Female athletes can use an individual cost and benefit analysis to determine if the use of hormonal birth control is affecting performance negatively or positively.
What is Hormonal Birth Control
Hormonal birth control is the use of synthetic hormones to regulate and manipulate the menstrual cycle. The synthetic estrogen and progesterone in hormonal birth control affect the body differently than natural estrogen and progesterone. These synthetic hormones can lead to a number of both positive and negative side effects, which have the potential to impact the training and performance of female athletes.
Does Hormonal Birth Control Affect Performance?
While we know that the use of synthetic hormones raises hormone levels and causes side effects, how exactly this relates to training is not as straightforward. There is not much research on the relationship between hormonal birth control and training. This makes it difficult for female athletes to make an informed decision based on empirical data. Further, everyone reacts to hormonal birth control differently so it’s difficult to make generalizations around the matter.
With that said, you can still approach the use of hormonal birth control with performance and training in mind. By weighing the impact and using an individual cost and benefit analysis you can make a decision based on your own experience. Depending on your personal positives and negatives, hormonal birth control might hurt or help your performance.
Weighing the Impact
Keep in mind that hormonal birth control has many different feedback loops and mechanisms. This makes it difficult to make generalizations about hormonal birth control. Ultimately, every person’s physical response to hormonal birth control is highly individual. In addition to this, different doses, brands, and methods can have their own individual impact on just one athlete.
Using hormonal birth control can cause a number of different side effects. The side effects an athlete experiences will vary depending on the brand, the method, and their physiology. Some women might experience many side effects, while others might experience very little. If your experience is different from any of these “common” side effects, no worries! Every athlete is different. The key is figuring out your personal experience.
Some common side effects that can negatively affect performance include changes in body composition and mental health. The effects of hormonal birth control on your physiology and thus your body composition are extremely individual. Some women experience weight gain while others do not. The use of hormonal birth control can also lead to increased levels of anxiety and depression. As far as training goes this can impact an athlete’s outlook on training and racing. Some of the side effects athletes experience develop over time with prolonged use.
With that said, there are also a lot of benefits that come with using hormonal birth control. Some women who experience debilitating premenstrual symptoms experience alleviation from these symptoms when using a hormonal birth control. This can be particularly helpful if your premenstrual symptoms, like cramps, have ever kept you from being able to train or race.
For some women, birth control can also help make periods lighter and more regular. A predictable and consistent cycle can make balancing the menstrual cycle with performance more manageable.
Annotations and Training Journals
A training journal is a great way to track changes and make connections between side effects and performance. If you’re interested in tracking your birth control in relation to your training, a training journal, or some quick annotations after a workout are both great strategies. Just like you might log what you ate that day, and how much you slept, jot down any information you think is relevant.
If you change the brand, method, or type, be sure to note the date you changed and track any new changes that you notice. As you collect more data, it will be easier to compare and contrast the effects your birth control has.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you’re feeling lost trying to decipher different side effects and figure out what works well for you, having a frank and open conversation with your doctor or ob/gyn can be really helpful too. Communicate your experience and your concerns clearly and openly with your doctor. This gives you can opportunity to asses the medical impacts as well as the training and performance impacts with a professional.
Hormonal Birth Control is an Individual Choice
Above all, the decision to use hormonal birth control is an individual one. In addition to this, there are numerous health, medical, and personal reasons that might make it a necessity rather than an option.
With that in mind, it may not be realistic to make this choice based on training and performance. And that’s okay! Hormonal birth control is unlikely to have a major impact on your athletic career. There are plenty of other things you can do to get faster and make a lasting impact on your performance.
For more cycling training knowledge, listen to the Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.