Kickass Women

Triathlon training during menopause – Guidance to using the full female potential

Nine Heck • 10. February 2021 • 9 Min.

Typically menopause is associated with old looking women, sweat-outbreaks and mood swings.  These negative attributes are the result of widespread historical errors in the past, which mostly includes ignorance of some topics in the past. Reading this, we ask ourselves the following questions: If past presumptions are false, what happens to women during the menopause period? When and what do hormonal processes do and how do these affect the general well-being of each woman? Can women celebrate athletic success despite their age and physical changes? How and how should a woman train at this stage in her life? We will be addressing all questions in the following article, hoping to clarify many misconceptions that are out there.

What is menopause?

A woman’s menopause is described as the transition from the normal 26-40 day female cycle to a state where a women’s menstruation stops. The duration of menopause is dependent on genetics and lifestyle. Menopause begins with “perimenopause”, this phase can take up to 10 years. On average, however, it is between 4 and 5 years and defines the period until menstruation actually stops. During this time, the female body changes in ways that are often not entirely tangible. Very so often, training and nutrition no longer work the same as they did before. Insomnia and fatigueness are often symptoms that occur on a day to day basis. In addition, many women notice that they gain extra belly fat. The cause of these symptoms are changes in hormonal levels, which are the reason for the end of a woman’s menstruation.

Followed by perimenopause is menopause. In fact, it is really a very specific point in time that can be determined, it dates exactly 12 months after the end of the last period. On average, women are 51 years old at this point in time, but studies show that there are also women who are only 40 or already 60 years old. If women have passed this point in time, i.e. 12 months after stopping any bleeding, one speaks of the “postmenopause”, the biological state in which a woman will then find herself for the rest of her life.

At the hormonal level, menopause looks like this:

The most important female sex hormones are estrogen, progesterone, FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) and LH (luteinizing hormone). During the usual 26-40 day cycle (see picture 1) there are changes in hormone production depending on the day and phase. Simplify, it looks like this:

Source: Own illustration according to Chidi-Ogbolu, N. und Baar, K. (2019). Effect of Estrogen on Musculoskeletal Performance and Injury Risk.

The female cycle starts on the first day of your period. Initially, estrogen, progesterone, LH and FSH are flattened, after the period there is an increase in estrogen and LH, which causes ovulation. After ovulation, the estrogen initially decreases and the corpuscles produce more progesterone, which gradually increases this hormone. Estrogen also rises again at the end of the cycle. If the egg has not been fertilized, progesterone and estrogen will drop and your period will come again.

Source: Own representation based on Chidi-Ogbolu, N. and Baar, K. (2019). Effect of Estrogen on Musculoskeletal Performance and Injury Risk. 

During the “perimenopause”, the main changes are the production of progesterone and estrogen. Due to the lack of ovulation, estrogen dominance often occurs during this time, with a deficiency in progesterone. At the same time, FSH and LH rise very sharply as they try to get the ovaries to produce an egg cell, but this cannot happen due to the progesterone deficiency. Exactly this scenario is played out over and over again during perimenopause and causes “side effects” of menopause. These include B.: sweats, insomnia, rapid gain in fat, bone density, muscle composition, etc.

With the onset of the postmenopause, estrogen and progesterone have now flattened very sharply, while FSH and LH level off at an elevated plateau during the postmenopause.

With increasing age and hormonal changes, the energy supply of the female body changes. Despite constant fat intake and training load, the amount of fat in the body increases daily. Hence women end up storing more fat. Further the hormonal change increases inflammatory reactions in the body. Inflammation is caused by all forms of stress, including exercise, and causes poor adaptability and responsiveness. In addition, the reduced sensitivity to insulin should be taken into consideration. A higher sensitivity means that women react stronger to insulin with increased age. Thus, blood sugar levels are always a little higher. With the help of targeted training and the right diet, women can counteract these processes.

Side effects of menopause:

  • Mood swings
  • Dizziness & palpitations
  • Disturbed thermoregulation
  • Increased accumulation of visceral fat
  • Bone density, muscle composition
  • Increase in inflammatory reactions
  • Decreased insulin sensitivity

What does it all mean for female athletes?

We know that a woman’s performance is also directly related to the sex hormones. Since estrogen and progesterone are hardly present during menopause or postmenopause, every woman should take the low hormonal level into consideration. It should be included into training to generate the right training stimulus and to achieve increases in performance. 

