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Birth Control and Hormones in Cycling

sur April 21, 2021

Navigating hormones and birth control through training

By Josie Fouts

Not only is the bicycle a great exercise machine for the body, but it also trains the mind. Riding requires my full, undivided attention, and understanding how all bicycle components work together to maintain forward motion is the ultimate life lesson. With only 18 months of training on a bike under my belt, I’ve already learned more about myself - strengths and weaknesses - than I had in the previous 18 years of formal education.

My name is Josie Fouts, and I am a scientist by trade. I am also deep in the process of discovering the human body’s capabilities as I train as an elite para cyclist. With my eyes set on the Tokyo 2021 Paralympics, I've been exploring every detail of my physical abilities and questioning how to get the best performance from my body, including questions about the effects of birth control on athletic performance.

Thanks to my scientific background, I can comprehend complex research and turn it into a competitive edge on the bike and in training. I can study detailed physiological studies to understand myself and my performance better. However, some things are not well understood or hard to comprehend. Jargon is confusing, health providers often have conflicting interests, and health’s true message can get lost in translation.

 

For example, the many science-based guidelines intended for the general public are only relevant for males, the test subjects. Occasionally there’s funding for similar research in women on birth control, which is confounding in itself, and rarely in women with high hormones. However, the way I see it, understanding the menstrual cycle is just one piece of the puzzle - one cog in the cassette - and ignoring its importance when looking at a person as a whole is like riding an 11-speed bike but only shifting the front derailleur.

Understanding how the systems of the human body work together was the finish line for my education experience. At the same time, it was the starting point of my Paralympic journey. Translating my knowledge into action has been like bridging a gap on the bike without knowing how far the lead group is ahead.

I realized I had to eliminate synthetic hormones from birth control for me to be my physical best. But how long was it going to take for my natural hormonal cycle to find balance? Research is barely reliable for women as a whole population, let alone for a single, Asian-American adoptee, living physically imbalanced as a congenital amputee who wants to change birth controls. This was the first instance the bicycle taught me mental balance, and the way I see it, training as an elite para cyclist is transforming me from researcher to test subject.  

Today, I continue to strive for the Tokyo Paralympics, and the bicycle continues to teach me life lessons I would have never learned in school. As riding a bicycle philosophically proves, life is about balance: intense days are balanced with rest days, high-hormone days are balanced with low-hormone days, and the mind is balanced with the body. Some days my head is daydreaming of medals while my body is asking for extra time off the bike because I’m relatively new to endurance training. Sometimes they’re aligned.

The way I see it, I can override my body’s signals with my mind’s idealized picture of myself - essentially pumping the brakes while pedaling at the same time - or I can roll with the ebb and flow. I choose the latter, and I use my head to train smarter, not harder, balancing life both on and off the bike.

 

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