Our Runner Bodies Do Not Lie: My Experience with Low Progesterone

My body has thrown me a few curve balls over the past few years. As a runner, I feel like I’m quite in tune with my body, almost to a point where I notice when the smallest thing is off. You know like the hangriness creep that starts after eating lunch a mere 30 minutes later than usual.

A few months ago, I knew something wasn’t right. Sure, I had some vague symptoms when I wasn’t running, but it was my running that really tipped me off that something in my body was amiss. In my case, it turned out to be my progesterone levels.ย 

It all started when …

I’m a mother of two children, but I experienced two miscarriages in between their births. In 2014, after those miscarriages, our family doctor ordered me to come into the office the minute I had another positive pregnancy test, which I did when I became pregnant with my daughter, Lennon. For the following ten weeks, I would go into the office and have blood taken each week to chart my hormone levels. If this pregnancy ended in another miscarriage, my doctor would have referred me to our local fertility clinic if we wanted to have another child. When I mentioned this to my OB when I was 13 weeks pregnant, she casually mentioned something about progesterone, and we never really talked about it beyond that point more than two years ago now.

Something didn’t seem right …

Two years later and I never thought much about my progesterone levels, since I was no longer concerned about my ability to get pregnant. So I had no idea that progesterone might have something to do with how I was feeling when I ran.

In February of this year, I knew that something was off with my body. I was still losing large amounts of hair a year and a half years after having Lennon. I felt exhausted all the time and was falling asleep on the couch by 8:00 every night. I wasn’t even hearing my alarm go off on the morning. I felt stressed out and anxious about the smallest things. I was experiencing concerning dizzy spells and my period was all over the place, and when I did have it, they were more painful than they had ever been before.

When it came to running, I felt like I couldn’t find the next gear. To many, it still appeared that I was running “fast”, but to me, I was a passenger stuck on the struggle bus. I didn’t have my usual kick. My body wasn’t responding to me. My brain was saying go faster, and my legs felt like heavy logs. After a really amazing year of running in 2016, 2017 was breaking my heart. I felt like my 1:27 half or my 37:54 10k were flukes. None of this helped me enjoy the Boston Marathon in April or racing in the elite field at the Ottawa 10k this last May.

A lot of people, even me much of the time, assumed I was too tired juggling work, kids, and training. I started traveling down the Google rabbit hole, and stumbled upon a number of articles that helped me put two and two together. Many women reported experiencing the exact same thing I was and they all suffered from low progesterone.

After a lot of tests…

After a disappointing run in Boston, and levels of exhaustion that I didn’t even know were possible, I found myself telling our family doctor that I suspected I had low progesterone. That day, they drew a lot of blood to test for a number of things that they wanted to rule out, and there were different progesterone elements that were also being tested. I had to go back for more tests during certain points in my cycle, and my doctor analyzed the results.

When I went in after the final round of tests, my doctor told me that my suspicion was correct. However, I didn’t realize just how low my progesterone levels were. My levels were just above zero, and were more inline with a woman who had already experienced menopause, not a 30-year-old. My doctor was honest with me and said that he would work hard to find a specialist that would see me, as many had full patient loads or were more likely to take on the case of someone with low progesterone who was trying to conceive. One of the doctors he suggested is a runner. Go figure. That’s the doctor that agreed to see me!

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I will be sharing my story as I work through these issues and take steps to help increase my progesterone levels. If anyone has had a similar experience, I’d love to hear from you and learn more about the steps you took to manage your progesterone levels.

Have you ever discovered a medical issue because of running?ย 

A mother runner chasing big dreams.

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17 comments

  1. I realize I’m a little late to the conversation, but this has recently been a concern of mine too. I have had extremely high stress this year (death of my mother, partial hysterectomy, etc). My doctor tested my hormones and my progesterone level was at 0.6, which I understand to be low. The doctor said the test didn’t mean much because levels can be different at various times of the month. I felt totally blown off. My energy is non-existent, and I’m at a loss for what to do next.

    1. Thank you for sharing Sally. I’m so very sorry for your loss. Stress can play a major role in progesterone levels. My mom, grandmother and great grandmother all had full hysterectomies at relatively young ages – my mom had a partial first, then the full a couple years later. My progesterone level was a 0.7 at a point in my cycle when it was supposed to be increasing. My family doctor did the tests at different points in my cycle so that he could have a better sense of what was going on with the levels, and to rule out the case of it happening to be low on the particular day the test was done. Progesterone levels do fluctuate throughout your cycle, but testing during different times does help create a clearer picture. I’ve only had one appointment with a naturopath so far, but it is the path I’m pursuing to help with improving my progesterone levels. I wasn’t thrilled with my endocrinologist appointment, and hormone therapy was something I would only consider as a last resort. I’m going to be sharing more about what is done to help treat my issue, and hopefully the information might prove to be helpful. It’s very frustrating to feel brushed off or not taken seriously when you know something is wrong. I’m very fortunate that my family doctor is working closely with me and we aren’t taking no for an answer from anyone, but my experience with some other doctors and specialists have been the complete opposite of helpful.

