In Exercise, Hormones

I feel vulnerable. I didn’t expect it. It’s so much easier to read a study, or apply a client case, and interpret the study and solve the puzzle. I’m not sure I like being the puzzle. But here goes.

Last week I shared my commitment to take my wanky hormones on a training ride with me to do an Ironman. I promised to reveal my training schedule and explain how as a strength & conditioning and tri coach I’m modifying the traditional volume of training for a strategic intensity of training. I’ve also shared how I’m personally supplementing. I’m going to dive into both topics in this post, paying more attention to the training side of things this week and sharing more details of the supplements (both nutritional and hormones) next week.

midlife woman relaxingExercise and Hormones: Training Modifications

Before I share my training schedule with you, if will help to understand the components of training for a triathlon. You need to know how I plan volume increases and decreases over the months traditionally and based on goals and time available to train for anyone else including my self so you can see the difference between what I’m doing and what I would do if I turned my training over to mimic what I’ve done the last 5 times I trained.

A triathlon consists of a swim, a bike “leg,” and a run. No matter what the distance, from mini-triathlons to the Ironman distance every triathlon has these pieces. They occur in that order. So to prepare for an event training usually consists of each of the three at minimum twice a week. Of the two workouts in each mode one is “long” relative to the other to create endurance, provide the foundation of aerobic fitness that speed is built on, and depending on how long, can also be recovery. The second workout includes more intensity using either speed (usually) or hills. That alone creates six different workouts a week. Some days might consist of more than one activity so it is not six days a week. But there are six puzzle pieces to deal with at a minimum.

Exercise and Hormones: Bone Density

Then there’s the strength training. Early in training there is the building of strength. Then there is adding a power component since sport movement (nor life) is not done slowly and consistently, the addition of power (with a slightly lighter weight) improves performance. It coincidentally also has an edge over slow work in improving bone density and increasing metabolic activity (requiring more energy expenditure). For a 50-something or older athlete (yes, you and me if we’re active: start referring to yourself this way – it’s so much better than the alternative – “scale watcher”) maintaining lean muscle along with bone density is important. If you spend a lot of exercise time on a bike, in the pool, or using a rowing machine or elliptical… you’re in need of that bone-building or bone-loss sparing strength training.

Exercise alone does not build bone.

Certain exercise has little to no positive effect on your bones. 

You have to get specific and be on purpose about your bone density-focused exercise. I’d love to be all rainbows and unicorns for you here and say being active is enough. The recommendation to do weight bearing exercise (including walking, or jogging, or aerobic sessions that include jumping, hopping, or dance moves) will help if you have been on the couch. Beyond a few weeks however, they will stop helping. You’re body adapts and there is no more bone benefit. You have to add more overload. Short of gaining weight (not recommended) you can’t continue to gain benefit. You MUST lift weights. That is weight resistance exercise.

Unfortunately, I’ve observed too many physicians incorrectly tell patients that “it doesn’t take heavy weights to build bone.” Wrong. It does. You do start with light weights. You progressively increase to heavier weights over weeks and months. After 6 months, your bone will no longer respond positively unless you’re continuing to overload the bone. Very much like the example of walking, after you’ve gotten used to walking, more steps doesn’t not help overload. It has to be more load. You need to reach a point of fatigue by about 10 repetitions (or less). This provides the best result for bone. A weight that would cause you to fatigue at 10 now will not cause you to reach fatigue in three months if you’re training consistently. If you have more questions on bone-density, please add them below, and for now we’ll move on!

Exercise and Hormones: Bone Loss and Gender

Beginning in peri-menopause and extending until post menopause bone losses increase significantly (3-5% per year) for a woman due to estrogen loss. But make no mistake, you need your male friends to lift weights too. We all lose 1-3% bone a year beginning at 30. Men have less risk of osteoporosis since their bones are more dense to begin with, and they don’t have the acceleration we do during menopause. But the longer a man lives, the more osteoporosis becomes a reality for him too.

