The Female Athlete and Her Hormones

The Female Athlete and Her Hormones

There are two conversations that commonly occur for me as a coach with female athletes in particular. The first is one I have with an experienced athlete who is feeling “flat” and is constantly looking for caffeine and sugar pick me ups. They feel they have reached a plateau in their training. The second is new athlete who’s been on another training regimen an swears they have been eating good and working out 4-5 times a week for months and have had disappointing results.

As you can imagine, for both scenarios described these athletes would be feeling downright depressed and frustrated. Taking your hormones into account is crucial for longevity in your chosen sport, fertility, immunity, overall health and well being and of course, performance.  At first glance you might think that this only applies to female athletes, however male athletes can be impacted in the same way– though their symptoms show up differently and often go unrecognized.

We highly recommend if you are experiencing similar symptoms to have your blood tested and get an accurate measurement of your hormones.  This can be somewhat pricey ($150-200) but can save you years of frustration.

The Endocrine System:
Our Endocrine system involves a number of glands and is responsible for maintaining homeostasis in the body. I want to pay particular attention to your Adrenal Gland.  Understanding the seemingly automatic functions of these glands can help us to recognize imbalance before it becomes a major issue.  As athletes, we put greater demands on our body than our more sedentary people.  These demands are felt particularly in the Adrenal Gland and subsequently our sex hormones, Oestrogen, Testosterone, and Progesterone are thrown out of whack.

Hormone Response to Training:
Cortisol is a wonderful hormone produced in the adrenal glands. It can build you up or be the reason why you come crashing down at high rate of speed.  When you experience stress, hormone changes occur. When your stress raises there are changes in Cortisol, DHEA, and Testosterone. When your stress lowers, changes occur in your thyroid hormones, Oestrogen, Progesterone, Growth Hormone, and Melatonin2.
Your training sessions will produce a certain amount of Cortisol.  This will differ on your current state of health, how hard the training session is, and rest intervals. This release of cortisol enables you to push through your training sessions and achieve desired intensity or volume.
However, when an athlete abuses Cortisol by over-training or using a poorly planned program, Cortisol is produced in excess. Eventually, the endocrine system is signalled to start finding other sources of Cortisol from other hormones in order to keep up with the demands.
The endocrine system goes through a process called “Pregnenalone Stealing” to keep producing Cortisol.
As a result, an athlete depleted of Cortisol, or with cortisol resistance, and low progesterone is left with feelings of anxiety and poor moods, they are more susceptible to pre-menstrual syndrome,  likely to experience irregular periods, decreased fertility, poor sleep, less adaptation, and muscular development.

How to Prevent and Heal:
Your holistic practitioner can assist in prescribing a personalised protocol for supplementation, nutritional and lifestyle changes. To assist in prevention and healing from hormone imbalance or Cortisol depletion (burn out) there are a number of training protocols you can put in place.
Regardless of your cycle length, we all experience fluctuating hormone levels throughout the month. These different levels mean there are optimal times for training and performance gains, and times when the body will struggle to cope and adapt. Time to embrace your hormones!
Here are some pointers to get you started:
• Program your recovery week 4 days out from when you are due for your period and continue into day 2 or 3 of your period depending on your symptoms.
• Allow a rest or recovery session around ovulation, as many women experience fatigue at this time
• Between days 8 and 12 (or 4 days prior to ovulation if you have an irregular cycle) is when you can utilize your hormones to your advantage with intensity sessions or some higher volume.
• Likewise, between day 16 (or post ovulation if your cycle is irregular) and ~24 is a great time to program your key sessions.
As mentioned previously, the duration, intensity, type and rest interval from a training session will dictate the level of Cortisol produced. By enhancing the level of Testosterone produced in a training session, we achieve a ratio of Cortisol/Testosterone that is more favorable, allowing for muscular development, adaptation and lowered cortisol response from the adrenal glands.
To achieve this you can apply protocols to your training sessions, for example;
• Ensure appropriate warm up and cool down to gradually reduce heart rate and lessen the cortisol response from your main set or intervals
• Include weights training into your program, specifically with mid to low rep ranges and rest periods of 60 to 90 seconds
• Include speed intervals in multiple sessions per week, with 60 to 90 seconds recovery
• Get to know and love this pose: “Legs up the Wall”. A powerful and restorative pose, it helps slow down your heart rate and the pressure on your heart to pump blood to the lower extremities. This pose also helps Cortisol move through the body.
• Schedule ROMWOD into your weekly program. Not only will it help you manage Cortisol levels but it works to strengthen your core, keep you mobile and injury free.
• Utilize heart rate training. There is a huge difference between perceived effort and actual effort for a lot of athletes, it takes time in the sport and a tons of experience to get this right. Utilizing heart rate training to avoid under/over training is an effective way to manage the Cortisol response, and improve your performance.
Remember that this is a highly individual and complex topic. With minimal scientific research conducted due to the varying nature of the female reproductive health factors, I encourage athletes to seek the assistance of a health practitioner, such as a Biomedical specialist to have their blood drawn and sex hormone levels tested.

As a reminder we will be hosting a “Hormone Party” June 23rd @ 6:00pm with guest host Jaime Riley RN, MSN,FNP.  Party will be held at the Gilliam House located @ 11051 Estacia Ln  Yucaipa, Ca 92399. Please RSVP via email or sign up in the box on our community board.