This post is a guest post from Kev Moseley, a Race Director of three Park Runs in Yorkshire. You can connect with Kev via LinkedIn
RUNNING AND THE MENOPAUSE
In life, there are many taboo subjects that people like to avoid. Some of these things involve the thing that is closest to us – our own body! Amazing. The one thing that we have, in all shapes and sizes and colours, but we rarely talk about things to do with it!
In the case of women, one of these “taboo” subjects is the menopause. Men are hardly qualified to comment on this as they do not go through it, so why should we even discuss it? Half (approximately) the world’s population will at one stage in their lives go through it, so why should we not talk about it and bring it out into the open?
How can we support our wives, girlfriends, partners, sisters, aunts, mothers, daughters etc., if this is something we cannot talk about freely and openly in society and without some form of a stigma attached?
As a long-distance runner (and a man), I am fortunate enough in the last five years to run with some incredible women (including my fiancé) both in races and with the club I attend.
My fiancé and I are both in our fifties and therefore, have a lot of life experience between us, and as such, I want to do my part to help understand and support every female runner as they approach and go through the menopause.
To get started:
The internet is a rich source of short articles on menopause and running. Therefore, I decided to take what I know, what I have learnt and read, to see if I can bring a new perspective to it and help women the world over who run and exercise regularly. My information is an amalgamation of various web sites, including the excellent Runners World one.
As women head towards their 50’s, their bodies begin to change as perimenopause begins. The changes are a result of the decline in the production of Oestrogen and Progesterone.
According to the NHS web site, the average age here in the UK is 51 years old; however, menopause can start much earlier for some women.
The gradual to complete cessation of their monthly period can be a blessing for some as no more cramping, discomfort and the need for sanitary products come to an end.
However, it is a double-edged sword, and the knowledge that the ability to have children is also coming to an end can be a sad occasion and met with upset and trepidation.
I firmly believe that exercise can and does make a huge difference in our lives. It is something that helps with overcoming the mental and physical challenges that we meet every day. So what benefits are there to exercising/running during menopause?
Menopause can affect your running and some of its symptoms such as the hot flushes, sleep deprivation, night sweats can all impact heavily on your performance. Your running tights are snugger than ever before; you are tired throughout the day due to the lack of decent sleep as at night you lay tossing and turning and wishing that the fan whirring away next to you, would go into warp speed.
The freezer is working overtime, providing a constant supply of ice cubes, but not for your drinks. The cubes now find themselves melting on your forehead, trying to cool the hot flushes down.
Menopause will gradually come to its natural end, and in doing so, you may even move up an age category in races. If you can maintain your training, no matter how hard it is to do so, and with a few changes to your routine, you can get through this and continue to run well.
Oestrogen helps strengthen bones, encourages blood vessels to expand and contract and filters the perception of temperature. As the female body produces less oestrogen, so the bones can become more brittle, and the hot flushes become a part of daily life. Also, lower amounts of oestrogen in your system mean that it was easier to store fat instead of building muscle. Therefore, weight gain can be a negative impact of the menopause.
There are more in-depth resources for what’s happening to your body than I can write, so, I’ll focus on the effect that running or regular exercise can have on your menopause. There is some good news.
Research shows that women who exercise and run regularly have a lot fewer hot flushes!
Wahayyyy!! Something positive at last! The research is ongoing as to why this could be.
For those still experiencing the flushes, there are a couple of tips I would suggest to help regulate your temperature before you run.
Firstly, drink an ice-cold drink before you head off. Slushies are used by a few runners I know. Drinking ice-cold beverages will immediately start to cool the inside of the body.
Another option is to carry a small, cold, wet flannel with you in a sealable plastic bag in a thin running pouch. Or use the little plastic gel ice packs that are prefilled and can be reused after each run.
The weather can have a detrimental effect, so choose when you time your run. If it is hot outside, and you are out exercising, you can guarantee that you will be hotter than usual. You will feel at times as though you are solely responsible for adding to the global warming problem with the number of hot flushes you are experiencing!
If it is cold outside and you are out running, it is always better to be removing layers, and it is easier to cool down than it is to warm up. Irrespective of the weather, wear breathable layers.
Question: How can I get any decent sleep? Zzzzzzz…
As a runner, you will know the importance of getting good quality rest. Sleep is an essential part of all our lives, and it is that time when your body repairs itself from the harshness of exercise. However, during menopause, your body produces less melatonin which is the sleep-inducing hormone that helps drop your body temperature to promote sleep. Coupled with hot flushes, can mean decent sleep eludes you. This is why it can feel like it is taking a lot longer to recover from just a short run! The National Sleep Foundation did a study and nearly two-thirds of the menopausal women they interviewed, reported lack of sleep and in some cases, total insomnia. So if this is you, you are not alone.