Exercise and Hormones: Training Plan Components

Back to training pieces: I’ve now got 6 must-do sport-specific training sessions (two each swim, bike, and run) and two strength training sessions to fit into each week. Yes, sometimes three  strength training sessions a week are recommended. My thoughts on that: Two if done with purpose and intensity are better. Rest and recovery are key. The priority during this time is preparing for the swim, bike, and run without losing muscle (which can break down quickly with increased training in older adults). As months pass and the event is closer weight training will remain a part of my training, a bigger part than for traditional triathlete training, but even for me will reduce in volume and become more lean muscle maintenance and injury prevention.

woman upward facing dog poseExercise and Hormones: Rest & Recovery

Then there MUST be a day off. The schedule during these early weeks of training may include less rest than later training does. While it’s necessary to include a certain level of planned “overreach” during training for an event, rest is crucial. Rest is critical for me as a 53 year old than it was when I first began training for Ironman 1 10 years ago. The single day off I’m padding with some very light days. Swimming for instance, is a good recovery activity, and with more swims and less running and biking, the impact and muscle breakdown can be reduced. I’m going to depend more on swimming, followed closely by biking, than on running as my way to increase endurance.

Running will have to happen of course. One doesn’t travel 26.2 miles after having done a long swim and long bike ride without some preparation. Yet, the less running the better in order to stay injury-free and reduce breakdown. A good substitute for running that can still provide time on my feet without adding wear-and-tear is hiking. I’ve got plenty of opportunity and the perfect season for that here in Boulder.

Yoga and pilates, or foam rolling work are appropriate any day. Yoga kept me injury-free during all prior training and though it takes a little discipline to do even those 8 minutes of my go-to poses or stretches, I’m always better for having done it. So you don’t see those appear here but they’re a part of the whole flipping picture.

Exercise and Hormones: The Weekly Schedule

Below you’ll see the training schedule for this first month. What you might notice right away is a lack of days off. They are there, just not in complete “rest” days. What we know about recovery and what I personally know after 34 years of testing, is active recovery is always best. Complete couch potato mode is not excellent recovery. My job, though it may seem to you to be active thanks to a lot of video demonstrations, is fairly sedentary, much like your perhaps. We all spend a lot of time in front of screens and I spend a lot of time with a pen and paper when I’m writing speeches, programs, articles or books. So if you look closely at Tuesday and Friday you’ll see those early workouts are both more recovery in nature. The Tuesday am workout is also optional, meaning if I need true rest I can leave it.

Recovery movement usually is low in impact, lower in intensity, and shorter in duration. So both the swim and short interval session on Tuesday and Friday increase circulation without breaking down.

Now, the reason for the late day strength training sessions is to challenge the next morning’s workout. Remember, I’m not going to be doing as much volume (instead of say a 8 mile run I’ll be doing 5 with some higher intensity intervals in the middle) so as I reduce volume, I add another way to create challenge.

[The top and bottom rows indicate morning and evening workouts.]

A long swim (60-90 minutes) is a lot less taxing on the body than a 90 minute run. So it’s with swims that I optimize the “long” endurance building  the most, followed by bike rides. Even those however I will reduce so that for instance, a 4:30 bike ride becomes a 3:00 ride with 2 hours of that time being interval work or what a biker knows as “climbs” in preparation for either hills (my ride will be flat) or for increasing power in the legs to make rides easier.

Exercise and Hormones: The Supplement Sag Wagon

sag wagon, in case your not familiar, is that vehicle that comes along to pick up athletes on a  course that aren’t making it or are in need of help. So my hormone help is this: progesterone, testosterone, estradiol, pregnenolone, and melatonin. I’m also taking Methyl Protect, DIM, Calcium-Glucarate, and Omega 3. I’m temporarily suspending my multivitamin to test effects on my liver levels which seemed a little off and a multi will re-enter when I’ve determined what’s going on there. I’ll add essential amino acids when volume increases. I prefer to get them through whole food sources of protein but the increased muscle breakdown with a higher volume of training (even my more-optimized schedule is higher in volume) makes supplementation a smart thing.

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