Health / Expert Advice

What Female Athletes Need to Know About Amenorrhea

One sports dietician weighs in on what to do when your body falls out of balance.

If you’re in the thick of an intense marathon training plan, or a period of HIITing the treadmill with more zeal than usual, you might not notice when a month goes by without a visit from your period. To be honest, you probably won’t miss the cramps, bloating, and the myriad of other not-so-fun side-effects that mark your special time of month; but amenorrhea, or the abnormal absence of your menstrual cycle, might actually be your body’s way of telling you that your overall wellness routine has fallen out of balance. Here’s what Jackie Dikos, a sports dietician and marathon Olympic trials competitor, says every female athlete should know about amenorrhea.

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What causes the loss of one, or more, periods?

If you’ve ever experienced this condition for yourself, you may know that under-eating or overexercising often take the blame for interrupting the menstrual cycle. However, according to Dr. Dikos, the actual cause is more nuanced. “The way I think of amenorrhea is that it’s just general stress. There are various forms of stress on the body, and it can interfere with a woman’s cycle and create irregular periods or lack of [a] menstrual cycle completely,” she explains.

In other words, too much time at the gym does not lead directly to amenorrhea; instead, the stress that your body incurs from overuse interrupts your period. Dr. Dikos says that these stressors can include anything from a divorce to a job change, or even (yes) marathon training.

When should I consult with my doctor?

“Women are kind of lucky to have their menstrual cycle as a gage of how much stress they’re taking on in their lives. You know, men don’t quite have that so they have to rely on other resources,” Dr. Dikos says.

If a month or two goes by without your cycle, you can consider that a red flag from your body. You can try to coax your period back by yourself. Try increasing your diet by 250-300 calories per day, and dial back your workout intensity by five to ten percent. But, if the condition persists and you miss three or more menstrual cycles in a row, see your doctor.

What if I have an upcoming marathon and I don’t want to trim down my mileage?

We know—cutting back on your training with a race just beyond the horizon might feel like self-sabotage. Yet, Dr. Dikos—who has the first-hand experience of what it’s like to prep your body for an uber long run—says that putting your menstrual health on the back-burner now might lead to injuries in the future. “You’re so torn because you’re reaching this goal. You have this training plan. You feel like you’re not going to meet your goal if you don’t continue to train,” she says. “But your body is [giving] you other signals that it might not be the best time for it,” she adds.

Once my cycle has returned, how can I make sure that it stays that way?

“The cycle ultimately, to me, is a sign that your body is at a good balance, for now,” concludes Dr. Dikos. So, once you’re back to having your period on the reg, consider that a sign that you’ve reached an equilibrium with all the stress factors in your life. Then, do your best to maintain the sweet spot where all your wellness variables (like sleep, work-life balance, and exercise) remain constant and reliable.

The takeaway: Your body is always trying to have a convo with you, so pay attention. If you think you might be experiencing amenorrhea, talk to your doctor about the solution that is exactly right for you.

It’s never a good idea to overdo it when it comes to exercise, Aaptiv has classes like light yoga or meditation so your rest days can still be lightly active if you need them to be. 

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