Women's Cycling

How widespread is unerfuelling in cycling?

UPDATE: Much more recent and in-depth version of this topic HERE

I never want to be one of those people who posts cringe worthy overshares on he internet, because keyboard keys are easier to press than vocal cords. My policy has always remained ‘if you couldn’t say it to 100 faces, don’t type it’ – but when I saw this story on Athletics Weekly, I sort of felt like I had to.

You see – I’m not a runner. I’m not a pro cyclist. I’m a total amateur who trains about 8-12 hours a week – and yet there was a nine year period during which I didn’t have a natural period.

Though I don’t want to be that blogger who overshares, I just feel like I’ve got so much to say on this topic – and, frankly, the rest of the internet has so little to say (with any consistency) that it’s infuriating.

So how did it happen that way?

I got into triathlon at uni. It was my first real dip into the sporting world.

It was suddenly easy to drop from 60kg to 55kg – I just had to run a lot, and cut out bread, pasta, cheese, milk, yoghurt, any form of chocolate or unnecessary sweet things. It took me about a month to eat one easter egg. I cried because of Christmas dinner. I wasn’t underweight – just petrified of being overweight.

I didn’t realise there was a problem until I came off the pill a few years later – what followed was 18 menstruation free months. It’s normal for things to take a while to get back to routine when you quit the pill – six months maybe – but 1.5 years, not so much.

I was so absorbed in swim/bike/run, graduating, starting my NCTJ journalism course, that I hardly noticed how much time had passed.

Seeking medical help, I visited the GP – where they checked my hormone levels and my ovaries. The results were that I had slightly squiffy hormone levels, but everything else was fine and it was predicted it’d all settle down in time. But that I should go back on the pill to level out my hormones. Mask the problem with synthetics.

I asked a coach, and three amateur friends – it turned out none of the women I asked had regular periods, and the coach I questioned said it was totally normal. There was a vague suggestion that ‘real’ female athletes, however amateur – aren’t meant to bleed once a month. A little bit of pride in training hard enough to stop that.

I searched around the term ‘female athlete triad’ a lot, but not falling into the serious athlete or low body fat moulds I didn’t feel it quite applied to me.

The only advice I could find online was that periods often stop when body fat is too low, or when training too strenuous – but the figure for too strenuous was ‘over eight hours a week’ – which most athletes will agree is hardly excessive and hard to cut down on. The choices seemed to be: gain weight and train less, or continue on a path of ‘suck it up’ and hope not to damage long term fertility and/or bone density.

So back on the pill I went, and continue to trundle along I did. During that time my interests switched to time trials  – running was no good for me, since I always got injured.

I was a little less obsessive about my weight, and restarted eating some of the items on the ‘bannned foods’ list, but still weighed myself daily. Quote any life event from the last few years and I could probably tell you my weight and how happy I was with it at that time – the number on the scales was defining.

A few years passed, and I thought I’d sample pill-less life again. Another year+, still no periods. Hormone and ovary scans repeated: hormones fine, ovaries still fine, and I was told I was probably “just making my body too tired to want to reproduce”.

Over the past two years, my interests have morphed from time trials – a personal race of self vs clock, were every second counts and is entirely dependant upon power vs resistance – to track, crits, road  racing.

In road races there’s more than pure mathematics – it’s more than ‘I weigh X and put out X’ – relying on basic formulas will get you only half way there. There’s technique, skill, and a lot of mental will-power not to let a wheel go.

I train more in groups, rather than pounding out solo non-miles on the turbo.

I’m not, to be honest, naturally talented at all when it comes to the short burst power required to race on the road – but then neither am I naturally talented enough at time trials to make anything of what is just a hobby. And road racing is just a lot more fun.

The result is – suddenly I don’t define myself quite so much by the number on the scales.

I still weigh myself regularly, and hilariously though now I let myself have the odd beer, slice of cake, and OMG I eat pasta again – I weigh the same as I did during my daily weigh in period. I just don’t yo-yo. And lo and behold: about six months ago, I came off the pill once again – and I’ve almost got a normal cycle back. Just like that.

So yes – it might be overshare. But it took me years of asking doctors, coaches, friends, and the internet – and getting no answers. So if I can provide a couple of clues to someone out there, then great.

If I can encourage a few women to stop floating along, ignoring the problem, then better.

Admittedly my sample size was very small – but four out of four – 100% – of the women I asked had similar issues.  It’s worrying how many amateur female athletes – who aren’t being paid to train or race – are potentially doing enough damage to not have any periods. Often, as I was, under the impression that it’s an unavoidable, perhaps even desirable, side effect.

For me – the real answer was to relax, eat a little more fat, have a little more fun, and take training less seriously. Having a more regular cycle and, well, getting faster on the bike have been pleasant side effects.

I'm an NCTJ Journalist and work at Cycling Weekly. Previous to this, I was the Editor at Total Women's Cycling. I've also dabbled in marketing and copywriting - having been Marketing Coordinator and Social Media/Content Editor at Evans Cycles. My first job was working on a local newspaper.  I've written for a variety of titles on a freelance basis, too. I got into cycling when I entered my first triathlon in 2010. I now race crits, road races, time trials, and do a lot of track training for not very much track racing.

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