ACTIVE & FIT: TRAINING IN THE MENOPAUSE
Fiona Russell on the ups & downs of training with menopause
The Women All Ride: Hi Fiona, it’s great to meet you and thank you for taking the time for this interview. Please tell us a bit about your work and why you started writing your own blog.
Fiona: Hi everyone! My website grew out of a blog I started about 15 years ago. I wanted to write about my own adventures and hopefully inspire others, especially women, to spend more time outdoors, be it hiking, running, cycling, kayaking, skiing and more.
You could say it was my guilty pleasure as a journalist because I could choose exactly what I wanted to write about, not what an editor asked me to write for a newspaper or magazine. I wanted to write about activities and show how accessible they are to so many people. I also wanted to showcase Scotland as one of the best outdoor travel destinations in the world.
The personal blog evolved into a website with articles, interviews, equipment tips and guides, as well as my own adventures. It now has a large following of men and women, and at heart, my goal is still to inspire others in a non-egoistic way.
TWAR: Why is menopause an important topic for you?
F: I started writing about the menopause and peri-menopause when I was affected by it myself. That was in my mid-40s.
Some of the symptoms I didn’t associate with peri-menopause at the time had prevented me from enjoying my sport.
Due to the irregular, unbalanced and decreasing hormones, especially oestrogen and progesterone, I got severe cramps all over my body, e.g. in my calves, feet, hands, shoulders and hamstrings, and muscle tears were the result.
I could not risk swimming in case I was hit by a cramp and stranded in open water or in the pool.
Even walking uphill became painful due to the tight and cramping calf muscles. Cycling was also difficult due to the cramps.
An other symptom was stomach upset and digestion. This was not good for my running for obvious reasons. When running or doing circuit training, incontinence was another problem.
In addition, I suddenly had migraines, poor sleep, unexplained fatigue, itchy skin, sweating, anxiety, weight gain and more. There were heavy and more frequent periods, but I had had them since my early 40s and I actually wished the menopause would come so they would stop.
I felt so down about it all and started doing my own research. It turned out that I was in the menopause. I had no idea that menopause was more than just not having a period.
MENOPAUSE: BACK TO SPORT WITH HORMONE REPLACEMENT THERAPY
I felt so uninformed, and I suspected that other women felt the same way. I was right. My blog posts about the menopause and exercise got a lot of traffic.
I didn’t want the menopause to stop me from staying fit and active. I think our generation is one of the first where there are so many women who are fit and sporty and want to stay that way.
I now take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in the form of a Mirena IUD and Oestrogel – and that has made a big difference. So I try to give women who read my website the information they need to make the right choices.
- Perimenopause is the first phase in this process and can begin eight to 10 years before menopause.
- The menopause is when there has been no menstruation for at least 12 months.
- After menopause comes the phase called postmenopause.
TWAR: What is the benefit of staying active during menopause? How do you benefit from exercising? Did you discover any new superpowers when you entered menopause?
F: Exercise is a plus for everyone, both for physical and mental health, but if you are forced to stop because of menopause, it can hit you hard.
I definitely felt depressed when I couldn’t enjoy my sports as much as I used to.It wasn’t just age – I’m aware that I’ve slowed down since my early 40s – but it was more that there were a number of symptoms caused by unbalanced and fluctuating hormones that stopped me in my tracks.
I lost motivation to exercise because I no longer felt comfortable during activity. But luckily, the HRT allowed me to continue being sporty.
My life – and my work – is very much about being active outdoors and having adventures. Now the HRT has settled in – and I feel like I did before most of the menopausal symptoms set in..
I feel “normal” again and although I am aware of my 53 years, I am still physically strong and able. I always feelmentally strengthened through physical activity and I want to have a strong body, including muscles and bones, for as many decades as possible..
Maybe my superpower is to accept that I am getting older and not worry too much about it.
I don’t mind the wrinkles on my face – they show that I’ve enjoyed a fun and laughing life outdoors! – and I can deal with the changes in the elasticity of my skin (mostly). I like the way my life is I have a child who has moved out of home, I live a good life in the Highlands with my husband and dog and I consider myself very lucky to be in good health.
TWAR: Did you change your diet and recovery when you entered the menopause? If so, how exactly?
F: I didn’t change my diet much. I eat pretty healthy diet anyway, although I prefer not to be a slave to calorie counting. I eat sensibly and when I’m hungry. I’ve done that for a long time. I am neither vegetarian nor vegan.
Before I got the right hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – I tried a few variants – I noticed a creeping weight gain, although I ate the same or less than before.
The weight gain affected my waist, butt and thighs, and it depressed me because I found it harder to exercise because I was a bit heavier.
I also had digestion and stomach upsets, but the HRT fixed that too.
The recovery after training is something I pay much more attention to. I was diagnosed with a collagen deficiency in the tendons of my hip. This causes painful joints. Again, the collagen breakdown is related to reduced hormones, including estrogen.
I was advised to reduce myhigh-impact sports, although I shouldn’t give them up. I usually run every other day, not every day. I go wild swimming, ride a bike and do coastal rowing in between, or I walk the dog or climb mountains.
I try to help the collagen around the tendons recover better by doing physio-exercises.
I am aware that Iam more tired after major training sessions than I used to be and I tend to be more relaxed with myself these days.
I’m not so much about speed anymore. I like big outdoor adventures with good friends and my husband.
Current state of research on menopause and sport
TWAR: Why do you think we need more research on menopause and sport? What information are we missing? What would have been helpful advice or information for you when your peri-menopause started?
F: For too long there has been very little research on the menopause, the peri-menopause and especially on sporty/fit menopausal women.
The more scientific research and anecdotal research that is captured, the more we will understand and the better medical professionals will be able to offer good solutions.
It would be better for our health system if women stayed fit, active and healthy into their later decades and reduced the burden of medical interventions. For example, osteoporosis (brittle bones) and Alzheimer’s disease are linked to hormone depletion after menopause. It is better to respond and educate earlier than to have to treat the consequences of menopause later in life.
I believe that the more research there is, the more we will know, and the more this will benefit our generation and those who come after us.
TWAR: What is your most important advice for athletes:inside with uterus?
F: Get advice, information and, if necessary, treatments and therapies. Don’t just sit there, but think about the menopause.
I want to be as fit and healthy as possible for the rest of my life, and without HRT and all that I have learned about my menopausal hormones, I might have given up, sat on the sofa and eaten chocolate for the rest of my days. Worse, I might have become devastatingly depressed and anxious.
Finally, the medical world is waking up to the fact that more than half the population will be affected by menopause and we cannot just accept that we have to live with greatly reduced and unbalanced hormones.
And then, when you have understood all this, please tell other women, your daughters, nieces and the men.
It is about time that this seemingly taboo subject is talked about openly.
Interview: Wiebke Lühmann
Edit / Layout: Marie Beulig