Women in Training
The Female Advantage
The last rays of sun filter through the partially drawn curtains, sending shadows across the gleaming tiled floor. The laboring woman gathers her strength, her face flushed with exertion. With the next contraction, she draws her knees toward her chest. Several long, intense pushes later, she delivers a dark-haired infant into the waiting hands of the midwife. The woman’s body, which transformed throughout her pregnancy, will continue to evolve in the upcoming months and years. Women, whether they bear children or not, are uniquely suited to experiencing change—which can be an advantage when it comes to being an athlete on any level, from amateur to professional.
“Women are motivated to be fit,” says obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Erin Chalat, who cares for patients at Coastal Women’s Healthcare in Scarborough. “I talk with them about specific skills like strength training, and they are ready to hear it. They want to get healthy.” A runner who also enjoys swimming and skiing, Dr. Chalat began her athletic career as a cheerleader at Deering High School in Portland. She ran her first road race in 2005—the TD Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth—at the urging of her friend (and race director) Joan Benoit Samuelson. Dr. Chalat went on to become an accomplished marathoner and was certified as a coach several years ago.
“I love to exercise, and I love healthy eating,” says Dr. Chalat. The mother of two sons, Harper and Zoeth, Dr. Chalat lives in Cape Elizabeth with her husband, Josef, an architect and licensed Zumba instructor. “Women want to be role models for their families,” says Dr. Chalat, who ran the Helsinki Half Marathon with Zoeth during his senior year in high school when he was on an exchange program in Finland.
As a result of her personal and professional experience, Dr. Chalat has recently become interested in the specialty of lifestyle medicine, which includes a focus on physical activity and diet. “My goal is to optimize women’s health, and help them to be amazing at any age,” says Dr. Chalat. “I want women to be happy with the way their bodies feel and the way they look.” She suggests that patients start with activities that they can easily incorporate into their daily routines. “Just keep moving,” says Dr. Chalat. “Put some music on and leave free weights or resistance bands in different rooms of your house. There are always opportunities to exercise.”
Dr. Chalat encourages her patients to be active during pregnancy. “The women who are the most fit have the best endurance and tolerate pain better during labor because they know their bodies,” says Dr. Chalat. Women who are already in good shape can typically continue activities like running, swimming, and yoga, as long as they don’t get overheated or spend prolonged amounts of time on their back during their third trimester. After giving birth, women who exercise tend to experience an improved mood and sleep patterns, and return to their pre-pregnancy body weight sooner.
Regular physical activity can also help ease symptoms related to shifting hormones. Younger women may have a reduction in premenstrual discomfort, while older women may encounter fewer problems with the night sweats and hot flashes of menopause. In her book ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life, exercise physiologist and triathlete Dr. Stacy Sims cites research showing that a woman’s athletic performance varies depending on where she is in her menstrual cycle. Women who are in the first half of their cycle (beginning on the first day of their period) are in a “low-hormone” phase, which makes them “physiologically similar to men,” when it comes to carbohydrate metabolism and recovery. Women in the “high-hormone” second half of their cycles will retain fluid, lose more salt, and experience higher body temperatures and increased muscle breakdown. This leads to fatigue—and possibly creates a competitive disadvantage—which can be counterbalanced by changes in diet and training.
Dr. Chalat says that it is important for women to understand their own bodies. She knows this from personal experience. In 2016, she was training for the Chicago Marathon, with a goal of running the course in less than three hours, when she began having recurring pain. She found out that she had a stress fracture in her pelvis. With more investigation, she realized that she had a medical condition known as hyperparathyroidism, which had caused her to fail to process calcium correctly, leading to increased bone fragility.
It took several months of rehabilitation for Dr. Chalat to recover from her injury—and caused her to realize (not for the first time) the importance of her relationships with other athletes. “My running friends were with me through all of it, from 5 a.m. pool running, to 6 a.m. spin class, to coffee when I was on crutches, to many supportive text messages and emails. Even Joanie [Benoit Samuelson] with her crazy busy schedule took me to yoga class with her.”
“The most important piece of exercise advice I give to patients is to find an exercise you love to do and find friends to join you,” says Dr. Chalat, who has resumed her training and hopes to run the Miami Half Marathon in January. “Maine has a wonderful community of runners who support each other. They show up in rain, sleet, snow, or heat to run at 5 a.m., and they are always happy to run together. The best part of running is getting to spend many hours every week with this group of smart, funny, talented women.”
Whether attempting a personal best, recovering from an injury, birthing a baby, or simply staying balanced throughout normal physiologic changes that are inherent to being female, women do have another important asset: others who understand their experience. “Women are very supportive of one another,” says Dr. Chalat. “That is one of the things that keeps us healthy.”