Sports and the Menopause

Francesca is an Ironwomen. If this word is allowed? She is an athlete who competes for both triathlon and Ironman competitions and she is in her fifties. She is going to tell us, how her journey towards menopause has been, in terms of competition, her body, but most importantly her mind.

Francesca started having first signs of menopause at about 52, so at the perfect UK average. Having seen her two sisters suffering from very heavy symptoms like night sweats, hot flushes and various physical difficulties she was a bit scared for what menopause would/could have bring to her. But, even though she was prepared, it ended up not being as bad physically. She reckons not having any hot flushes or night sweats, e not very many physical symptoms. The hard hit was mentally, but she didn’t recognise what was going on until later. She started having foggy brain, she couldn’t sleep properly anymore and moreover she started being over anxious. The foggy brain didn’t last long but she remembers it being very frustrating to keep up with every day task. The sleeping pattern changed completely, and, as she cannot go for entire night of sleep anymore, she also started experiencing urgency of empting bladder during the night, something she never had before. This make training harder as the lack of sleep doesn’t help the recovery as well. She has been with this restless sleep since then. Of course, this impacted on her athlete performance. She states she didn’t feel particularly different in a physical sense: all the changing for her were mentally related. Beside the fact, she was tired from the sleepless nights, she was mentally struggling keeping up with the performance. In the Ironman category women usually decrease their performance time from the age of fifty five to fifty nine years of age, not between fifty to fifty five, meaning that menopause probably doesn’t influence or hinder physical performance that much, this is mostly down to the normal ageing process. Performance is influenced by our mental status, and here menopause takes quite a big toll. For Francesca being anxious was the biggest issue. This was because every time she had a competition she was becoming more and more anxious beforehand.

Having a goal, a plan, something you want to get or achieve is what kept her focus through her menopause journey. “Even for the foggy brain, if you go for a run everything become clearer and your level of stress decreases”.

So even if mentally she was struggling a bit to keep up, keeping up kept her going mentally, which is amazing. The other amazing thing is the community of Triathlete and Ironmen competitors. Being both relatively new sports, they are very inclusive and acknowledge gender equality. Menopause is not a taboo subject, instead it is normally discussed and she always felt accepted, therefore, in this sense, her sports community helped her a lot. The anxiety actually became worse after she had a bike accident during a competition. After this incident, she said it was even harder to go back to training and to compete again, but her goals kept her going. Of course, it would have been easier in the first place knowing that menopause could have had such a huge impact on her mental stability, but she stated that there is not enough information out there or doctors to help tackle this issue. And for the most part, it is still a taboo subject. The acute phase of menopause lasted a couple of years, but she feels that she would have reacted better to it if she had understood what was going on. Moreover, because life in general can be stressful, she thought that other factors such as these day to day stresses were contributing to her anxiety.

There are some positive aspects though. Have no more periods is easier: there is not the problem of getting your period while swimming, no more pain or cramps, and no more monthly mood swings: every day of the month is the same and that’s make you feel a way better.

She recognizes as well the difficulty in maintaining the same weight; it was harder for her to lose weight than before, but being so active, it was easier to keep her weight under control. She said that she had never taken any medication to ease her menopause symptoms and this was also because she didn’t have most of the physical symptoms associated with the menopause. She confirms she has been lucky but, she likes to think that her healthy lifestyle since her early twenties has helped her to cope much better with her menopause. Despite these issues she is an Ironwomen!

By Ornella Cappellari