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Competitive Female Training Creates “Level M,” Programming for Athletes in Menopause

June 11, 2021 by
Credit: Courtesy of Competitive Female Training
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Women-focused program Competitive Female Training launched a new training tier in May, “Level M,” catering to female athletes transitioning to or done with menopause.

Remind Me: Competitive Female Training (CFT), run by Shawna Norton, Rodrick Lopez, and Ashley Mercado, is dedicated to addressing the unique needs of female CrossFitters.  

  • The program is divided into four tracks, each catering to different fitness levels while tackling weak points Norton has seen across female athletes: pulling strength, hip strength, and power production. 
  • Norton also includes “hormone talk” with her programming, breaking down how her athletes’ bodies will feel and react to the workouts based on their menstrual cycle. 

The big picture: While most US women will start menopause around age 51, it can happen anytime between the 40s and 50s. This means that many women will spend over one-third of their life in the perimenopausal (the transition period), menopause (when most women show symptoms like hot flashes, sleep issues, and more), or post-menopausal stages. 

  • Menopause causes lower estrogen levels, the hormone that Norton calls the “key component of what defines us as women.” As the body adjusts to this decrease, symptoms can occur.
  • Lower estrogen makes women more susceptible to osteoporosis, weight gain, and decreased muscle mass and strength. 
  • “Does that mean you have to stop fitnessing? Absolutely NOT! On the contrary! Lifting heavy four to five days a week is one of THE most effective tools to combat the effects of age.” Norton writes on Instagram
  • “However it does mean that your programming might look a little different,” she continues.
  • “Look at CrossFit programming,” Norton says. “It’s general programming trying to appeal to the majority of people.  Well, the demographic that you have is 50% men, 50% women. Of those women, the age group is going to be like, maybe [between] 22-23 and 45. You don’t have a ton of women who are over 45 and who are potentially in menopause.”

Level M: Norton started Level M by programming individually for a CFT athlete and adapting general CrossFit workouts for a nutrition client, both of whom were going through menopause.

Norton, taking inspiration from Dr. Stacy Sims’ Menopause for Athletes course, focused Level M on strength training. 

  • “When we have more muscle mass, it burns more calories at rest. When you go into menopause and you lose your estrogen, which is something that boosts your metabolism, which is something that boosts your muscle mass — all of the sudden, your metabolism goes down and your body fat storage goes up,” she explains. 
  • “She didn’t want to go to a pure strength program,” Norton says about her CFT athlete. “So we designed the program so she always has 90 minutes to two hours of strength training four days a week [with] conditioning two days a week.”

To adapt general CrossFit  programming, she would either swap a conditioning piece for a strength piece or turn the conditioning piece into a strength piece. 

  • “They’re programming one strength piece a day and one conditioning piece,” she says. “When you have lower estrogen levels, your conditioning needs to change because as we age, we lose type two (fast-twitch) muscle fibers.”
  • “If it was lighter deadlifts, double-unders, and push presses,” she explains, “I would… make the dead heavier, and you know, skip the conditioning [and] do strict press instead of push press.”

Adjusting her regular CFT programming for an athlete in menopause looks something like this:

  • Norton takes an “intense” running, burpee, and Assault Bike WOD and turns it into 10 rounds for time: four calorie bike, four burpees, and a 100-meter sprint, with a one-to-one rest to work ratio.  
  • “You’re working on that power production specifically,” she says, “But still getting your heart rate up.”

Like her other CFT athletes, Norton provides hormone talk for her Level M athletes at the bottom of their day’s training. 

  • Norton says she and her first Level M athlete discussed this, asking “How do we still have that talk for this level of athlete? They’re not having their cycle, but they are having an impact. Their hormones are still fluctuating, [they’re] still having consequences of their hormones.”
  • “We want to be validated, we want to be heard, we want to be acknowledged, and we want to be represented,” Norton says of all people. “Women going through menopause often feel like they’re not being heard.” 

Norton, emphasizing that need to listen to her Level M athletes, bases her hormone talk off of menopause symptoms and feel, catering to athletes who are on hormone replacement therapy (HRT, a treatment used for menopause symptoms) and those who are not. If her athletes are struggling with sleep, she tells them to go easy. If they’re on HRT, she might identify areas where they can push their bodies a bit more. 

Since starting Level M, Norton says her CFT athlete, who she jokingly calls her “test subject,” has been feeling “phenomenal.”

The bottom line: “The amount of negative impact that menopause can have on the body… it’s a contributor to diabetes, it’s a contributor for heart disease, it’s a contributor to relationships – imagine having PMS for 10 fucking years,” Norton says.  

And with Masters athletes eclipsing individuals for the first time in the 2021 Open registration, it’s clear that the community of older athletes is growing. Norton is one of an expanding group of people tackling and talking about menopause, allowing women in their 40s and 50s to train with their changing physiology, not against it. 

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