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How transitioning changed me as a runner and do I have an advantage as a transgender athlete?

transgender runnerI’ve written about a lot of this over the course of the last few months, but a few people have requested a post dedicated to how I’ve changed as a runner because of transition. Since I’ve read two articles about transgender athletes in the past few days, I figured it was finally time to write about it myself. While my experience has been in line with the experiences of other trans women I’ve spoken to regarding the topic, I do want it to be noted that this is very specifically about my experience and it may not be universal to all transgender (women) runners.

When I decided to transition, I knew things would change for me as a runner and this was something I was going to have to come to terms with. I tried to research it as much as I could, but I was only able to find two articles which specifically discussed effects on runners. I knew to expect to be slower, but I didn’t know by how much.

When I finally started on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) which consists of estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone blockers, I realized this was no joke. Within just a few weeks, I was already noticing that building and maintaining muscle mass and strength was much, much more difficult. I used to have huge calves, but I watched as they quickly downsized. I lost five pounds within the first couple months, all of it was muscle, as far as I could tell. I was glad to have the testosterone out of my body, but this wasn’t a side-effect I was too thrilled with.

As I started gearing up for my Richmond Marathon training cycle, I was having a lot of difficulty mentally adjusting to the physical changes in my running. Despite knowing ahead of time things were going to change, I struggled to fully accept it. I still had no idea where to set my expectations and I felt like I didn’t know my body anymore. I didn’t know how or when to push it anymore. I generally only run by feel and perceived effort level, I don’t look at a watch to pace myself. I used to be able to guess my pace within +/- 10 seconds reasonably reliably, but I could no longer do this. I had no idea what pace I was running anymore. I also didn’t even know what paces to be shooting for either. Setting expectations for myself is where I struggled the most. I didn’t know what goals I should have or what paces to aim for while training and I didn’t know how to measure my progress towards any goals anymore.

Prior to starting HRT, I ran a 3:08 marathon which breaks down to a 7:12 minute/mile pace. Unfortunately, I don’t have a recent 5k pace from just before transition since I don’t run a lot of them. My all-time 5k PR is 20:29, a 6:36 pace, but leading up to the 2012 Chicago Marathon, I was doing 10-milers at around 6:50. So, realistically, I should have been able to do something like a 19:15-19:30 5k.

Now, after almost nine months on HRT, I can’t even dream of hitting these paces again. My current 5k pace is just slightly faster than my old marathon pace and my new marathon pace is 83 seconds slower than it used to be (a 3:44:55 finish). And the thing about my new marathon time is I ran about 20% more miles during my training cycle. I upped my running from five days per week to six. I broke my weekly and monthly personal distance records. And I still ran 36 minutes slower than I used to.

In the past, I would run really easy runs and recovery runs with my wife when she would be out for a tempo or mid-intensity run. These would be very easy for me and she’d help me keep my pace slow when I needed that (a recovery run should be about as slow as you can possibly go). Now, it’s become the opposite, she runs her easy and mid-intensity runs with me, but leaves me in the dust on her harder runs. (As a side-note, I’m actually not bothered by this at all! I’m excited to see her growing as a runner and getting faster and faster. Seriously, she’s getting out of control and accidentally PRs races now!)

Now that I’ve completed a serious marathon training cycle while on HRT, I’ve been able to figure out where my expectations should be a bit more. I know I’ll never get close to those old times I used to run, but I’m starting to feel as though I know where I’ll likely be able to get to. Right now, I generally can expect to run 60-90 seconds slower than I used to at any given effort level. I’m also finally able to feel things out more while I’m running. I’m able to estimate my pace, though with a little less accuracy than before, and know when to push it. I’m still lacking a lot of confidence in my body’s ability to do what I want it to when I’m pushing it on a longer run, but I’m hoping that will come given more time.

