How the birth control pill affects sports performance

METERmaybe you’re a marathon runner who has been trying to increase your VO2 max without success. Or maybe you’re a weightlifter struggling to build muscle. Possibly, you are a CrossFit enthusiast who has been stuck with the same total score despite trying your best to see gains. Regardless, if you’re pushing yourself really hard in training and still not seeing results, there could be a surprising culprit undermining your efforts: your hormonal birth control pill.

That’s right, the estimated 14 percent of pill users between the ages of 15 and 49 have reason to wonder if their oral contraceptive is blocking their fitness goals because, while research is limited, recent data suggests which could affect muscle growth and hamper cardiovascular fitness (more on that below).

Here, three experts on hormones and women’s health explain exactly how the hormonal birth control pill can potentially affect athletic performance.

3 Ways Birth Control Pills Affect Sports Performance

1. It can mask the symptoms of overtraining

For athletes and people who exercise a lot, changes in their menstrual cycle and loss of their menstrual cycle (known medically as amenorrhea) suggest that a person may be overtraining or not eating properly, explains exercise physiologist Stacy Sims, CSCS, Ph.D.

“Having a natural cycle helps you keep track of how well your body is adapting to your training regimen,” she says. “If you are adapting properly, you will not have any interruption of the menstrual cycle [as a result of exercise].”

2. May Affect Muscle Growth

Taking birth control pills can stop your pump, according to research. A 2021 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that the use of oral contraceptives can minimize muscle gains. For the study, researchers examined the effect of birth control pills on resistance training outcomes in 72 women, ages 18 to 29, half of whom were on the pill and half were not. The researchers evaluated the subjects’ body composition (ratio of body fat to lean muscle mass) and hormone levels before and after subjecting the subjects to 10 weeks of resistance training.

They found that those taking birth control pills had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and significantly lower concentrations of the hormones DHEA, DHEAS, and IGF-1 (all of which play a role in muscle growth) than those taking birth control pills. They didn’t take the pill. Specifically, those who were taking birth control pills containing a synthetic version of progesterone (called progestin) gained just over half a pound of lean muscle mass during the 10-week study, compared to 3.5 pounds of muscle gained by those who didn’t take the pill.

However, and this is important, there was no difference in strength gains with that increased muscle mass versus the smaller muscle mass gain, Dr. Sims notes. Still, the extra muscle loss can be detrimental to my Olympic lifters and others trying to get strong in a weight class, she says.

3. May Reduce or Impair Cardiovascular Fitness

Not only strength athletes can be affected by oral contraceptives: endurance athletes can also experience adverse side effects. “Research suggests that oral contraceptives may be associated with lower VO2 max, which is a measure of how much oxygen you can use during training,” says Laura DeCesaris, DC, functional medicine consultant and weightlifter.

In general, the more intense your workout, the more oxygen your body needs to stay active. So if your V02 max. is lower, you won’t be able to push yourself as hard or last as long in your workouts, he explains.

Why Hormonal Birth Control Pills Aren’t Always Bad For Athletes

“There is still some uncertainty on this topic,” says Dr. DeCesaris. Most of the studies looking at the pill’s impact on performance have been fairly small, he notes. Also, many studies are examining multiple types of oral contraceptives, rather than focusing on pills with similar hormonal profiles, she says.

“Also, each person responds differently to oral contraceptives based on their unique physiology,” says Dr. DeCesaris. “Some people may not notice any detrimental impact on their performance, while others may experience unintended negative impacts.”

Bottom line: “It’s hard to make blanket statements about how much the pill interferes with athletic performance,” he says.

I am an athlete. Which contraceptive option is right for me?

Ultimately, you and your health care provider may decide that hormonal birth control makes sense for you. After all, its impact on athletics is just one factor to consider when choosing a contraceptive, says Dr. Sims.

Still, it’s important to understand that the birth control pill isn’t your only option. “There are so many ways to prevent pregnancy if that’s the only reason you’re on the pill,” says Alisa Vitti, founder of FLO Living and author of Woman code Y in the OLF.

One option would be to get a copper or progestin-only IUD, says Dr. Sims. “In general, I recommend the progestin-only IUD because systemic effects are minimal and more people resume natural ovulation six to eight months after initial insertion, allowing them to track their menstrual cycles through temperature. basal body,” she says.

Another option would be to combine ovulation tracking with a barrier method (internal or external condoms) or another pregnancy prevention protocol (Phexxi, diaphragm, cervical cap, for example) during ovulation, since that is the only time in your life. cycle in which you can get pregnant. Vitti says.

The most important thing, says Dr. Sims, is to talk to your provider about all of your goals. Instead of just sharing that you want to avoid an unwanted pregnancy, he should also share your strength and/or endurance goals so you can choose something that will help you achieve all of his goals and gains.

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