Important here:
The hormone estrogen has an anabolic stimulus, i.e. an uplifting effect on the metabolism. As well as progesterone a catabolic, i.e. degrading effect. By flattening the two hormones, one should therefore try to increase muscle protein synthesis through targeted training and to generate an increase in performance through maximum adaptation and recovery. With the onset of menopause, women also lose the ability to maintain fast fiber contractions, i.e. really strong muscle contractions. However, these are indispensable in minimizing the progressive breakdown of bone and muscle and to increase the maintenance of lean mass. Therefore, strength training should also play a decisive role in endurance building athletes. Classic training methods, such as the periodization of a certain resistance training during the off-season, are not really suitable for women in menopause, as they are not aimed at promoting bone and muscle maintenance and improving body add, long and slow workouts are counterproductive.

Therefore, during endurance training, the focus should not be on aerobic basic training, but on targeted anaerobic training, equipped with strength training that helps build lean mass. Women are naturally more likely to use fatty acids and less carbohydrates, primarily as a result of some of the insulin responses. It allows women to use more medium- and long-chain fatty acids and thus not pay quite as much attention to basic aerobic training.

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The following training methods have been scientifically proven to be very suitable for menopause:

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

Scientific studies have examined women in the early postmenopause and compared high-intensity sprint interval training with moderately intensive, even training. The aim was to find out what effects the training has on visceral belly fat and total body fat percentage. After a 12-week training program, it was found that sprint training had very positive effects. The subjects’ visceral abdominal fat had decreased and the fat-free mass had increased. The cardiovascular markers from a health point of view were all better and the total body fat was also reduced. Her VO2max increased as well. In an overall comparison of the two training methods, the HIIT training performed significantly better than the moderate endurance run. Added to this are the time savings and the reduction in cortisol levels, because HIIT training helps reduce stress.

Studies in strength training are comparable. The standard training (10-15 reps) with moderate weight had no effect on body composition. In contrast, strength training with very heavy weights and few repetitions (1-6) had positive effects on cardiovascular markers, insulin sensitivity and lean mass. So if you want to work specifically on your body composition and improve it, HIIT units should be firmly integrated.

Strength training

Intense weight training has proven to be super efficient for menopausal women. However, we are not talking about classic hypertrophy training of 10-12 repetitions per exercise, but rather resistance or maximum strength training, which means lifting a really large load or weights in order to generate maximum contraction of the muscles. The idea behind it is to increase strength and energy production. Strength training increases the metabolic rate as well as its efficiency. The more muscles, the higher the calorie consumption, even in rest mode. And it is precisely this decreasing resting metabolism at old age that strength training counteracts. In addition, strength training counteracts joint instability, improves bone mineral density and is therefore perfect for injury prevention. Aside from that, strength training has a significant effect on vasomotor symptoms, such as thermoregulation, and improves blood flow circulation. 

Plyometric training

The idea of ​​menopausal training is primarily to maintain the neuromuscular integrity and the explosiveness or the ability of muscles to contract. Plyometric training has established itself as a successful method for this. It not only improves the composition of the muscles, but also causes mitochondrial improvement. Mitochondria are the cells’ power plants and provide energy to the body. An increase in mitochondrial function means more fuel for the muscles. In addition, plyometric exercises contribute to an improved transport of glucose within the cell, which in turn reduces insulin sensitivity. Plyometric training can easily be integrated into strength or endurance training. Examples for this are any form of jumps: Squat jumps, split squat jumps, box jumps, rope skipping, trampoline.

Important here: Please start slowly and learn the correct technique first!

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Work with, not against your hormones

Like mentioned before, hormonal changes during menopause bring some changes to the female body. Many things, including training, no longer work the way they used to. With the change in estrogen and progesterone levels, the body needs adapted training in order to trigger positive reactions. In the past, estrogen provided the anabolic stimulus. In order to achieve this in menopause, high-intensity training with heavy weights is required. Coupled with an adapted diet, the breakdown of fat-free mass and muscle mass as well as bone density can be counteracted. HIIT training changes body composition and has an impact on general heart function and blood sugar levels. In addition, it helps to improve performance or serves to maintain and improve the overall performance potential.

Key facts about sport in menopause

  • Traditional training methods don’t work
  • Due to the hormonal change, the body needs appropriate training
  • Long and slow workouts are counterproductive
  • Focus on targeted anaerobic training in connection with intensive strength training

Plyometric training supports the metabolic functions and ensures increased mitochondrial function, which in turn has positive effects on insulin activity and neuromuscular connections. Last but not least, women should dare to lift heavy weights and discover maximum strength training for themselves.

Even if the main sport is an endurance discipline, the training should be combined with the training methods mentioned, because it benefits the overall performance. From a physiological and health point of view, but also related to athletic performance.

Nine Heck

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