Every athlete is familiar with the highs and lows of training, but few of us give much thought to the hormonal fluctuations that can create these feelings. For cyclocross racer Austin Killips, understanding hormonal imbalances and establishing good habits have been crucial to making training sustainable. In the process, Austin has achieved big improvements in fitness and FTP, and has learned to become a healthier athlete overall. 

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Austin Killips is a full-time bicycle mechanic at a busy shop in Chicago. Like most racers, her interest in cycling started inauspiciously, with fixed-gear commutes gradually leading to longer and longer rides. Her bike-industry job immersed her in Chicago’s vibrant cyclocross racing culture, and inevitably one thing led to another. Austin bought a cyclocross bike and decided to compete; she rode her first races in early 2019 and was hooked.

Watching her body change over her first year of cycling also helped empower Austin to take another important step. Shown first hand how much agency she had over her own body, Austin decided to begin the physical process of gender transition.

Hormonal Balance and Training

Training and racing naturally disrupt and change the levels of hormones in an athletes body, and overdoing it can push things to an uncomfortable place. In fact, hormonal disruption can be a serious consequence of overtraining, since hormones powerfully influence mood, athletic performance, and general well-being. As a transgender woman on hormone replacement therapy (HRT), Austin has come to understand this process exceptionally well, and her experiences can offer valuable insights to every athlete.

Highs and Lows

Through HRT, Austin directly influences her hormones to maintain healthy levels within the UCI’s permitted range for transgender female athletes. But hormones and their effects are highly personal for everyone, and can be affected by a variety of factors. Training, stress, medication, chronic conditions, and natural cycles such as menstruation and puberty can all cause hormonal balance to vary. Likewise, the symptoms of hormonal imbalance are highly variable, and dependent on which hormones are disrupted. 

For Austin, hormonal imbalance mimics (and accompanies) the effects of overtraining and fatigue.

“It’s a slow creep of something feeling off,” she says, “over the course of maybe a couple weeks before it hits really hard.” Then, it’s a period of exhaustion, a foggy headspace, and emotional distress. During this time, “you don’t want to get on your bike,” Austin explains, which can itself be an upsetting realization after months of hard work. 

Austin Killips races cyclocross in Chicago.
Austin Killips races cyclocross in Chicago. Photo credit: @alli_bikes

Rest and Self-Care

Depending on the cause, the solution to hormonal disruptions can sometimes be simple. In Austin’s case, it usually means rest and self-care. While cyclists tend to romanticize fatigue and glorify hard work, in cases of overtraining and hormonal imbalance the answer truly is taking it easy. For Austin, this requires mentally reminding herself that time off the bike doesn’t make her less of an athlete- in fact, it facilitates bigger progress later on. 

It also requires an honest appraisal of the cumulative stress your body is experiencing. Work and life struggles don’t make you a faster cyclist, but they do burden you with fatigue that can compound the disruptive and exhausting effects of hard training. No athlete is a robot, nor can we compartmentalize our time spent riding from our time spent dealing with real life. 

 It’s about learning the difference between “I don’t want to do this” and “I cannot do this, this is not good for me.”

For Austin, recovery begins with assessing the levels of her HRT when things get out of balance. But as with training after any physical setback or illness, it also means giving herself time. After about two weeks off any hard riding, Austin slowly builds back to a normal training load, adding intensity as her legs and body permit and paying close attention to how she feels. Training is never easy, but the struggle of a hard workout shouldn’t feel unhealthy, and when it does it’s a good sign to dial things back.

 “It’s about learning the difference between I don’t want to do this and I cannot do this, this is not good for me,” says Austin.

Recovering from hormonal imbalance/ overtraining takeaways

  1. Rest. It doesn’t make you less of an athlete – in fact, it will make you stronger later on.
  2. Self-assess. Consider any medications or external factors which may be contributing and work with your doctor to determine if they need adjustment.
  3. Start slow. Build back into training incrementally and let your body readjust gradually.

Becoming a Better Athlete With TrainerRoad

Beyond hormones, Austin has also seen big improvements in fitness by establishing healthy training habits. Her work schedule is demanding and doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy for big volume during the summer months. She uses TrainerRoad to work around these limitations, choosing low and mid-volume plans and adding extra endurance rides when possible. 

Austin is also a big fan of Sweet Spot training, for both physical and mental reasons.

“You don’t think you can do it, but you manage it somehow,” she explains, amazed that by the end of the next recovery interval her legs always feel ready for the next hard effort. In this way, sweet spot workouts bring Austin improved fitness, but also empower her to keep going on race day when her burning legs want to quit.

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Using Process Goals to Improve

Process goals have also made a big difference in Austin’s training, inspired partly through lessons learned listening to the TrainerRoad podcast. Small changes in lifestyle and recovery can yield big rewards, but they are easy to overlook during the busy rhythm of race season. With 2020 event cancellations putting her cyclocross plans on hold, Austin committed to a holistic approach to training this year. 

“I’m a firm believer in process and routine. I think developing schedules and habits that have structure from week to week are essential.” Austin says. “A jam-packed week feels manageable when it’s broken down into small, achievable goals.” 

For 2020, these goals included nutrition, with an emphasis on fueling workouts as well as meal-prep for eating better off the bike. They also included rest and recovery, with a commitment to get 8 hours of quality sleep each night and a sleep-tracking watch to maintain accountability. Finally, they included-self care: stretching and mobility work, as well as keeping training fun and enjoyable to stay motivated. 

In the end, a year without racing became a year of improvement. Austin’s smart approach to training and understanding her body made her a healthier, more motivated athlete. That’s a goal we should all aspire to, for race day and beyond.

Tell us your story. Success isn’t always a race win. It can be life-changing health improvements, reaching a personal goal, or more.