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  • Maria Netherland

Menopause And Endurance Athletes

As a triathlon coach and personal trainer, my clients span both genders and a wide range of ages. Given my age of 48, I hear from many of my similarly aged female clients and friends that “something has changed recently.” One of my friends went so far as to say, “I looked down at my tummy the other day and realized I had a donut around my midsection. Where did this extra fat come from?”


Ah, it’s the age of menopause! For most women, peri-menopause starts around age 46. Hormonally, women’s bodies are changing. Estrogen levels fluctuate, cycling high and low, generally for 4-5 years, but possibly up to 10 years. The body is fighting to find its old version of normal. Eventually, estrogen levels are depleted, and progesterone levels decline. What natural testosterone remains may convert to estrogen (this is a very simplified definition of what chemistry happens in the body). The menstrual cycle stops, and after 12 months of no menstrual cycle at all, women reach that magical day of menopause. This is immediately followed by post-menopause, which is the rest of a woman’s life.

At the onset of peri-menopause, women notice their bodies changing, yet again, even though exercise and food consumption may not have changed at all! How frustrating! Some notice that they are less sensitive to anabolic stimulus (exercise) and lose the ability to easily build or maintain lean mass. Visceral fat increases (aka my friend’s ‘donut’). Other effects are bone density decline (possible osteopenia/osteoporosis) and an increase in serotonin, leaving women more susceptible to depression and anxiety. And if all of this isn’t enough, women can’t shed fat as quickly as they once did.


So what do most female athletes do? They increase the time they exercise and increase the intensity. Why? Because it’s worked in the past. But what we’re now learning (thanks to Dr. Stacy Sims) is that the traditional training methods aren’t adequate for improving bone, muscle, or body composition.


So what CAN we do?

Based on research performed by Dr. Sims, women need to add three things to our training. They are:

  • High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

  • Plyometrics (jump training) and Power Training

  • Heavy-to-you resistance training (weight lifting)

If it sounds like a lot, start with the heavy-to-you resistance training. That will provide the biggest bang for your buck. Then add in HIIT and Plyometrics/Power Training.


What are these activities?

HIIT training is designed to improve explosive power and speed. It requires the participant to go all-out during the exercise interval and relies on anaerobic pathways (breaking down glucose without oxygen) to produce the energy it needs to fuel the athlete.


This provides an immediate supply of energy, but the amount is very limited—which means the length of time you can sustain that max effort is very short. Typically, the work interval is much shorter than the rest interval.


For example, if you are doing a 20-second all-out effort, your rest interval would be 40 seconds to one minute. You’d be working in a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of REST to WORK. The rest is crucial as you want to be as rested as possible for your next max effort. This forces your body to acclimate between two different states. The effort levels required for true HIIT are a 9 or 10 on a scale of 1-10.


Plyometrics/Power Trainings are exercises that involve jumping or an explosive movement. Training using plyometrics allows the athlete to apply a set amount of force in the shortest time and convert maximum strength into powerful, fast, and explosive movements. The exercises used are sport-specific and mimic the movement of the athlete’s sport. If you choose to incorporate plyometrics, it is strongly recommended that you do so under the supervision of someone knowledgeable about this type of training.


Heavy-to-you resistance training increases muscle strength by working against a weight using free weights, weight machines, body weight, and resistance bands. Benefits include bone density improvement due to multi-directional stress, improved lean muscle mass development and retention, better joint stability and balance, and muscular strength and endurance. When introducing heavy lifting, do so under the guidance of a trained professional - typically a Personal Trainer, who can help develop the program and teach/monitor correct technique.


Next week, we’ll discuss how to integrate these three techniques into your training program.

Maria Netherland is a Northwest Florida-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Endurance and Youth & Juniors Certified Coach as well as a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Performance Enhancement Specialist. Coach Maria loves working for athletes of all abilities, military athletes, and new triathletes as they pursue their goals. Maria is a veteran of the US Army and a United States Military Academy at West Point graduate. She can be reached at maria@teammpi.com.

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