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How Stress in Athletes Can Efffect Preformance

Life Stress in Athletes Matters: My Story of Running Through Grief

about me Jan 12, 2024

I’ve been a runner for 30 years and a coach for 10. For years I’ve preached how stress can affect athletic performance, how we are human not robots and we need to keep that in mind with our training. I’m now living proof and a cautionary tale of the compounding stress I’ve talked about as a coach for years! 

This is my story of running through one of the most difficult periods of my life. On one hand, as this following quote expresses, running was exactly what I needed….

“Running is alone time that lets my brain unspool the tangles that build up over days” - Rob Haneisen

..until it wasn’t!

Our Dear Charlotte 

During my pregnancy with our third child, our baby girl Charlotte, we found out she had trisomy 13 (and an extra copy of the 13th chromosome) that ultimately resulted in some additional complications (a hole in her heart and a missing gallbladder/spleen).  We fought for fair care, we didn’t accept their initial “incompatible with life” diagnosis. She was born full term at 39 weeks and thrived for 6 days until succumbing to an awful infection. (To Read More of Charlotte’s story and the Compatible with Life 5k that carries on her legacy.)

I ran well into my third trimester and continued to strength train strategically for my pregnant body and my return to running 3 days a week until the very end. Physically I felt great! Postpartum I was again very strategic with my strength training to return to running. I conservatively built back to running starting at about 10 weeks postpartum with short run: walk intervals and was beginning to train for a half marathon at about 5 months postpartum. I craved that outlet for my grief. 

 Again, physically I felt great.

 … until I didn’t.

I started to notice I couldn’t breathe. Trying to breathe through my nose, especially at night, especially made me feel panicky and anxious. This was a first sign that my stress response was kicked into high gear. My easy pace began to slow dramatically. Some days to keep it feeling easy I was running nearly 3 minutes per mile slower than my normal easy pace. Not my pre-pregnancy easy pace either, this was slower than just a few months prior (earlier postpartum).

I was getting weaker with training NOT stronger.

I decreased my volume substantially (6 or so miles per week only) and cut out all hard-effort runs. My hair started falling out in clumps when I washed it. All the hair in that picture is from ONE shower. In just a few weeks I had less than half of the hair I once had (luckily I had a lot to start with and still had quite a bit left).



Despite strength training 3 days per week, I very noticeably lost quite a bit of muscle. I stayed the same weight, but the changes in body composition were very clear. I was working with a dietician at the time too because I knew nutrition was not my strong suit and wanted to make sure I was fueling my body well. I was fueling well. Something was definitely not right.

 I also had zero ability to regulate my nervous system. I was especially sensitive to noise. Being anywhere with even remotely loud background noise or having the TV on above a whisper made me so inexplicably angry. I’m embarrassed by the “mothering” I did during this time.

As a coach, I talk a lot about compounding stress, but it took a while to recognize it in my own body. 

The Turning point

I made the decision to stop running altogether (bought myself a state park pass and started very easy hiking instead) and went to get some blood tests. Everything from my primary care doctor came back normal except for my testosterone. I didn’t even have the lowest detectable amount for the test! I got referred to my OB who referred me to a reproductive endocrinologist… it took almost 2 more months to finally get in for an appointment!!

 In the meantime, I sought out some help on the nervous system end. I dove deeper into a lot of the breathing practices I talk about here. I literally hum to myself anytime I’m driving in the car now, IYKYK.

By the time I met with the endocrinologist, I had the breath and nervous system regulation much more under control. It's still an ongoing practice but could finally exhale without feeling panicky and was much less sensitive to noise and overstimulation than before.  However, the rest of the symptoms persisted. I also VERY slowly began running again at the end of that second month once I was able to breathe again.

Once I met with the specialist, we ran a whole new set of tests to investigate age and ovary health as the potential culprit for the hormonal change (testosterone is produced by the ovaries and the adrenal glands). 

EVERYTHING else came back normal. My ovaries were “younger” than expected for my age. No thyroid issues. Every other hormone was normal. The testosterone had rebounded a bit, still very low (well below even the normal for postmenopausal), to the lowest detectable amount. We decided to begin testosterone supplementation (a cream on my inner thigh) at that time. At the time of writing this blog, I’m 10 months into supplementing.

Two weeks into it, it was like light started to come on inside. I had so much more energy. I could run so much more easily. I could lift so much more weight. I started to really feel like myself again…

I also had to be careful not to overdo it. I was SO sore after that first strength session back. Starting to feel good again made me realize how bad I actually felt, and how much strength and energy I was operating without. We are still monitoring my hormones closely. We still don’t know for sure, but the only explanation we can come up with is the compounding stress of my unique pregnancy and postpartum experience became too much for my body.

From finding out Charlotte’s diagnosis and fighting to learn as much about it and the opportunities for care. To getting closer to her due date and being ready to fight for her life with her at any moment. To actually do so for the 6 days she was here. To the devastating eventual loss of her life.

It was A LOT.

I’m a problem solver, a doer, I never stopped. I lived “up” and never came “down” until my body forced me to. I’m now living proof and a cautionary tale of the compounding stress I’ve talked about as a coach for years! 

What’s going on in your life matters. You can do everything “right” with your training and still struggle. I’m sharing in solidarity if you are there too. You aren’t alone. You aren't doing anything wrong.

Life shit matters. You can’t outrun it!

…but you can train with respect for it.

All my coaching and educational resources now consider the fact that social and environmental factors influence your physiology, which affects your breathing, movement, aerobic capacity/efficiency, and recovery. We integrate some basic principles of breath, rest, recovery, nervous system regulation, and intentional progressive overload with your training to respect your humanness.

AND we have real conversations about how the social environment we live in puts a lot of pressure on us to do and produce. Calling out the patriarchy for pushing this narrative that we always needing to do and produce, that we need to earn rest and the time to do the things that light us up.

Running, the way we know, it is a uniquely human experience.

And to be human is the deepest most complex experience there is.

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