How birth control pills affect athletic performance

MMaybe you’re a marathoner trying to increase their VO2 max to no avail. Or, perhaps you’re a weightlifter struggling to build muscle. Chances are, you’re a CrossFit enthusiast who’s stuck with the same total score despite everything you can do to see gains Regardless, if you’ve been working hard at training and still aren’t seeing results, there could be a surprising culprit undermining your efforts: your hormonal birth control pill.

That’s right, an estimated 14 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 49 are on the pill wondering if their oral contraceptives are hindering their fitness goals because, although research is limited, recent data suggests it may inhibit muscle growth and development. Cardiovascular capacity (more on that below).

Ahead, three hormone and women’s health experts explain how hormonal birth control pills can potentially affect athletic performance.

3 Ways Birth Control Pills Affect Athletic Performance

1. Overtraining can mask symptoms

For athletes and those who exercise a lot, both changes in your menstrual cycle and loss of your menstrual cycle (known in medical terms as amenorrhea) suggest that a person is overtraining or not fueling properly, explains exercise physiologist Stacey Sims, CSCS, PhD. .

“Having a natural cycle helps keep track of how well your body is adapting to your training regimen,” she says “If you adjust properly, you won’t have any menstrual cycle disturbances [as a result of exercise]”

2. May impair muscle growth

Popping birth control pills can stop your pump, according to research. A 2021 study Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research It has been shown that the use of oral contraceptives can reduce muscle gain. For the study, researchers examined the effects of the birth control pill on resistance training results in 72 women aged 18 to 29, half of whom were on the pill and half who were not. The researchers examined the subjects’ body composition (the ratio of body fat to lean muscle mass) and hormone levels before and after 10 weeks of resistance training.

They found that those taking the birth control pill 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), compared to those not on the pill. Specifically, those who were taking birth control pills that contained a synthetic version of progesterone (called a progestin) gained only half a pound of lean muscle mass over the 10-week study, compared to 3.5 pounds of muscle in those who didn’t. pills

However, and this is important, there was no difference in strength gains with increased muscle mass versus smaller muscle mass, Dr. Sims noted. Still, losing excess muscle mass can be detrimental to Olympic lifters and others trying to get stronger in the weight division, she says.

3. May reduce or inhibit cardiovascular capacity

It’s not just strength athletes whose performance 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, a functional medicine consultant and powerlifter.

In general, the more intense your workout, the more oxygen your body needs to power it. So, if your V02 max is low, you can’t go as hard or as long in your workout, he explains.

Why hormonal birth control pills aren’t always bad for athletes

“There is still some uncertainty about this,” said Dr. DeCesares. Most of the studies looking at the pill’s effect on performance were quite small, he notes. Also, many studies are testing multiple types of oral contraceptives rather than zeroing in on the pill with similar hormone profiles, he says.

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

In short: “It’s hard to make a blanket statement about how much the pill interferes with athletic performance,” she says.

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

Ultimately, you and your healthcare provider can decide whether a hormonal birth control makes sense for you. After all, its effect on athletics is just one factor to consider when choosing a contraceptive, says Dr. Sims.

Still, it’s important that you understand that birth control pills aren’t your only option. “There are many ways to prevent pregnancy if you’re only on the pill,” says Alisa Vitti, founder and author of FLO Living. female code And In FLO.

An alternative would be to get a progestin-only or copper IUD, says Dr. Sims. “Generally I recommend progestin-only IUDs because there are minimal systemic effects and more people resume normal ovulation six to eight months after the initial insertion, which allows them to track their menstrual cycle through their basal body temperature,” she says.

Another option is to combine ovulation tracking with a barrier method (internal or external condom) or other pregnancy prevention protocol (eg Phexxi, diaphragm, cervical cap) during ovulation as this is the only time in your cycle where you can get pregnant. , Vitti said.

Most importantly, Dr. Talk to your provider about all of your goals, says Sims. Instead of sharing what you want to prevent unwanted pregnancy, you should also share your strength and/or endurance goals so you can choose something that helps you achieve all of your goals and gains.

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