Coach's view: Training through the menopause

It’s a life-changing period for a woman, and motivation to stay fit might be low, but here is how you can continue to stay fit and healthy 

The menopause. It can be a difficult and unnerving time for women. Your whole body is changing. Something you once thought you knew and understood inside and out flips, and you don’t quite know what's going on anymore. It can be disorientating like the ground has shifted from below your feet. One day you’re feeling energetic and full of life. The next, you are feeling sluggish and unmotivated. Your body shape is changing, and you don’t quite have the same oomph you had before to get out on the bike or hit the gym. Your body and needs are changing, and you might have to adapt your training, too. 

Firstly, it is important to understand the different stages of menopause: perimenopause and postmenopause. According to the NHS website, perimenopause is the time from the start of menopausal symptoms until after a woman has experienced her last period. Periods will usually start to become less frequent over a few months or years before they stop altogether. They might be more irregular and become heavier or lighter. For some women, they can stop suddenly. Postmenopausal is, therefore, when a woman experiences her last period, and this can be said when she has not had a period for 12 months. 

It’s a natural part of a woman’s life and often occurs between the ages of 45 and 55 as a woman’s oestrogen levels drop. However, everyone's experiences are different with menopause, and perimenopause can occur at an earlier age. With the hormonal changes happening in a woman during perimenopause, many women – eight out of 10 women, according to research by Women in Sport – experience symptoms of varying degrees, most commonly, changes in the menstrual cycle, hot flushes and night sweats, headaches, dizziness, weight gain, joint and muscle pain, vaginal dryness, mood swings, depression, difficulty sleeping and bladder problems. It can have a great impact on day-to-day life, and it is not just an overnight thing – menopause can last for up to eight years. 

Sport and exercise, in particular, can take a back seat when a woman experiences symptoms of perimenopause. According to Sport England, 38% of women aged 45-54 do not meet the recommended levels of physical activity, and 23% are considered inactive. But taking part in physical activity during this time is extremely beneficial in helping manage symptoms. The most important part is understanding your symptoms, body, needs, and how to have fun with sports and exercise. 

Denise Tracey, a seasoned triathlon coach for Tri Training Harder, underscores the often silent nature of going into the perimenopause phase. “You could be going into perimenopause and just not be aware at all,” she says. “It can creep up on you. It’s only when your periods start to become a bit more erratic, or you suddenly feel like something is a bit different, that you think about menopause. But someone could have been experiencing that for several years going into that.”

Tracey advocates for heightened self-awareness among athletes, encouraging them to track their monthly cycles, even if on contraception. By understanding the nuances of their cycles and observing how their bodies respond to training at different times of the month, athletes may become more attuned to the signs of perimenopause, enhancing their ability to adapt their routines accordingly.

BMX rider Sarah-Jane Nichols made a comeback in the sport at the age of 53, winning the British BMX Championships in 2023 (Image: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

Balancing your training sessions 

A leader in women’s sport is Dr Stacey Sims, a physiologist and nutrition scientist whose aim is to revolutionise exercise and performance for women. Her recent research into menopause highlighted that the perimenopausal period was the best time for a woman to adapt her training to prevent menopausal metabolism and body composition change. She noted that HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and resistance training are the most effective forms of training to counteract the changes in composition and loss of lean muscle mass. 

Tracey also echoed the benefit of weight-based training: “As you get lower oestrogen levels, you then have a lower ability to sequester calcium, and that has an impact on bone strength and bone density. So, any form of weight-bearing exercise is very, very beneficial because that will work on bone strength. 

“I learned that bones are constantly building and renewing, and there's a lot more than just a solid thing that stops you falling over into a heap. They do a lot more than that. And if you're not looking after your bone health, then you're going to be a lot more susceptible to things like stress fractures and exercising. A good diet can also help with that.” 

But cyclists (of any age), in particular, are often guilty of skipping the gym in favour of clocking up the miles out on the road. However, both Tracey and Tri Training Harder founder Philip Hatzis mentioned how important it is for women – also older men – to include these types of sessions into their weekly routines to keep their bones and muscles strong as they age. “Older athletes need to be in the gym lifting heavy weights and doing high-intensity workouts,” Hatzis stressed. “Plyometrics and jumping exercises, which would be more in the realms of what maybe runners would find themselves doing, cyclists need to do that too to supplement their cycling.” 

They both pointed out that most of those on a cycling plan will probably already have some sprint or HIIT-type sessions on the bike weaved into their weekly workouts, but adding in some strength and conditioning is extremely beneficial, especially for the ageing athlete. In Dr Stacy Sims' research around menopause, she recommends doing workouts that include 10 to 30-second intervals of hard efforts a week and two strength-based workouts. However, all three coaches mentioned the importance of recovery for menopausal women. “Recovery rates may be a little longer, partly because of the effects of the reducing oestrogen,” said Hatzis. Low-impact activities like swimming or yoga will provide a much-needed break for the body after high-intensity workouts while promoting overall fitness during recovery. 

Strength and high-intensity efforts will help maintain lean muscle mass and keep bones healthy (Image: John Phillips/Getty Images)

On top of this, fuelling is a factor that will help women in perimenopause and postmenopause with their performance. Protein is a key component to maintaining muscle mass, and according to Tracey, getting this in within 30 minutes of a session is optimal. Fueling before sessions, not just sessions that are over an hour also, is a good practice to get into as well as keeping on top of your hydration levels, especially if you experience night sweats and hot flashes. 

Most importantly, it’s not a one type fits all

Only recently have people become aware of how their menstrual cycle can impact their training, understanding how they can push heavy weights one week and then focus more on recovery the next to reach their optimal athletic performance. Training throughout menopause is the same, looking at where you need to take it easy and where you can slightly give it that bit extra. And it is not a copy-and-paste effect for all women. Each woman will be different, and if one woman finds something easy, it doesn't mean the next woman will. That is why it is important to take note of how you’re feeling in your mind and body through talking to your coach or tracking in a journal or app. 

When it comes to sprint or high-intensity training days, you might not feel you’re able to give it your all and taking a session-by-session approach will help navigate your energy levels with your sessions. “Training plans are dynamic, and the sessions are dynamic,” Hatzis said. “You’re probably not training to be an Olympian – it's just more training for lifestyle and enjoyment, so be kind to yourself.” 

Ensuring you don’t feel completely drained at the end of your sessions will help keep your motivation high. If you feel completely wiped out from your workouts, you may start to dislike doing them, and overall, enjoyment is key to exercise and sport – it is a factor that’ll keep you wanting to push on, whether you are peri or postmenopausal. 

Tracey also recommended breaking down the sessions if you are finding them very difficult. For example, she said if you have a threshold session scheduled, you could break the intervals down into smaller chunks. Tracey added: “It’s ultimately about finding what’s doable in your new normal.”

*Cover image: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

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