I wanted to write this article because missing periods are a lot more prominent in the CrossFit and HIIT workout space than women are letting on.
More women than ever are tired, under-performing, under-functioning, have low libido and are feeling down, anxious, sad and overwhelmed with the pressure that society has put on them. The pressure to be athletic, look the part, successful in their careers and to be amazing family members whether they’re a mother, sister, partner or daughter. Oh, and don’t forget to travel a lot and have an enviable social life.
When you have all of this pressure on yourself, its’ a real recipe for hypothalamic amenorrhea – the absence of a period due to stress, over exercising and underfueling.
One reason this has become so prominent in general is because talking about periods is taboo. If you avoid and ignore that it’s not there, well, then maybe it’s not there!
I believe the reasons why it’s become so prominent in the CrossFit space, however, if because:
1. A missing period is confirmation that you’re training ‘hard enough’.
2. It means that you’re showing up every day, pushing yourself to the edge to adapt and make the gains you need to make that PR or win that workout.
3. It means you’re lean enough, strong enough, tough enough and is a great, unbiased indicator that you’re on the path to elite athlete status.
And look, no one has done anything wrong. The issue is just that many of us don’t realize how important our period really is. This makes it easy to ignore that we’re not cycling and we see it more like an optional extra that we only need when we’re trying to get pregnant.
I wrote this article for Working Against Gravity where I explain more about why periods are important.
I have seen an increase in CrossFitters talking about their cycles in general: training with the phases of their cycles for example, or stating that it’s important to look after yourself in this way, but not enough women are speaking out about the fact that they’ve missed periods or don’t have a cycle at all. The uptick in awareness has been encouraging to see, however, more needs to be done. It needs to be common knowledge.
Let’s dive into why Hypothalamic Amenorrhea – missing periods – is so common in the CrossFit space.
HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) Done at High Intensity Intervals
I did CrossFit for a long time and I’ve been to a lot of gyms, so I’m clued in here. It’s common to see HIIT about 5 days a week at a CrossFit gym and this is a recipe for a missing period because of the stress that HIIT can place on your body.
Often 3-4 days a week of HIIT training is programmed and because CrossFit has an addictive side to it, people love it and they want to keep going. People identify as being a CrossFitter and they think that the more they come, the better they’ll get, quicker.
This means that a female could go from a 3 day a week workout, to 4, 5 and 6 days a week.
CrossFit gyms do program in strength days, but those are often less than the HIIT days and can sometimes be followed up with more HIIT or MISS (moderate intensity steady state, like a short run or row).
I would be interested to see what happens when female CrossFitters who are struggling with irregular periods, short periods or hypothalamic amenorrhea (missing periods) back off HIIT entirely and attend the strength days only. I think many would see a return in periods and those who do have periods might see a positive change in the length of their cycles.
I’ve seen time and time again female CrossFitters who are trying to get their periods back stop CrossFit altogether and see their period return within a few months.
I’m not saying you can never return to CrossFit or you should never do it, it’s great fun and if you’re meant to do CrossFit forever, it will always be there for you. However right now, with a missing period, we need to revisit our frequency, programing, stress and fueling. We’ll get to that.
Under fueling Your CrossFit Workouts
With the craze of CrossFit also came the desire for many women to ‘look the part’. “I want to be able to work out in just a crop” is a frequently seen goal for many women – because apparently there is a prerequisite for being ‘allowed’ to wear things in the gym.
Looking the part means being lean and muscular. This desire is really damaging because the message that many of us have received from society in general is that if you want to be deemed worthy, you should look a certain way. This is especially true for the CrossFit community where looking like an elite athlete is the goal.
But the thing is, most of us are not elite. We didn’t start training at the age of 6 for our sport and we didn’t slowly build up the strength, endurance and tolerance for what CrossFit is throwing at us. Those who excel at CrossFit are unicorns AND we also can’t be sure about what’s happening under the hood of their menstrual cycle.
Because we’re approaching by trying to make up for 10+ years of non-athleticism AND watching what we’re eating so as to get as lean as possible at the same time, we’re definitely under-eating.
We’ve also been told that there are health benefits related to staying in a slight caloric deficit and fasting – it’s the primal way. So we fight our natural hunger cues even more thinking that we’re doing ourselves a favor.
“Cavemen didn’t ALWAYS have access to food. We were designed to fast.”
Yeah, and we were also designed to evolve, improve our ways of sourcing food like figuring out propagation, agriculture and improving our tools for hunting so that starvation wasn’t as big an issue, but sure.
One primal thing that we’re designed to do that makes a lot of sense today is to shut down our reproductive system when it’s not safe to have babies – like when you’re over exerting energy and underfueling.
Prioritizing One Macronutrient Over Another
When you’re in a caloric deficit and doing CrossFit, taking a lower fat approach is common. This makes sense because carbs are important for performance and protein is important to build muscle, which is a common goal while trying to cut body fat.
In order to get into that desired caloric deficit to be able to workout hard and look lean, fat often takes the hit. Unfortunately, that means your body is missing out on a lot of the nutrients it needs for healthy hormone production.
Many people go the other way, too, opting to increase fat and reduce carbs. This is equally as problematic because your body needs carbs too. Try not to be so keen to cut one macro over the other!
Active Recovery Isn’t As Restorative Rest
Often, ‘active recovery’ is displayed as a mile – maybe even longer – row, run, swim or bike ride. The repetitive nature of CrossFit (lots of squats, deads, pull ups, push ups, presses etc) makes it easy to sell a row, bike or swim session as recovery because it’s ‘low impact’.
The thing is, these mile recovery exercises paired with 3-6 days of HIIT and strength training training is a lot more strenuous than it seems.
There is a lot of flack given to rest days on the couch or just doing a stretch session, but the reality is when you’re filling your days with only active activity and active recovery, when do you actually get to actually rest? When you sleep, sure, I guess so, but sleep can only keep your body up-to-date on restoration so much before it has to start dipping into the bank (aka downregulating your temperature, putting a pause on digestion and, obviously, shutting down your reproductive system).
Pressure of CrossFit Competition
Stress is stress is stress, and competition is definitely a stressor. I mean, when that clock starts counting down and that music starts blaring and everyones PUMPED UP and ready fight for a good finish on the gym leaderboard, adrenaline rushes and cortisol spikes.
Think about when you try to work out by yourself in your garage after being used to working out in a class setting. It’s WAY different – why is that? Because you’re allowing your stress response to kick in and help you work hard. Many of us are sensitive to stress, and the stress of trying to be the best every day of the week is something to consider if you’re wondering where your period has gone.
I would love to see more women stand up and say “yep, this has happened to me too” and spread awareness that life’s not all about PR’s and crop tops, it’s also about giving your body the rest and recovery it needs.
And again, I hope you don’t think I’m knocking CrossFit, I love it and all it’s done for the community in terms of getting people active. Let’s just keep an eye on this important issue and raise the awareness!