  2. I’m curious if anyone can comment on the relationship (or not) between running and progesterone (particularly low progesterone) as well as normal aging and low progesterone. That is, are the effects of low progesterone the same for someone who is 30 and someone who is, say, 40?

    1. This question is actually at the top of my list when I see my endocrinologist. I’m 30, and my progesterone levels are consistent with someone post-menopause. I do know/have read that there can be a connection between low progesterone and endurance athletes. I was reading about the stress that marathons can place on the body, for example, but I have so many questions when I go to my appointment next week. I’ll share what I find out :)

      1. It is interesting. At a certain point, I think low progesterone becomes “normal.” I’m curious at what point that is, though I am sure the answer is individual and not something easy to define. And, does running cause low progesterone? Curious, also, how it might relate to TSH.

    2. Very interesting! I luckily had no fertility issues, but when I train hard my cycle shortens and I often have pre-period spotting. I always wondered if that was some sort of luteal deficiency, perhaps caused by low progesterone?

      1. I think it is interesting that, along the lines of what you found when you started this website, Salty (that there wasn’t a lot of info for pregnant runners), there seems also to be a huge lack of information about aging and running for females. The hormonal shifts as you age are a known reality, but what to expect in terms of running – besides getting slower – seems to be something people haven’t talked much about.

  3. Glad you figured out the cause of all your symptoms- your post made me finally make an appointment for blood work this Thursday. I’ve been struggling with some similar-ish symptoms (plus add in depression, insomnia, and headaches/dizzy spells) since the winter. I’ve had the Mirena IUD but am even having some new weird period symptoms. Anyhow, looking forward to reading how your journey goes and THANK YOU for inadvertently making me get off my ass and actually make some an appointment!

    1. Sorry you are experiencing similar symptoms – I also had a small bout of mild depression earlier in the year around Boston, I’ve been battling insomnia for a few months (combined with the exhaustion, it’s a lovely pairing….) and headaches and dizzy spells as well. I have had two instances where I remained conscious, but my body collapsed. It was super strange. I hope you are able to get some answers soon. It took a few rounds of tests over the course of a month and a half for them to get the info they needed from me (testing at various points in my cycle), but the fact that you have your appointment booked is wonderful! Wishing for some answers for you!!!

  4. I’m glad you were able to pinpoint what is wrong, and look forward to reading about your recovery journey!

    1. Thank you! I was at a point where I was hoping something was wrong with me so that I could get on a path to correct it. It’s been a strange few months, but at least I know why now. Looking forward to sharing more once I learn more :)

  5. While I am sorry you had to struggle through this I am glad that you finally have an answer- I feel like that makes a huge difference. I am interested in reading more about this as it affects conception, and also general day to day activities and running. I never would have thought about that affecting running- even though it makes sense that it would. After our miscarriage last year, our OB talked with us about progesterone treatments if/when we did get pregnant again. We didn’t end up going that route, and things worked out but that really made me wonder about how things all went down last spring still.

    I love that running really helped you figure this out, and that you advocated for yourself with your doctor. I agree that running really makes us more in tune with ourselves. I’m also glad that your doctor worked with you to find someone who can help- while it’s typically a problem for those trying to conceive it doesn’t mean the issue isn’t affecting your life and shouldn’t be taken as important as well.

    1. I’m so curious what your physician has said because I’m going through this right now. I got off the pill a year ago to let my body “be normal” for pregnancy, only to find out my periods are all over the place, and I have the same symptoms you had. I’m currently adding in hormones because of low progesterone to try and get my period to regulate and hopefully be able to conceive when we are ready. I will say, since being off the pill my runs seem like more of a struggle than they used to but I took that as stress from work|life and that maybe I had hit a running plateau. Maybe I will “even out” if my progesterone levels get better. I’m hoping the solution wasn’t to stop running!

      1. I’m sorry you are experiencing something similar Elizabeth – it’s a difficult thing to go through. When I went off the pill when trying to conceive our first child, I actually got pregnant during that first month off of it. When trying to conceive our second child, I wasn’t on the pill and felt that my body was in a “normal” state, and resulted in the miscarriages. Since progesterone wasn’t really mentioned until I was pregnant with our second child, I never went through treatments or anything – that would have been the next step for us. Even with the way I feel right now, I kept blaming stress from work and life, marathon training, etc. I feel like it all makes so much more sense now, especially the connection with progesterone and cortisol. I had the most amazing running year last year, and this year has been one disappointment after another. It’s tough to swallow, but at least knowing that something is wrong, helps me stop beating myself up over things. I hope the the treatments work for you and that things begin to regulate. I’ll be sharing more in the coming weeks as I meet with an endocrinologist next week!

    2. Thanks Laura! I’m very lucky that my doctor also advocated for me and helped me fight to see someone. I get the priority for people trying to conceive, because I’ve been in those shoes before as well, but quality of life is also important. I’m also happy to have an answer, and I might even find out that this is just one piece of the puzzle. I’ve always been a little curious about the cause of my miscarriages, because I got pregnant right away when I had Odin, and there were no issues. I’m looking forward to sharing more as I go through treatment and learn more.