I’ve been competing as a professional runner for 10 years. I’ve had my share of ups and downs, won, lost, given birth to 2 beautiful boys, but through it all I’ve stayed the course. I’ve never walked away because it is a part of me, but not something that defines me. Attachment of your identify to your times and performance is dangerous. To me it is what leads to shortcuts, unhealthy decisions, a stubborn drive for greatness. I’ve never truly never experienced these because while I want to kick some ass, see how great I can be, I also know it’s not worth sabotaging my health as a human and as a woman.
Here’s my female health story: For the last 10 years I have weighed between 106-113 lbs. That involves the weight I mostly train at, give or take a few pounds when I’m not running and taking a break. I’ve gotten my period every 28 days for the last 10 years. Ok I lied, I had 2 kids so for those 18 months I did not get my period and my weight topped out at about 130 lbs. I would say I’m pretty typical for an elite female distance runner. One who has been sustainable in their career. My weight doesn’t fluctuate too much. I weigh myself regularly not to see a certain number but for feedback. I don’t avoid any foods (aside from those I’m allergic to.) I eat dessert, drink wine, eat french fries. I’m all in when I show up to practice, when I step on the starting line. Nothing else from my life feels like a sacrifice to be all in. Yes we’re not all the same and what works for some may not work for others. But I do know one thing. I’m strong in my convictions. I’m vocal about my opinions and what I believe is important in our sport, and for women. I want young girls and women to be able to see me and think that’s longevity in their sport. To be able to reach out and say “hey Steph I’m struggling with this.. have any advice?” I have always chosen the long term approach. To me that means training at a very high level, but getting my period every month, naturally. I’ve never been on birth control. Yes I have my own ways of birth control but it’s never been through the pill or IUD. That is a huge marker of health in my opinion in female athletes. To get your period regularly, naturally. Much to the contrary of what some doctors and coaches may say it is not normal to miss your period because you’re training a lot or you have low body fat. I check all those boxes and have been getting a regular cycle for a decade. Now where it becomes tricky is when women think they are heavier than their counterparts but still not getting a period. There is no magic weight, body % weight where your period comes or goes. There is a natural set point for everyone, and it’s unique to each person. In college there was a 6 month stretch where I lost my period. My coach at UCSB was very upfront and blunt about the issue. So I had to check in with myself and ask “why did this happen?” From what I’ve researched and learned over the years, I came up with a few theories. My father passed away my senior year of HS, before I left for college. College is new and stressful, and we’re learning about who we are and who we want to become. I also was an undiagnosed Celiac at the time. I wouldn’t find out for 5 more years that I had this. The summer between my freshman and sophomore year I lost about 8-9 lbs. I had gained 12-15 my freshman year, which seemed very normal for that period in your life. My mileage went from 50s to 70s and I think it was too short of a timeframe that I dropped the weight. I began researching the female athlete triad and what the parameters of that were. I didn’t believe I had an eating disorder, my dexa scan in college came back well, but I did miss my period for 6 months. I didn’t like it. So here’s what I found:
1. Caloric Intake vs. Caloric Output: If your body senses too much energy drain it will stop menstruating as a protective mechanism against pregnancy in a time of physiological stress. Sounds simple: Eat more than you burn. Harder than it sounds for a lot of people. It sometimes means eating a little more than you think until you find that natural balance and your period returns. This is confusing to some because some women may not be losing weight but still miss their cycle.
2. Body weight and body fat % do not equal loss of menstruation. This is one of the huge myths I feel exists in our sport culture. I call this judging a book by it’s cover. For most of my professional career I have weighed between 106-113lbs, slightly less than college and not skipped my period once. I’ve run 80-120 mile weeks and have had a pretty low body fat% for well over a decade.
– Food is fuel and should be enjoyed and not feared. Every time I meet someone and tell them I run for a living, their 1st comment is “wow you must eat so healthy!” I say 90% of the time I do, but I also enjoy burgers and fries, bacon, mochas, potato chips, chocolate, and wine.
– What body type works for others might not work for you. I’ve known elite marathoners weighing between 90-145lbs. Some of which have won medals at the Olympics. There is no magic number, weight is individualized based on natural body type.
– Feeling strong in workouts and racing well are better indicators than a # on the scale.
-Maintaining an optimal weight can help ward off injuries and maximize training. Being underweight (for your body type) can be detrimental to your performance and health.
And yes there are other stresses in life that can lead to a women skipping or having an irregular period. Many women suffer from hormone imbalances, endocrine system, and other medical conditions that don’t regulate their menstrual cycle well and I don’t mean for this to demean their experience. But as an athlete, it’s part of your duty to nurture and fuel your body. So to ignore a warning sign like not menstruating is doing yourself and your future female health a disservice. What I wish is for more openness of this topic and for women to not feel shame, but to reach out when this happens to them. To have a team of support around to guide them in the right direction. I feel so lucky and fortunate that the men in my life have always looked out for my longevity in the sport. To my HS coach Dave Van Sickle, college coach Pete Dolan, pro coach Ben Rosario, and most of all my husband Ben, thank you.
Please don't let someone mislead you when you’re running a lot of miles, training hard, or have low body fat and low body weight that missing your period comes with the territory. It doesn’t. Running is an amazing sport and an incredible opportunity to push your limits, find about yourself, and compete. It is not however worth sabotaging your future female health. If this resonates with you or you know someone who could hear this, please feel free to share. Please feel comfortable to reach out. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s nothing to ignore.