Recently, podcaster and elite runner Tina Muir revealed she hasn’t had a period in nine years and to get a period back so she can conceive a baby, she quit running.
I, for one, am always down to read about other runners’ period woes. There’s no question that amenorrhea can be a serious health issue with potentially scary consequences. Amenorrhea is common in women athletes and because it’s often associated with disordered eating and the female athlete triad, it’s kind of a dirty word. Open conversations about it are good! Thanks, Tina, for starting one.
But one woman’s story, in this case Tina’s, does not represent some universal truth, yet it’s portrayed as such. High level training is not necessarily bad for women’s health, reproductive or otherwise, and I fear this article portrays training as an all or nothing proposition: to reach the top of the sport women have to sacrifice their health to get there. That is not true.
Amenorrhea, the lack of a period, is a symptom and not a problem in and of itself. It’s concerning if there is reason to believe it is related to low bone density, infertility, or some other hormone imbalance. If these things are ruled out, or manageable, then athletic amenorrhea may not be a problem.
Now, before I get into this, let me just say that I can relate with Tina to some extent. I only get a period once a year when I take my two down weeks between seasons. This worried me, so this is what I did. I went to my gynecologist and then an endocrinologist. They ordered blood work and both gave me a clean bill of health. In my case, my amenorrhea is caused by my training and not an underlying endocrine issue. I do not have an eating disorder or bone density issues, and based on my history and my labs, if I want to have children, I most likely will be able to by lightening up on the miles. My doctors and I are monitoring it and I feel good about our plan.
What I did not do was write blog posts letting everyone know that I stopped having a period because my body was too busy “repairing the damage from training as a professional runner” and that I have to dramatically stop running or else be barren FOREVER!
In all seriousness, Tina wrote this:
My body does not have the resources and energy to look after a baby, it is far too busy repairing the damage from training as a professional runner. Doctors explained that my body is living in fear, thinking I am being chased by an animal so scary, that I had to run almost 100 miles to stay alive.
This is very misleading. Was she running 100 miles at a time regularly? Was she visualizing being chased by a rabid wild beast while she ran? Did she never recover or lay around in between runs? Is high-level training much like being hunted for 100 miles at a time? Do these doctors understand training?
Anyway, the average person reading that might take from this that fast women who train hard are always harming themselves. Not only that, but we’re harming our frail little reproductive systems. The horror!
Of course, you can overtrain or under-eat and this can be damaging to your reproductive and general heath. All women runners who experience amenorrhea should seek medical help and take it seriously. But my point is that a woman can can be smart about her training and safely and easily avoid causing long-term damage.
Then there was this:
My mum also had low estrogen levels and missed periods, which meant I was probably more likely to have issues as well.
Wait, what? So Tina knows her mom has struggled with a similar problem, but instead of considering that she might have the same propensity to low estrogen, Tina chalks her infertility up to all the miles she runs and aims to “cure” her condition by cutting out running and gorging on dessert? Either we’re missing part of the story or this makes no sense!
I’m sure the possibility of an underlying hormonal condition is scary, but girl, go get the appropriate testing and rule that out first! (Or if you did, maybe say that while you’re being real and stuff.) What about the plethora of treatable and very common conditions that can cause amenorrhea, like polycystic ovarian syndrome or hypothyroidism? Did you consider these?
Why blame running and make it sound like every competitive woman runner is hiding this dark secret: she can’t make the babies! While I have amenorrhea that I’m monitoring with my health care providers, many many elite and very intense recreational runners have regular periods. You don’t have to look far to find a woman who conceived during high-mileage training.
It seems strange that Tina, who by all appearances loved running, was able to just drop it. She made her living not only running, but talking about running! Why then, did she so quickly blame running for her health issues and give it up? This is especially true considering her statements about going “all in” and eating anything and everything in an effort to “speed up the process” of bringing on her period. It makes you wonder what she ate while she was training. Why not try eating more and training? (Maybe she did and it didn’t work?) I don’t know. Why can’t you eat “all the cake, ice cream, and pizza my heart desires” and run?
If amenorrhea is causing infertility, and having children is very important to Tina and her doctors have ruled out all other potential causes, then by all means blame running and never do it again! But until then, stop telling people that high-level “professional” running is unhealthy for women! Stop leading women runners to believe that they will destroy their abilities to conceive if they choose to really go for it in training. Stop making women out to be weak and incapable of pushing their bodies as hard as they choose. I thought we got past the whole “it’ll make your uterus fall out” stuff.
I wish Tina nothing but the best and I hope she finds whatever works for her. I appreciate that she shared her story. But I also don’t want to turn the clocks back and start needlessly concern-trolling women runners because of one woman’s experience.
What do you think?
[5.01.17] Update from Salty: Tina posted a clarification and a very informative post with the help of Dr. Nicola Rinaldi, author of No Period. Now What? about how running can play a part in causing amenorrhea. For anyone interested in this topic both Tina’s post and the book are well worth the read.