Everyone's experience with amenorrhea will be different. As part of an ongoing series, we will be hearing from lots of different kinds of women from all over the world. Some will have recovered, some not. Some will be ready to have children, some have chosen a different path. We are all ages, races, shapes, and sizes...but none of us is ever alone.
Let me introduce myself. I’m a self-employed personal trainer and triathlon coach based in East London in the UK. I grew up in Hertfordshire and went to a very academic independent girls school from age 13. After finishing school I studied Fine Art in London, then when I joined the world of work, I got involved in online marketing and progressed through a small but fast-growing online marketing agency in central London. When I was made redundant, I felt like I needed a big change so I studied to become a personal trainer and became my own boss. I’m still working as a personal trainer now but my attitude to training and fitness has changed significantly since I started, partly due to becoming a more experienced trainer, but in large part due to realising I had Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and working on recovery.
As we know HA is caused by a combination of inadequate caloric intake and/or inadequate intake of carbohydrates, stress and exercise. It’s hard to say exactly when my hypothalamus started started to give up on GnRH production. In addition, I was on the combined oral contraceptive pill from about age 17 up to 31 with a few years gap in my early twenties, so there were a lot of factors at play. However, here’s what I think happened, with the benefit of hindsight: I found the transition from school and living at home to studying art, renting a flat and trying to find my identity in the capital city quite stressful and I started to get pretty severe gut symptoms after my second year of living away from home. I went through several years of different forms of an exclusion diet to try to get on top of the myriad of health symptoms that began to accompany what had initially been a digestive issue. Thankfully, this eventually calmed down and I was able to function normally on my vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free diet. I had been on some fairly extreme exclusion diets under the advice of various healthcare professionals for a long time and ate nothing without carefully scrutinising ingredients lists, calling restaurants a few days before any meals out to check if they could cater for me, and being generally very suspicious of any food I hadn’t prepared myself.
I had always been a regular exerciser, as a teenager I spent about 4-5 hours a week at dance classes and after my first year at art school, I spent a couple of years going to the gym regularly and started running. In my last year at uni I was too far from any gyms so just ran more regularly. A couple of years after leaving art school, around the time my gut and other health symptoms started to settle down, I took up cycling. For about the first year I built up gradually, starting with wobbly trips to the park or the shops, increasing to commuting to work a couple of times a week about 35 minutes each way, up to commuting to work 3-4 times per week. The running decreased initially to just weekends. Then my boyfriend (now husband) started taking me out for longer bike rides at the weekends with friends. We would take snacks or sports nutrition and frequently stop and rest during the rides. The amount I ate on rides was completely unscientific and mainly based on what I felt like eating.
Gradually my horizons of what I could achieve with my body shifted and I started meeting people taking on various different endurance challenges and being influenced by brands marketing participation in these kind of events. I entered myself into a women’s duathlon and started running a few time a week alongside my cycling. The following spring I decided I’d like to try my hand at triathlon (because it seemed like a ‘ridiculous’ thing to do!) and entered a small sprint race on a flat course with a river swim. While I was training for my triathlon, my Dad ran the London Marathon after my Mum put his name down for the ballot. We watched anxiously as he jogged, then shuffled, then sped past us, but after he finished it I was so impressed and inspired, I immediately signed up for the ballot for the following year. The first triathlon went well and after having bought myself a triathlon wetsuit and spent a number of weeks training in the pool, I decided I would do another one. Then I found out I had been selected for the London Marathon via the ballot - swimming and long bike rides went out of the window as I chose a marathon training plan that left little space for anything apart from running. I was still cycling to work increasingly frequently, as I’d realised it was the fastest way to get to work and what’s more it was free. At some point I also took up mountain biking, although this seemed to happen in parallel with my other activity so I can’t place when I started mountain biking regularly.
The marathon training was the most obvious change for me. In spite of my initial assumptions that 26.2 miles wasn’t that far because I could cycle close to 100 no problem, I was soon extremely daunted by the prospect of running that distance. It literally felt like a leap of faith, so I put all my belief in my training plan. The plan was tried and tested, designed by top coaches who know about this stuff, I told myself - stick to the plan and you’ll get there. I didn’t know what would happen if I deviated from it, so I stuck to it almost religiously. I stopped drinking alcohol almost entirely and I became really conscious about eating well. I turned down social invitations or turned up only for an hour or so and went home early, I had arguments with my boyfriend about the compromises that had to be made for my training, I started to feel tired a lot of the time. I ran my first 10-miler on Christmas Day and did a similar distance in cold, torrential rain on New Year’s Day. In the end, I didn’t run the marathon that year as I got a sudden sharp pain in my knee on a shorter-distance training run in my taper the week before the race and each time I tried to run over the next week the pain came back within about 10 minutes, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to run 26.2 miles at the weekend and I deferred my place to the following year. I wanted to have another chance straight away and entered an autumn marathon, but fortunately other life commitments took priority and I put off my next marathon attempt until the following year at London. In the meantime I took up spinning to get my cycling legs back after focussing mainly on running for almost 6 months, then did my first olympic distance triathlon and decided I was hooked on multisport. The next autumn I joined a triathlon club and the following few years led to completing my first (and only!) marathon, taking part in numerous half-marathons, triathlons, duathlons and aquathlons and eventually signing up to become a trainee triathlon coach. At the time I found this terribly exciting and almost miraculous - I kept surprising myself and exceeding my own expectations and it was intoxicating. Looking back, I could also describe this as feeling like I was searching for something, but every time I thought I was going to find it, I realised it was hidden yet further away.
Part 2 Coming Soon!
If you’d like to connect with Abby, feel free to reach out to her via her website or social media: