Running with PCOS

L9P Community Post: Anoush Rose

I can’t remember a time where I was unaware of my size.

I grew up in a family of very small women, and I distinctly remember going from a size double 0 at Limited Too to having bigger curves than any girl in my grade by age 13. I started sneaking food before I even reached my awkward teen years. I would stand in the pantry and shove cereal, popcorn, and whatever other snacks I could find in my mouth as quickly as possible before my mom could catch me because

  1. We weren’t really allowed to snack and
  2. I was always hungry.

I started my first endurance sport in middle school and always associated exercise with a means to maintain a desirable body weight and remain healthy. The first time I was even remotely aware of getting a period was when everyone else seemed to have theirs in middle school, and I was still waiting. It came one time in the 8th grade, two times in the 9th grade, and maybe once in 10th grade. Pretty sweet, huh? I didn’t hate it, because the periods were awful and debilitating. Let’s be real, what teenager is excited about it?

Physical activity has been a part of my life since before I could even remember. 

No Period, No Problem?

My weight continued to yo-yo through high school and college, as I was unable to find balance in my disordered eating. I was either insatiable or able to eat just vegetables and stave off the hunger long enough to get in a workout that would help push off the hunger for a few more hours. My periods continued to be inconsistent, and I could tell my mom was worried. My doctor wrote “amenorrhea” into my file in high school, and I saw an endocrinologist. I had blood tests, ultrasounds, and every other test they give to women who are showing signs of the athlete triad or amenorrhea.

But, they decided, ultimately, I did not work out “enough” or “hard enough” for what I had to be a real issue.

They opted for a progesterone pill to induce a period every six months, which I took consistently through my first few years of college. The only worry they seemed to have was the increased chance of uterine cancer without a period. I was pretty young, so that didn’t phase me.

When I didn’t get the lead in the musical, I decided to do cross county and track my senior year of high school.

When I began training for a half marathon my sophomore year of college, I lost my period altogether. I never lost a pound and comments like “I’m surprised you’re not stick thin for how much you run!” were rampant. I was ashamed. I spent hours in front of the mirror pinching my hips and stomach and crying that it wouldn’t fall off like all the other stick thin runners at my school. I wore sports bras and baggy clothes to hide my figure at all times. When I finally was able to keep the weight down, it was after I checked myself into Weight Watchers. I could tell the woman behind the counter was judging me for being a very healthy young woman. But “healthy” was never what I was going for. I wanted to be lean and thin. Weight Watchers asks that you eat a certain number of points every day and allows you to get points for exercising. I consistently undershot and the weight just started to fall off.

Turns out that losing that weight will get you a lot of unwanted attention. Girls asked me to dinner just to watch me eat and ask what my secret was. Was it just all the running? Or was I starving myself? They would never know because I made a point to eat excessively in front of them. Guys started asking me out and noticing me, and while I thought it would make me happy, it just made me feel worse. I had to stop running because my normal thirty minute loop became too tiring. I hit bottom relatively quickly when I stopped sleeping because of the hunger pains. I made an immediate change and gained the weight back so quickly, that only a few people even knew it had happened. I got back into running and liked the way my body felt when I was in control again and strong.

Something was still off…

From then on, my focus became getting stronger and fueling my body. Although I was able to drop the disordered eating, I still noticed that any time I stopped aggressively training for a race, my weight would immediately increase. It is normal for people to gain weight after races, but mine was a little more than normal and very quickly. It was disheartening to say the least. I wanted to eat normally and not have to think about each thing I ate and hate the way my body looked after just a couple of weeks. My period was still weird, and I just assumed it was from my bad habits coming to bite me in the butt. The doctor continued to write “amenorrhea” in my file and never told me it was something to worry about. I tried various forms of birth control to normalize it, but even birth control did not guarantee a period. Then, at 25, the doctor decided to order more tests. Finally, I showed abnormally high androgen levels and extremely low estrogen. These are things that are possibly associated with heavy exercise or a thyroid issue. But this time the tests revealed no linkage between the two. With that and the lack of periods, I was finally diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.

The healthiest I’ve ever been at the Boston Marathon in 2017. I had been running, fueling, and listening to my body as it responded to food.

What is PCOS?

Sounds rare, right? Interestingly enough, this endocrine disorder affects 7 million women worldwide and is very commonly misdiagnosed.

The symptom sheet that the doctor will hand you lists the following side effects; irregular/absent menstrual periods, infertility, dandruff, oily/acne skin, weight gain, thinning hair, dark patches on skin, pelvic pain, etc.

Talk about one of them really putting a damper on your life at 25, how about more than one? I completely shut down in the doctor’s office. I got angry. Why me? I am healthy, I work out six days a week, I am careful, I did everything right. This wasn’t a death sentence, but it is scary as heck to be told you may not be able to get pregnant immediately or at all. You may have weird acne on your chin until you’re 70 years old. You also may gain a crap ton of weight if you decide that excessive cardio isn’t for you. Feeling like I, yet again, had no control over my body was terrifying.

It was interesting to find out that the weight gain and absent periods were all hormonal. While my disordered way of dealing with it in college was not normal, the diagnosis gave me motivation to start treating my body better. PCOS can lead to an increased risk in diabetes and various cancers, all of which can be combatted (not cured) with better diet and cardiovascular exercise daily. It is a learning process each week, and really makes you become more in tune with your own body. There are a variety of blogs on the internet that I have turned to for insight, and as I have become more open about my own struggles, I have learned that there are more women out there than I realized who also have PCOS. So, while I never thought I would tell anyone about this, I am finding out that if I had been more open, I may have had a diagnosis a long time ago.

Running has always been the thing that has saved me.

When I was too weak to run, it helped me to snap out of a bad cycle. When I had to deal with the death of a close friend, it helped me to grieve. When I started work, it helped me to find structure. And now, with an actual diagnosis of PCOS, running will help me to manage my symptoms and focus more on my overall health. Symptoms vary from person to person, but understanding PCOS has helped me to want to take care of my body for the right reasons. I want to be able to run competitively, I want to be able to achieve fertility and have children, and I want to be healthy. Running will play a variety of roles moving forward, but ultimately, it may save me, quite literally, this time.

I am stronger, happier, healthier, and in control of my body when I treat it with respect.

Perhaps we should love ourselves so fiercely that when others see us, they know exactly how it should be done. -Rudy Francisco

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