Pedaling Through "The Change" by Selene Yaeger
I got a chance to meet her, and race with her, at my very first cyclocross race in LA in 2012. It was an honor to ride with her, I learned a ton and had a blast. This article was posted to Bicycling.com by Selene Yaeger on October 1, 2014.
October 1, 2014
Pedaling Through "The Change" Menopause challenges a cyclist's body in many ways-but here's what you can do to keep riding strong Selene Yaeger
It’s my friend Clare from New York. She’s a longtime cyclist, avid commuter, recreational racer, and not one bit shy about speaking her mind.
“You write about all this stuff every week, but you’ve never written about menopause. How come? It’s a bitch you know. It would be nice to have someone talking about it.” “Well, the cop-out answer is that I’ve never written about it because I haven’t been through it!” I tell her completely honestly. But it doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to realize she’s right. Hot flashes, lousy sleep, and muscle loss—sound like a recipe for cycling success? Not so much. Yet, in all the years I’ve been writing for and reading mainstream cycling magazines, I can’t recall ever seeing menopause addressed. And to point that finger right back at myself: Though I have researched and written much about menopause for women’s magazines like Prevention, I’ve never offered a lick of advice here. Time to change that. Starting now. Because when I look around the cycling community at large, including the elite racing fields as well as the usual shop, social, and charity rides, there are plenty of women who will be, if they're not already, heading into the “big change.”
Menopause was long regarded as simply “the change,” which implies just one change—the end of your menstrual periods. Of course this is all brought on by a series of changes…and leads to a series of changes, not just the freedom from personal hygiene products, once you’re post menopause. The main one is body composition. As estrogen levels drop, there’s a tendency to accumulate fat in your belly and to lose lean muscle mass. That’s obviously a problem for a few reasons. If you can’t maintain your muscle, you can’t push those pedals as hard up hills or in a paceline, you can’t produce power, and you’re bound to slow down, especially if you’re also gaining body fat. Even if you aren’t a racer, that can become a viscious cycle of gaining weight and slowing down that just isn’t fun. That’s not all. Even if you maintain your body composition, the hormonal shift that happens with menopause can bring some permanent changes in metabolism that can affect your training and riding and overall sense of well being. For some advice on that front, I called up exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist Stacy Sims, PhD, of Osmo Nutrition, who has devoted about 20 years to studying these issues. Here’s her short list of what you can do to keep on rolling strong. Handle the heat. “Post-menopausal women break into a sweat later during exercise and they vasodilate longer,” explains Sims. In plain language that means your body sends blood to the skin to get rid of heat, since it can’t rely on perspiration to cool you. It’s also harder for you to handle increases in your core temperature. So riding and/or racing in the heat is just plain harder.
Hydration becomes even more important during menopause and beyond. If you’re going out for a long and/or hard ride in the heat, prehydrate with a sodium-rich drink before you get on the bike. Take in at least a bottle an hour while riding and grab some chocolate milk to sip on when you’re done. Consider also pre-cooling before efforts or long rides in hot weather, by draping a cold towel around your neck. Consume ice cold fluid during your ride if you can. And dip in a cold bath or pool when you’re done to help constrict those blood vessels on the surface of the skin and push your blood back into your central circulation to cool down and speed recovery.
Speaking of heat, hot flashes are one of the hallmarks of menopause. Studies are mixed on how much exercise helps alleviate them. But most find that active women suffer fewer or at least less extreme bouts than those who aren’t active. Curb the carbohydrates You become more sensitive to carbohydrates as you enter menopause, which means you’re more susceptible to blood sugar swings and you need actually need less carbohydrates overall, says Sims. “Eat more mixed macronutrient foods during your rides. Aiming to get about 30 grams of carbohydrate per hour [about the amount in a banana] on long rides is probably sufficient.”
Choose proteins wisely Your body uses protein less effectively as you approach menopause and in the years afterward, making it more difficult to maintain your muscle integrity. Recovery is harder, as is holding onto your lean muscle tissue. That means you need to be pickier about the proteins that you consume.
“It’s essential for menopausal and post-menopausal women to lower their post-exercise stress hormones like cortisol as quickly as possible, since that makes you catabolic, and you can’t afford to be eating into your muscle tissue at this point,” says Sims. That means bathing your damaged muscle fibers in essential amino acids, which helps stop the production of cortisol and promotes muscle synthesis or repair. “You don’t want soy,” says Sims, noting that many women reach for soy proteins thinking they’re actually better for women. “It may help stop cortisol, but it does nothing for muscle synthesis. You want whey and casein for the best results.” Sims recommends taking 15 grams of whey or 9 grams of branched chain amino acids about a half hour before training. You can get that in 8 ounces of Greek yogurt or two eggs. After you’ve racked your bike, get another 25 grams of protein (that’s 3 ounces of tuna or 6 ounces of cottage cheese) within 30 minutes. If you’re training hard, get another 20 to 25 grams of mixed protein two hours post training and 10 to 15 grams before bed.
If it sounds like you’re piling on the protein, it’s because you are. You need it. And it’s still well within the 90 grams a day protein researchers like Donald K. Layman, PhD, a professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of Illinois, recommend for active women, especially those who are also watching their weight or trying to lose a few pounds. Personally, I swear by 30 grams—sometimes more—per meal, especially when I’m doing lots of riding and racing. As a bonus: Extra protein may boost your immunity to protect you from getting sick when you’re training hard.
Ride faster and harder sometimes. The speed and strength of your muscle contractions often lessen after menopause. You can counteract that by shifting your training to focus more on power—on the bike intervals and strength training in the gym—and a bit less on those long steady, often slower, endurance rides. “Power and speed training are essential elements in a post-menopausal woman’s training arsenal,” says Sims.
Reclaim your sleep. Insomnia is common during menopause as are nighttime hot flashes, which can be extremely disruptive to sleep, which is a double whammy, since not only do you need sleep to fend off fatigue (also common during menopause), but that’s when your body repairs and recovers—also clutch during a time when recovery is more difficult in general. If sleep eludes you, Sims recommends topping off your evening dose of protein with 400 to 600 milligrams of valerian (an herb known for its sleep-inducing properties). “The combination helps with overnight muscle repair, keeps cortisol low (which helps keep the stimulus for developing belly fat low), and helps maintain a lower core body temperature so you’re less likely to experience hot flashes.” Finally, just getting out there on your bike will help abate if not alleviate, some of the more nagging symptoms women face during this time of hormonal havoc. While there are very few studies on menopausal athletes, there is a healthy body of research on exercise’s effect on menopause. And it’s overwhelmingly positive. In one Spanish study, researchers found that menopausal women who started a yearlong exercise program enjoyed significant improvements in their mental and physical health, while those who stayed sedentary felt worse. So even if you don’t always feel like it, get out there and ride. You’ll feel better for it. And that’s something that even the change can’t change.