Email of the Week: Professional Cyclist Amanda Asks About Weight Gain while Endurance Training and Binge Tendencies

YOU LADIES ARE REALLY QUITE AMAZING. I AM SO HONORED TO RECEIVE THE BEAUTIFUL, HEARTFELT EMAILS THAT YOU SEND. WHILE EACH ONE OF US IS A UNIQUE WOMAN WITH HER OWN STORY, THERE ARE MANY, MANY THOUGHTS THAT WE ALL SEEM TO HAVE IN COMMON. WITH THIS IN MIND, I AM GOING TO SHARE SOME OF YOUR EMAILS AND MY REPLY HERE ON THE WEBSITE. (NAMES AND PERSONAL DETAILS HAVE BEEN CHANGED BECAUSE YOU'RE MY PEOPLE AND I LOVE YOU.)

Amanda is a professional cyclist. She has been suffering with amenorrhea for four years, but was not motivated to do anything about it until very recently because "it was considered normal" in her sport. Now experiencing overtraining symptoms and feeling desperate about the lack of period, she's ready to commit to healing. Amanda is ready to feel better, but still is curious about some of the things she experienced while overexercising and underfueling like weight gain and binge tendencies.

Her email:

I am curious about your thoughts, though, in the last year (when I started high volume training again, actually) I started to put on weight. My eating hadn't changed - if anything I was under fueling given the volume of my training which would result in some binge behaviors (all with the same "clean"...I hate that word...foods I ate anyway, just huge quantities, which led me to believe my body was screaming for food).

My response:

It makes complete sense that you noticed weight gain when you started a cycle of high volume training. The same thing happened to me in my last year of ultra training. It is very typical for athletes to notice weight gain in these situations and the culprit is none other than cortisol. Here's what happens: the body is stressed from too much exercise and underfueling, it produces lots of the stress hormone cortisol, cortisol encourages the body to hang on to fat, we get "endurance athlete muffin top", we increase exercise and tighten up the diet to combat this, things get worse, burnout ensues. Sound about right? I bet you were also having trouble sleeping at night, maybe feeling sluggish during the day, pushing yourself through workouts, feeling like your legs were dead, maybe having mood swings... The fact is that ALL of the stress we encounter in life, whether it be from sports, bad nutrition, work, relationships, finances, or anything else, all adds up in the same way in the body. Our brains can't really tell the difference between a ten mile run, being chased by a lion, traffic, or fighting with a spouse. It all just pushes the cortisol higher and higher. When you notice the weight gain, it means that the body is begging you to stop. It thinks that its very survival is going to be compromised. The fat retention is its last-ditch effort to stay alive.

 

Let me also say that low carbohydrate diets are absolutely at fault for much of the cortisol increases and subsequent amenorrhea in female athletes. If there is one message that I wish people could hear it is that low carbohydrate diets are usually INAPPROPRIATE for female athletes. Low carb, high fat diets may improve performance momentarily, but they actually encourage the body to hold on to more fat (intramuscular fat...you can read about this in ROAR also). Low carbohydrate diets for females actually stress the hypothalamus to the point where the cortisol produced steals from the production of the female sex hormones necessary to get a period. In short, low carb is probably ok for men (even that is debatable), but NOT FOR WOMEN. 

 

Binge behavior is VERY COMMON. It does not mean that you have become a binge eater or that you have developed an eating disorder of another kind. It means that you have become unable to ignore the signals that your body is sending out. I believe that this can be viewed as a good thing. If you did not heed the messages, you probably wouldn't be writing to me. Instead, the fact that you listened means that you are aware of how serious this issue is. I am sure that you have noticed the need to binge subsiding as you have improved your diet. Suddenly, the panic is gone, right? This is a great step.

 

Have you experienced weight gain despite overexercise and underfueling? Have you felt a tendency to overeat/binge on occasion as your hunger seems to take over? Sharing your story can help others! No one is alone.