Legal Doping For Women?
This entry is mainly for the girls out there and is about something that's nagged me for a while now. My ob/gyn has not been very helpful in clarifying matters either. Is taking the pill a good or bad thing for female athletes?
When I was in college I started taking it and ended up gaining nearly 15 pounds and decimating my Junior year cross country season. Even in DIII competition, a 25 minute 5k time doesn't garner you too many laurels. Senior year I ditched the hormones and finished my collegiate career a good four minutes faster than that. But then how to explain that now, after being back on it again for four years, I'm running 3.1 miles nearly two minutes faster than that?
And then, (this is really a two parter here) what about just the normal, unmanipulated hormonal fluxuations? Is there an ideal time to run a marathon based on where you are in your cycle?
A quick Google proves that I'm not the first person to ask these questions.
One thing I already knew was that today's pills have a much lower dose of hormones in them than they used to. I've always thought they were comparing current levels to what they were back in the 1960's. But then, when you consider than my Junior year in college was fourteen years ago....things have probably changed a lot since then too. So that would certainly explain why I tolerate the medication so much better now.
As far as my first question about whether the pill is good or bad for race performance, the answer is "a little of both." It does help athletes avoid amenorrhea, which is a good preventative for the risks of osteoporosis and according to a study done at McGill, the pill even helps to make female athletes less prone to knee injuries. Apparently hormonal fluxuations somehow make the joint less stable and regulating the hormones helps with that. Who knew?
At the same time, the pill also seems to have some negative affects on both VO2Max and body fat content. My doctor tells me this is nothing to worry about, but the British Journal of Sports Medicine published the results of a Canadian trial that involved 14 female athletes with average VO2Max values of over 50 ml/kg/min. This study found a mean reduction in aerobic capacity of 4.7% following two months of OCP usage. That probably is nothing to worry about for the average girl, but hey, are we average girls here?? I don't think so.
The biggest plus is something my coach, Shelly-lynn Florence Glover, told me about after this last marathon where I just missed breaking three hours by a couple of minutes. The first thing she asked me was where I'd been in my cycle and at first, I didn't even know what she was talking about. I've never really worried about the hormones in my body affecting my athletic performance because I've always thought that was just something I didn't have control over.
Shelly writes about this in her Runner's Handbook for Women:
Obviously this isn't something you want to do every race. But, when comes to a big event like a marathon - the race date might fall in a good portion of your cycle, or it might not. Consider The Pill to get the most out of your hard training instead of losing it to ebbing and flowing hormones. Many women do this with great results. Maybe it's a method for you. Check with you doctor about the possibility."
Obviously my sports oblivious GYN is going to be a lot of help on this one.
Shelly quotes Dr. Constance M. Lebrun of the Fowler-Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic in Ontario Canada to explain a little more about how to use the pill in this way:
"Extend the duration of the active pill or the highest dose of the triphasic preparation to stave off menstruation successfully for a least seven to 10 days. This method is best to alter the timing of menstrual related problems including dysmenorrhea, menorrhagia and PMS symptoms.
For the performance oriented, a better option may be shorten the cycle progressively over a few months by decreasing the number of pills so the competition occurs after menstruation finishes. This puts the race in the free-pill interval diminishing potential hormonal side-effects."
It's an obvious but important thing to mention that athletes should remember to use an alternative form of birth control while they're doing this and should practice these manipulations for a couple of months first, just to make sure everything goes the way it's supposed to.
Shelly summarizes her comments on this subject by writing:
"Many more women have negative experiences than positive from these synthetic steroids. Although today's oral contraceptives are low-dose compared to their predecessors, runners can still put on weight or find themselves breathless. Researchers observed a seven percent decrease in maximal oxygen consumption for women on birth control pills. This is not helpful for competitive women. However, subsequent treadmill tests of endurance and maximum aerobic capacity did not show an impact on performance. Go figure."
So. Does this mean we should stay on the juice or not? All the articles on the subject end with a non-committal line about how it's a very personal and individual decision, which doesn't really answer the question at all. I guess it comes down to a matter of priorities. If my running continues in the direction that it's been going and I break out with another big marathon or half marathon PR, don't I owe it to myself to do everything in my power to see how fast I can get? The guy in my life who might be affected by this decision would be the first person to understand why it is important to me, so at least that's not a worry. I guess for now, I'll stick with the status quo. But for the record... a 1:22 half or a 2:55 marathon would probably make the decision an easy one.