So, how can your body get the rest it needs, when due to the changes it is going through, you cannot even get a decent night’s sleep? Well, a little more good news coming up. Exercise gets you outside, and in doing so, improves overall sleep, natural daylight helps keep the body’s rhythms in check, exercise itself promotes sleep.
However, I would suggest that if you can, you run in the morning and not the afternoon or evening. Running later in the day will raise your body temperature, and it can mean it stays elevated at bedtime. The last thing you need is to go to bed hot.
Try to keep the bedroom as cool as possible. Have a fan running for a while before you head to bed, keep the door shut to lower the temperature, use air conditioning if you have it (unlikely here in the UK!), use lightweight sheets that wick the moisture away from the body as well. These all help. Runners World advocates drinking an ice-cold glass of tart cherry juice before bed as it can increase melatonin.
Question: Will I get slower as I run in races?
The decline in a woman’s ability to build and maintain muscle has a detrimental effect on the body.
If you have been running for many years, being honest, I would say that your fastest days are sadly, now behind you. But, if you have come to running later in life, you may indeed get better and more efficient. Seems a bit odd, doesn’t it?
My advice would certainly be to look to do all you can to improve your bone strength and density by adding calcium to your diet. The risk of developing Osteoporosis increases as we get older, so, we are looking at prevention, rather than cure. Running builds incredibly strong bones, and we want to make sure that we do not lose too much of this as the levels of your hormones change. Foods such as milk, cheese, yoghurt, sardines, seeds, some leafy greens, salmon, etc., are all high in calcium. We all know the incredible benefits of milk, however, if you are lactose intolerant or vegan, look to increase your Vitamin D levels with the aforementioned leafy greens and seeds and consider a calcium supplement. Keep consuming these before, during and post-menopause. Check with a pharmacist to ensure that there are no side effects or clashes with any prescribed drugs you may be taking for any other condition.
We all need to accept that we all slow down in both running and in life, as we age, and there is something in being more tortoise less hare. It is not about the speed; it is about enjoying the run and remember, a 4-minute mile is precisely the same distance as a 25 minute one. The difference is that at 4 minutes, you do not see so much, whilst a walk/run of a longer duration allows you to enjoy the outside and nature and all that surrounds us. Indeed, as your bones and muscles become stronger because of what you are doing, it may be time to think about stepping up and going longer distances instead of the shorter and faster runs as slower training is the key to excelling at endurance events.
Question: Should you lift weights whilst going through menopause?
Lifting weights increase muscle definition, strengthens the muscle fibres and helps burn fat. Two words everyone loves – “burn fat” and we already mentioned that weight gain is part of menopause. To be clear, just because perimenopause has arrived, lifting weights a couple of times a week, will not turn you into a hulking great body-builder and many people have this perception. If you can get access to a gym, use the machines and the free weights that are available. If finances are tight (everyone has been hit by the haemorrhaging of job losses with Covid19), then my advice is to buy some bottles of water, the 500ml and 1-litre ones. Once empty, get a bag of fine dry sand and fill each bottle up with such, pour in water to the top and seal the lid tight. You now have relatively heavy-ish weights for little cost.
Using weights creates strong muscles by these pulling on your body and increasing bone density. Having strong muscles allows you (together with sprint and hill sessions) to build strength and power that will enable you to cross the finish line at a race or Parkrun quicker when we can finally get back to it.
Question: What about my breasts? Will they change?
Due to the drop in oestrogen that the body is producing, the milk system starts to shut down within the breast tissue. The glandular tissue shrinks, causing the breasts to become less dense and fattier, which, in turn, leads to sagging.
Therefore, I would strongly recommend to all women, at whatever stage in life, to go to a professional running shop and get fitted for a proper sports bra. These are more expensive than a conventional bra that you will purchase; however, they are created for a specific purpose, and that is to stop the breasts moving during exercise. Buy the very best that you can afford but where possible, go somewhere where you can be measured and fitted by a professional. The best person to talk about wearing a sports bra is another woman runner. For women who run and exercise, a proper sports bra and shoes are the two most important investments that you can make.
Question: Will I feel blue and depressed?
We all know that running increases/raises our mood and boosts this when we are exercise, irrespective of what sex we are. So much to see and enjoy and take pleasure in being a part of out there. Physical activity is excellent to help lift us all.