What all of this leads to, I guess, is…do I have an advantage over cisgender (not transgender) women? Is it wrong for me to be competing as a woman? Everyone is going to have their own opinion on this and there is a serious lack of scientific research on the topic, but I do feel being a transgender athlete gives me a little bit of credibility to discuss this here.

My honest answer is no, I don’t have an advantage and, yes, I should be competing as a woman. 

Yes, I was able to train at a certain level before, but even prior to HRT, I was still well within the realm of what non-elite women my age are capable of running (I was still very much slower than even sub-elite women). Being that running is my hobby—okay, it’s practically my life—I never even came close to approaching a level of training that would have been able to take advantage of my testosterone driven puberty 1.0. I was able to build more muscle mass and strength, but all that is long gone now. When I started HRT, I was actually in the middle of a seven week break from running thanks to hip tendinitis so I wasn’t even in shape anymore when I started. Beginning running again after my injury and with HRT felt like starting from scratch. I hated running for months and I wanted to quit so badly. It wasn’t until around the fifth month that I finally started to feel like my old runner-self and liked running again. I was slower, but it felt the same.

Currently, my testosterone level is at the very bottom of the normal female range and closely monitored via regular lab tests. So the reality is the vast majority of women actually have more testosterone than I do and, therefore, are likely to have a slightly greater ability to build and maintain muscle mass (speaking from a general sense, of course). Coupled with my lower testosterone is my larger skeletal frame and higher bone density compared to cisgender women my age, height, and weight. This means with all other things being equal, I’m carrying around more dead weight in my bones than a comparable ciswoman who may make up the weight difference with additional muscle. While bone density may be a debatable topic for contact sports, when it comes to running, heavier bones just means more weight to carry around. The only advantage here is the decreased risk of bone-related injuries, such as stress fractures. However, my running has been far from injury prone in other departments. I’m just as likely overall to get injured.

One advantage I have over my former self is that I’m much better at handling running in warmer weather than I used to be. However, this is a documented advantage that women have over men, so if anything, it strictly puts me at the same level as cisgender women.

There are lots of little things as well that probably go in both directions. I have larger lungs and previously had a higher capacity for oxygen consumption, but having been out of running for almost two months zapped most of my increased aerobic threshold before I even started HRT and it hasn’t seemed to come back at all. Plus, I have no idea how to breathe with a sports bra on! These things are really constricting! There’s also the fact that my hips are shaped more like a typical man’s hips so I should have an advantage in that department, but my battles with hip and ankle tendinitis would indicate that I maybe I don’t. I don’t really know how this one plays out, to be honest.

In the end, taking all of these things in account, I truly feel as though I’m on equal footing as cisgender women. If you look at my real-world performance, I put in more work to run much slower than I used to. While there are many factors involved (course, weather, training, current fitness level, size of field, etc) so it’s not a foolproof way to measure this, but, a year ago, I finished in the top 6% of men at the Chicago Marathon and, this year, I finished in the top 10% of women at the Richmond Marathon (again, with much more training). I used to be within four minutes of the male qualifying for Boston. Now, I’m ten minutes away from the female qualifying time. Taking a look at the numbers (and I will gladly share more race results and information to anyone who wants it), I compete at roughly the same level compared to other women as I used to compared to men before I started hormone replacement therapy.

What’s your take on this? If you’re s cisgender woman, do you have a problem with me running as a woman?

Are you a transgender athlete? What’s your experience been like?

46 Comments

  1. This is really interesting! I have no problem with you running as a woman, and the way you break this down makes it really hard for anyone else to find issue with it either. I’m also excited to see you improve!

  2. Hi! I’m not much of an athlete, but I’m a trans female biology student, and I think it’s great that you’re sharing your experience! I have just a little bit of input on the issue:

    -If you’re interested in the average muscle difference between men and women, it’s up to 60% in upper body muscle mass and up to 30% in lower body muscle mass. Maintaining about the same diet and exercise habits, I noticed that my max bench press dropped from ~150lbs to ~90lbs in the first year (a ~60% decrease).

