July 20, 2022
Gravel Cycling and Menopause
Let’s start by defining what menopause actually means. Menopause has a negative connotation in our society. When someone refers to menopause, we tend to think of rocking chairs, not sweet new gravel bikes. But there’s no reason to give up gravel just because you’re approaching–or already through–menopause.
Menopause is technically the point in time when a woman hasn’t had a period for twelve consecutive months. The average age for women to experience menopause in the United States is 51, but the hormonal shifts can start to happen in our bodies 8-10 years before we experience menopause. This time is referred to as perimenopause and for most women, it’s the time when they experience the most dramatic changes in their bodies. If you want to go deep on menopause, make sure you tune in to Hit Play Not Pause or read the Feisty Menopause Blog. Next Level from Dr. Stacy Sims and Selene Yeager is also a great resource.
Everyone’s menopause journey is different. Some women have extreme symptoms while others barely notice that they’ve officially transitioned to post-menopause.
From a physiological standpoint, the reason menopause wreaks so much havoc on our bodies is that it’s the time when our reproductive hormones (especially estrogen and progesterone) begin to fluctuate (sometimes wildly) and decline. Estrogen impacts every tissue in the body, so even if we don’t experience a host of disruptive symptoms during the menopause transition, our bodies will still change. A few that athletic women often readily notice are muscle loss, a more difficult time building muscle, increasing fat stores, and a shift in body composition regardless of changes in weight. They also often feel more fatigue, less power, and mentally just not in the game the way they were before.
If you think back to puberty and the changes that your body went through, you emerged with a whole new way of experiencing the world. As women, we spend our entire adult lives learning how to make that body function at its best. Now, as we begin to lose our hormones, the things that worked before may no longer work and it’s time to learn how to work with this new physiology.
Here are a few of the most common ways menopause impacts our cycling and how you can help mitigate those:
YOUR FUELING STRATEGY NO LONGER WORKS
As hormones begin to change, it can become harder to manage blood sugar, making women more insulin resistant and more sensitive to carbs. That means that the fueling strategy that used to work on and off the bike may no longer be adequate.
On the bike, read your labels and approach fructose-heavy sports nutrition with caution. Fructose is a fruit sugar and is a component of table sugar, or sucrose, which is a disaccharide that consists of one fructose molecule and one glucose molecule bound together. Postmenopausal women may have a harder time processing fructose and can end up with more “gut rot”: the cramping, bloating, and nausea you feel when your carbohydrates are just sitting in your gut.
Good alternatives to fructose in sports drinks are dextrose and sucrose. Also, take a look at maple syrup. (Untapped makes great pure maple syrup products.) It’s just glucose and sucrose and one of the least processed sweeteners you can buy
Off the bike, you may need to change the way you eat, not necessarily the amount you eat. This is very important, when women start to hit hormonal changes they often try to cut calories to lose weight or change body composition. That will often cause the exact opposite effect as your body holds onto fat stores. Instead, try to change up the types of food and the timing of the food you’re eating, especially your carbohydrate and protein intake.
YOUR TRAINING STRATEGY NO LONGER WORKS
A lot of cyclists love to ride their bikes at a nice steady pace for long distances as their primary form of exercise. When we start to lose estrogen, we need an external stimulus to build muscle and keep our insulin levels in check. That comes in the form of strength training or adding high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or Sprint Interval Training (SIT).
Strength training is key and although it may be new for a lot of cyclists, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Ideally in the winter, add 2-3 days of heavy lifting (aka “lift heavy shit) to your routine focusing on a few basic lifts like the deadlift, squat, and then some sort of pushing or pulling movement. The bench press is a good push movement and pulling can be anything from a pullup variation to a weighted row. The heavy part means that you’re doing 3-5 reps in a single set and doing 3-5 sets in the entire workout. During the summer months when you may be riding or racing more, you can drop your strength training to 1-2 days. You can finish out a strength training session with a 15-minute high-intensity interval training circuit and be out the door in an hour or less.
You can easily add Sprint Interval Training (SIT) training to your bike days. Just pick a spot on the ride and go as hard as you can for 10 to 30 seconds, and recover for 3-5 minutes before you do the next sprint interval. Do 6-10 intervals. If you’re on the trainer, focus on less sweet spot work and more interval training.
YOUR BODY WILL CHANGE
Remember when you went through puberty and you suddenly had a new body? Menopause is puberty in reverse. Your body will change. Some women will experience significant weight gain while others will notice that their body just doesn’t build muscle or have the same toned look.
The fueling and training strategies are ways to help mitigate that weight gain and muscle loss but we cannot turn back time. Yes, we sometimes see Instagram posts of that 56-year-old woman who looks like she has the body of a 25-year-old, but here’s a little secret – the majority of the time, that’s related to lucky genes (or filters or even performance-enhancing drugs). Too often we hear of women who give up a sport they love because they hate the way they look in their cycling kits as their bodies change. Just as much as you may need a new fueling, you may also need a new mental strategy. It’s okay to mourn the changes in your body. It’s okay to want to have the healthiest possible body. And it’s also more than okay to accept that our bodies change and to love ourselves no matter how we look.
YOWZER, THE SADDLE FEELS LIKE SANDPAPER (AND OTHER BIKE FIT ISSUES)
Because estrogen affects every tissue in the body, the soft tissues that sit on a bike saddle will also be affected. This could range from mild discomfort that requires a little extra chamois cream or a new saddle to vaginal dryness issues that make riding painful. You may want to get a new bike fit, try a new saddle, or up your lube game. Vaginal estrogen, which restores the thickness and quality of those tissues (without any of the concerns surrounding systemic estrogen) also can be a game changer for many women. If issues persist, find a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor issues.
YOU FEEL LIKE YOU LOST YOUR MOJO
This is a common issue we hear from women in our menopause community. There could be a lot of reasons for it, including brain fog, trouble sleeping, hormone-related anxiety and/or depression, or just sadness about our changing lives. Menopause often happens at a time when women are balancing jobs, busy teenagers, and aging parents. There’s barely time to sneak in a ride, let alone process major life changes.
Changing your training to focus on more short, hard efforts and strength training is good for your brain chemistry and can give your mood and motivation a lift. (Especially since the workouts tend to be shorter, so easier to nudge yourself out the door to do.) Also, consider trying something new. If you’ve always ridden in the Midwest, plan a trip to ride in Vermont. Go bikepacking with a few friends. Sometimes a change of routine can help bring motivation back.
Of course, there are many more issues that you may encounter during menopause. Follow Feisty Menopause for information specific to active women.
On a final note, while it’s important to be upfront with how a woman’s body will be impacted by the hormonal changes, menopause is by no means the end. Women like Kristi Mohn, Selene Yeager, Rebecca Rusch, and more are proving that menopause is not the end, but the beginning of a new and even more rad chapter in life.