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A Running Road Map for Powering Through Menopause

As the body goes through so many changes, real women offer advice to keep training despite the symptoms.

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Hot flashes, insomnia, mood swings. It’s enough for women experiencing symptoms of perimenopause to just make it through the day. But masters-aged women around the world are showing us how menopause and exercise can work together and why we should keep running right through our 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Perimenopause is when we experience the bulk of symptoms, when our ovaries begin function decline. The list of those symptoms is different for everybody and can last a few months or a few years.

Running may seem like the last thing we want to do when we can’t even sleep through the night, but we can keep up the intensity and mileage—as well as the desire to perform. Maybe because we’re already used to sweating, but runners tend to feel less affected by hot flashes and most of us sleep better after logging our miles. We’re attuned to how our bodies generally feel from day to day.

“You know how a five-mile run feels, so if you feel off, you’re more likely to go get a checkup with a doctor,” says Abby Bales, a doctor of physical therapy and a certified strength and conditioning coach.

The mental health benefits are also huge. Gaining weight and losing a sense of control over our bodies can wreak havoc on self esteem, but many women find some normalcy if they continue training.

“If you can keep that kind of activity in your life as you age, it helps you mentally manage all the other physical things that are happening,” Bales says.

But managing the side effects of perimenopause and menopause can be troublesome. Women who have gone through it share some tips and tricks to keep pushing through.

Heavy and Frequent Periods

Many women go through months or years of intense periods during perimenopause, highlighted by heavy bleeding and menstruation that comes without warning. Priscilla Callahan Crawford, 47, found it difficult as an ultrarunner.

Aside from starting a hormone-based solution to manage her menses, Crawford wore a super-plus tampon and an overnight pad for coverage during runs that lasted more than an hour. She carried a pack with extra supplies and planned courses with bathrooms along the way.

Incontinence can also plague women in the menopausal years. Susan Spencer, 61, has been running since 1982, taking one year off in 1996, the year her son was born. Wearing leak-absorbent underwear while running helps. “Women of a certain age… have to pee more,” Spencer says. “Things are a little fussier down there.”

Hot Flashes and Insomnia

Kathleen Ruffle, 49, competed in road races and triathlons throughout her 30s, before taking time off to give birth to two daughters. In her late 40s, she found time and energy to return to structured training, at the time she started going through perimenopause. The hot flashes came first, followed by sleep disturbances.

“Sometimes I have to back off, and if I’m running with a few people and they have to wait for me, that’s hard,” Ruffle says. “But that’s something I’ve been trying to work on: This is where I am today.”

Masters women experience a reduction in the hormones that support deep sleep and produce less melatonin, which helps lower core temperatures at night. Experts suggest drinking tart cherry juice to increase production of melatonin, as well as keeping the bedroom cool and wearing loose clothing.

Decreased Strength

All post-menopausal women are at risk for osteoporosis. Luckily, running is a weight-bearing exercise that can support bone density. But we aren’t immune from losing muscle mass and experiencing decline in bone health as we age.

Bales recommends lifting heavy weights three times per week, full-body strength work with lighter weights, and balance exercises. And don’t just run easy: Include speed to challenge your heart rate.

Crawford, Ruffle, and Spencer are all experiencing the challenges of menopause, but they haven’t let any symptoms stop them from training hard toward ambitious goals. Crawford has her sights set on a 50-miler this summer. Ruffle is targeting a 1:35 half marathon. And Spencer wants to improve her age grading.

“I’m trying to be badass for as long as I can,” Spencer says. “I have nothing to prove. It’s just really for myself.”