Unfortunately, menopause can also affect our mental health, and the blues can and may creep in at times. I would recommend that if you are not feeling great mentally, first and foremost, please speak to a health professional (your GP) who can advise and offer help. You are out there running, and you want to experience the runners high that we are all craving – not go the opposite way, sinking lower and lower.
Mood swings, depression and anxiety, are often part of the menopause due to the flux and changes of hormones as the body changes and adapts. It is normal. However, running and exercising help lifts the mood by releasing endorphins, so it is an integral part of the toolbox when managing mental health.
Question: What about my periods?
During menopause, your periods do not automatically stop. They become less frequent as they gradually and slowly come to an end. You may go a few weeks, to months without one, only to have one sneak in again and take you by surprise.
A period can be a real inconvenience to a woman; however, running can also help with the cramps and moods, and I have read, in some cases, reduce the duration of such. If you have or experience a heavy flow, this can leave you feeling physically drained and lethargic whilst out on the road. You may feel light-headed or dizzy for a short while, so please make sure you stop for a few minutes to recover and also, don’t push yourself too hard. Take in some fluids and have a breather and relax a while. Running is to be enjoyed and not a chore.
Taking it easy on those days is recommended, but the overwhelming evidence shows running can help with your final periods and, in some instances, reduce the amount of time this goes on for you.
Question: What underwear should I wear?
Wear underwear that draws moisture away from the body and the sensitive area. Comfort during a run is crucial. I would also recommend that you use something like Glide or Run Guard to help prevent any chafing.
Question: Can running help with my pelvic floor?
Running can help and encourages better pelvic floor control. Weight-bearing exercises and doing core strength work will also help.
Question: What about weight gain?
We’ve mentioned weight gain due to the changes in hormones; however, running can help control this to a degree. Eat sensibly, eat the right foods (remember those high in calcium to strengthen your bones) and now and then, reward yourself. You are and have been through so much, your body is reinventing itself, and yes, a small treat is welcome!
Time to feel positive? Anything else?
Your body hair grows slower – meaning that the hair under your arms and even your legs is taking its own time to come through. Those smooth legs that you shave regularly will stay that way for longer.
Question: What do I do if I feel rough?
Simple – Run as you feel.
If your symptoms and hot flushes are giving you the day from hell and you have a plan in place to run, then do not fight them. The great thing about running is that there are always other days, and you do not have to follow a strict training plan. What’s worse than having to force yourself to go for a run after a sleepless night, tossing and turning, fighting to find a cool spot on the pillow – then head out of the door and not feel the love. If you must go, do not go as far. Keep it short and sweet. There are days ahead when you will feel better and on these days, do your long runs then.
Question: Are you hydrated enough?
Given the fact that you have so many hot flushes, are you aware of how much/little fluid you are taking in? How do you know if you are dehydrated?
Dehydration can lead to many things, including a lack of concentration and lethargy. At a time when the changes in hormones are ruling your body, it is crucial not to add to the issues.
A quick look in the toilet at the colour of your urine will tell you a lot. If this is the colour of light lemonade, then things are great. However, the stronger and darker it is, the more you need to take on fluids.
Question – What is my name?
One thing I am a strong advocate of is Parkrun and I am a Run Director for three of these here in Yorkshire. At Parkrun, you enter your details onto their website, and you create and print a card with a bar code on for free. It also has your name, an ICE (In Case of Emergency) contact name and number, plus any additional information that may be of assistance to someone who needs in should you fall ill.
Even if you have no interest in running Parkrun, get the information loaded and then print off a sheet of these contact cards. Always carry one with you. As your body is going through a lot of changes through menopause, if you become ill or faint, then someone can locate your ICE information and know who to contact.
I have one, my fiancé, brother, son, mother (nearly 80) all have this information in their bags/phones all the time. My mother will never run and has no intention of doing so; however, she has my details so that somebody can contact me should anything happen to her.
If you have read this far, then I extend my sincerest thanks to you all and hope that you may have found it useful.
This part of your life will eventually pass, and once you cross that finish line, you will be free of the hormone changes that are spinning like a washing machine within you. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and you will be able to start a new chapter, whilst continuing to be fit and healthy.
The best news is that running has proven to reduce the severity of menopause symptoms. So, with this in mind, go get dressed, lace up your shoes and get out there. It’ll be worth it.
I wish you all the best, and I hope that I may have done something to break the taboo of menopause in some small way. I hope that my words from a male perspective may help and inspire you to continue running and exercising now and in the future.
All the best,