Perimenopause: The "Mystery" Phase
What an amazing time right now to be alive as a woman!
Thanks to the leadership of cutting-edge researchers and scientists who decided “enough is enough”, women everywhere are starting to understand their bodies’ functions and cycles on a deeper level. What’s more, we’re even able to take that same science and apply it to our active lifestyles, furthermore enabling us to tap into and leverage our own unique biology to produce fitness gains…. We are so lucky!
Having said that, even though there is more information available at our fingertips than ever before, there is still not very much useful, practical information available about perimenopause. Known as the phase right before menopause (cessation of our periods), perimenopause is the decade or so before we actually reach menopause, and is full of what some women describe as “tumultuous” ups and downs, temperature sensitivity, hot flashes for some, mood disturbances, sleep pattern disruption, and other annoying symptoms.
In fact, it would almost seem that the very science that applies to leveraging our cycles in our earlier years, does not apply at all to perimenopause and becomes somewhat of a burden, on top of that.
But I’m here to tell you that it does make at least some sense, and that you can find at least some relief.
Find Your Patterns by Tracking
If you’ve read ROAR, by Dr. Stacy Sims, you have already learned that there is a need to track your cycle if you want to leverage and/or understand your hormones. There really is no other way to do this. To understand your body and your patterns, you have to track. Yes, it creates a little bit of work, but you and your health are worth it!
I can’t tell you how many women that I’ve worked with who say “I’m always: inflamed, tired, whatever”, but then start to track their fluctuations, and learn that they aren’t ALWAYS any of those things, but instead, it tends to follow a pattern.
After you’ve tracked consistently over time, you probably learned that:
During follicular phase: we feel powerful, can hit high intensities easily, generally feel really good, workouts can be long and difficult and we recover with no problem, ready for the next one
During ovulation: we can sometimes hit PRs, but others can feel a little “off” (either is normal)
During early luteal: may feel ‘tense’ or more anxious than usual, we have trouble hitting higher intensities, need to lengthen the workouts while bringing down intensity
During late luteal: we can feel pretty sluggish and should focus on technique and skills or refining muscle technique for our chosen sport
On our periods: we can either feel flat and drained, or powerful and break records (it really does vary that much, and both are considered normal)
All of the above are typical, and can definitely vary, which is all the more reason to figure out your unique patterns. Hormone chemistry is NOT one-size-fits-all.
We Don’t Always Ovulate in Perimenopause
As we age, we ovulate less and less. In a month that we don’t ovulate, what we feel in place of that middle phase is typically more like what we feel in early luteal phase.
When We Hit Perimenopause, We Can Feel Any of the Above, at Any Time
Yes, that’s right, as our hormones start to fluctuate and decrease in systemic amounts, to prepare us for menopause, we can literally feel ANY of the above at ANY time during the month. We can have “luteal” symptoms during what is typically our “follicular” phase, and any other combination. I feel that this is precisely why it’s still important to track, especially in early perimenopause (typically from age 38-45) because we can still leverage it to our advantage. I’ve found that some women can continue to track with no difficulty past 45, but the standard recommendation is that past that age bracket, we shift over to changing our exercise habits and regimens to support our bodies after menopause. Who does what simply depends on the person and what they already know about their body. A good coach can help sort this out for you.
How Do We “Leverage” with So Much Chaos?
To me, it’s obvious: we track our monthly cycles for peace of mind and to feel better in tune with our body’s needs. For those who already tracked their cycles in their 20s and 30s, it’s obviously a little easier, because we already understand our natural fluctuations. Then when perimenopause hits, we see those same fluctuations, just at different times of the month. We leverage by; creating peace of mind and expectations about how things will go during our workouts, setting our mindsets up for success through understanding.
We can learn to understand our body better through figuring out how we feel. This creates harmony for many women because it helps us to be better in touch with ourselves, how we feel, and in turn allows us to be more centered in ourselves. What can feel like a rollercoaster for many, can turn into “surfing the waves” through knowledge.
See examples at the end of the article for more tangible examples of this concept.
First and foremost, we learn to expect inconsistency. The consistency we were so used to during our earlier years is no longer a factor and we have to learn to let that go. In short, we “set our expectations low” but keep our heads up about it. If we expect perimenopause to have ups and downs, we feel more peaceful when we have ups and downs, simple as that. This mindset skill, “letting go”, also serves us in life as well and who can’t argue that midlife is the perfect time to make peace with that which we cannot control, for once and for all.
Examples of “Leveraging”
You’ve tracked for some time, and have gotten used to some of your typical fluctuations.
You’ve learned that sometimes during the month, you feel:
inflamed and maybe even a little out of breath… You know from tracking, that this means progesterone has plummeted, creating inflammation, and that you need to increase the amounts of anti-inflammatory foods in your diet (think curries, salmon, decrease dairy and gluten, increase colorful foods that sit well with you).
powerful, well-recovered and strong… You know from tracking, that this means you can go on a longer ride this day or maybe within the next few days. Honestly, it can be a wild guess during perimenopause, but if you’ve recovered well from something the day before, then you’re likely in a fluctuation that can serve you to go hard. Don’t push it longer than a few days in perimenopause, however, since everything is always fluctuating. If you do, and feel it, just add in extra recovery and be extra prudent about your nutrition timing and placement.
sluggish and slow… You know from tracking, that this means you need to increase your carb intake prior to, and during, your workout. True, sometimes it takes a little bit of self awareness to be able to tell if this is the case prior to leaving the house, but if it’s a hectic day and you don’t recognize it right away and find yourself needing more carbs due to sluggishness, at least you’ll know why!
Other General Perimenopausal Athlete Recommendations (Shared from Dr. Stacy Sims’ Research)
For better recovery, improving annoying brain fog and that overall “yuck” feeling, you can:
Add in daily adaptogens to your routine (Dr. Sims likes the standardized versions), and since this is not an exact science, it may take a little experimentation and patience on your part. There are many adaptogens available and I certainly have some that I rely on, but for best results, talk to a naturopath.
You must ingest protein, in 30-40 gram increments, directly after your workout, more specifically, protein that contains higher levels of leucine. Shoot for consuming real food first, like lean cuts of meat, but if you’re in a time crunch, whey protein is an excellent “go-to”, and vegan options do exist.
Olympic-style shorter weight lifting sessions, even just 15 minutes, 1 or 2 times a week, will stimulate an estrogen fluctuation that can help us to feel a little better and more energized. And for those who already know of estrogen’s protective benefits, it’s a double-win, using your own body’s chemistry for the source. For anyone new to weightlifting, you would obviously start out with lower weights and gradually (over a 3-month period) build up to heavier weights.
Hormone Therapy (has been referred to as HRT in the past), through your physician, can be used to offset any symptoms that are relentless.
It is a Fact: If We Don't Die First, We All Get Older
Aim to age gracefully, with dignity. I’m saying this last part in my best “mama” voice that I can: Girl, we are getting older, and it is a privilege to be able to stay active, healthy, flexible, as well as pursue athletic endeavors late in life! We can definitely count it as a blessing, but simultaneously, we still need to be realistic about what we expect. Additionally, and amazingly, with current modern science breakthroughs, we can start to implement small changes little by little to keep us feeling our best.
Talitha Vogt is a certified endurance and behavior change coach with an elite racing background. She has 22 years of experience as a mountain biker, including 13 total years of racing and other endurance events including Xterra triathlons, innumerable cyclocross races, a little dabbling in road racing, and even some trail running. She provides custom-tailored, accommodating coaching locally in the front range of Colorado and online internationally.