weight”, or concomitantly with an underlying eating disorder. However, there are also many causes of amenorrhea that are not related to nutritional deficiencies, so it is important to see a healthcare provider to find the root cause.
How do we change the culture of a “runners body”? Why is it so common for girls and women to struggle so mightily with their bodies, from fighting puberty to shedding weight for success to forcing a “post-baby” body?
We stop putting expectations on it. We allow the inevitable tides of change to ebb and flow, both as a society and within the subculture of running. We talk about it, never letting a girl entertain the idea of “not being the same” after puberty or a pregnancy. It starts young and with education but truly becomes sustainable when we as women all do our part to nourish and respect our bodies.
Keep going girl, you got this,
Dr. Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT
P.S. There is no such thing as “race weight”. Performance is far more complex and multifaceted than the number on the scale. Focus on health and joy; the perfomance will follow.