I was in the best shape of my life, or so I thought. I was hitting the crossfit gym six days a week, green smoothies might as well have been an IV drip, and in my mind, rest days were for the weak. Little did I know, that too much of a good thing was eventually going to catch up with me.
As I continued to force myself into the gym each day, I ignored the signs as I fought harder to keep up with my workouts. I didn’t think anything of my sore muscles that never felt any relief or the fact that what once would have been an easy training session was now the hardest feat to conquer. As months went on, my body began to yell louder with cries for attention.
I’d wake up from a sleepless night and drag my feet into the gym, using what little energy I had. It was as if the life had been sucked out of me as I could barely lift anything over my head. It wasn’t until my period stopped coming each month that I realized I had to take a step back and ask myself, “am I exercising too much?”
Women who participate in high levels o
f physical activity combined with a negative caloric balance are at risk for developing a low body-fat percentage and experiencing a condition known as the female athlete triad. The female athlete triad consists of three major conditions: amenorrhea or missed period, low energy availability with or without disordered eating and low bone mineral density.
Female athletes need to be aware of the signs their body’s are trying to tell them and treat right away in order to prevent long term reproductive imbalances, increasing their risks for osteoporosis, and most importantly be able to love their bodies for all that it can do. Follow these steps in order to heal from the triad:
1. Increase the calories.
The primary goal is to normalize body weight by improving nutrition to increase energy availability. Sub-optimal fueling can lead to both short term and long term consequences. If an athlete does not consume enough energy to meet her physical expenditures she will suffer from dehydration, a depletion of glycogen stores, low blood sugar, abdominal pain, increased fatigue, constipation and an insufficient intake of nutrients for a normal metabolism. Restoring weight gain within 95% of previous weight will tend to restore normal hormone levels. For three to four months, athletes should increase their caloric intake by 20-30% or add 200-600 more calories per day. Energy intake should be set at a minimum of 2,000 kcal/day or greater depending on the amount of exercise
2. Decrease the training days.
Add in the rest days to your training routine. As hard as it might be for the daily gym shark, a few days off per week is necessary for muscle repair, balancing hormones, and reducing inflammation. For three to four months, limit the number of training days by 10-20%. Add in at least one to two rest days per week if not more.
3. Restore your hormones.
Female athletes must consume sufficient energy and nutrients to avoid amenorrhea or lack of a menstrual period. Amenorrhea occurs for many reasons including high physical stress, inadequate energy intake, poor iron status, high cortisol levels, and low body-fat levels. In order to maintain a normal menstrual cycle, a body fat percentage of 17 to 22 percent is needed. Amenorrhea associated with the female athlete triad occurs when energy intake is about 30% less than energy requirement, this energy deficit leads to a loss of normal hormone function. Amenorrhea represents the absence of the menstrual cycle for 6 months or the absence of the cycle for 3 cycles.
4. Improve your diet.
A diet rich in calcium, iron, Vitamin D, and protein is crucial for healing. Add foods such as lean meats, eggs, fatty fish, dark leafy vegetables, broccoli, kale, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats. Adequate amounts of protein in the diet is necessary for female athletes to meet adequate energy intake. Also to mention that protein is crucial to maintain lean mass and repair tissues, therefore an endurance athlete should consume around 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. Carbohydrates are also critical fuel for athletes the Institute of Medicine recommends 130 grams of carbohydrates per day, ranging from 45-65% of total caloric intake. It is also important to note that athletes should eat every few hours to keep up with energy demands.
5. Change your mindset.
Along with healing the body, it is just as important to treat the mind. Addressing the attitude, behaviors, and emotions relating to food, body image, and excessive exercise can help you understand the need to exercise so much. Referral to health professionals on diet, nutrition and mental health as well as a good support system is crucial for recovery from the female athlete triad. Look at movement as something to be grateful for and all that your body does for you, make sure to listen to what your body is telling you. You may have to adjust your exercise routine around your emotions.
To put it simply, it is all about balance. A healthy female athlete triad means adequate energy from foods, daily physical activity and a positive self-image.
Now as I look in the mirror, I am happy with what I see, not because I see a chiseled 6-pack reflecting back, but rather I am thankful that I am healthy enough to move my body everyday with enthusiasm and grace. I have the energy to stay motivated and the gratitude to fuel my body with nourishing foods that allows me to be all that I am.