    -Bone density is actually dependent on estrogen. In women, it’s serum estrogen levels. In men, testosterone is aromatized into estrogen locally (at the bone). So being a woman, cis or trans, should mean higher bone density relative to a man.

    -And lastly, be very careful with your hips. A common problem amongst trans women is that estrogen acts on our muscles, tendons and ligaments around the hips, but not on the structure of the hip bones themselves (unless HRT is done pre-puberty). The result is that we end up with female soft tissues affecting rotation that conflicts with male hip bone structure. It’s not an immediate problem, but it causes extra stress and earlier onset of hip problems as we age.

    You should certainly be competing as a woman. And honestly, there’s never been a problem with trans people dominating over cis people at any level of any sport.

    • Interesting. So do I have my information about bone density wrong then? I had read in a few places that men have denser and stronger bones (this is something that has come up in a lot of stuff regarding Fallon Fox).

      I didn’t know that estrogen would actually change the muscles, tendons, and ligaments around my hips to that degree. I’ve been struggling with hip tendinitis for well over a year now, but that started waaaaay before HRT. Though, after Richmond it’s come back pretty badly. I guess the only good thing about my hip issues is that they force me to do flexibility and strengthening exercises often. Hopefully that helps!

      • Basically, yes. The assumption that men have stronger bones is based on a heuristic that we tend to have about men being superior in all things physical. The reality is that it’s more complicated: men tend to have bigger bones by virtue of simply being bigger, but they’re not bigger in proportion to the rest of their body. Basically, a 6′ man will have stronger bones than a 5′ woman, but if we take a man and woman of similar size the woman will have the stronger bones due to higher density of the interellular matrix. Two exceptions:

        -Malnourishment during pregnancy: a fetus will absorb blood Ca++ no matter what, lowering Ca++ concentration resulting in release of Ca++ from bones to provide for the fetus and maintain muscle function.

        -Hypogonadism or menopause: If a cis woman’s ovaries are removed or shut down (or if we stop taking our meds), she will have no source of estrogen (leading to higher risk of osteoporosis), but a man’s testes will continue producing testosterone (which can be converted to estrogen) until a much, much later age.

        Yeah, most things in the human body tend to be tightly connected. Tendons run through and out of muscle. So if your muscles shrink, your tendons must shrink accordingly, otherwise your muscles would be pulling on slack. Ligaments connect bone to bone, and tend to stay constant relative to bone surface area. The major change in them happens because estrogen is responsible for maintaining collagen fibers in soft tissue. This is why when you transition from male to female you’ll probably notice that:

        -you are more flexible (because your tendons and ligaments will be more elastic, and there will be less muscle impeding movement).

        -your skin becomes much more soft and pliable. You can stretch it more and it moves back into place faster and easier without wrinkling as much as a man’s skin.

        tl;dr: Sorry, I probably sound like a know-it-all, intellectual. But in short, yes. Doing flexibility exercises is one of the BEST things you can do for your hips as a trans women, because improving the elasticity of those tendons will greatly reduce long term stress and help prevent chronic hip problems.

        • Thanks so much for all of that! I really appreciate you taking the time to write that up!

  3. I agree with Dori – great post, there are so many aspects to think about! I personally have no issue with you running as a woman because – well, duh – you are a woman, haha 🙂 It’s great that you have been able to find your footing as an athlete, and I know that you’ll continue to put in the work, just as you did pre-HRT….mere titles (man/woman) don’t change your work ethic! 🙂

  4. Even though I’m not a runner, wish I was but its so hard to get into, I still thought this was a great article and wanted it to have more comments.

  5. Thanks for writing this! It’s really well thought out and succinct. No problems over here with you racing as a woman, it only makes sense! Hope your hip issues work themselves out soon!!

    Happy Holidays Amelia!!

  6. Hello Pond. =)

    Thanks so much for this post. I love your writing, but this especially hits home. I’m so excited for my own transition, and this is one of the major emotional blocks that still haunts me. I’m not even a dedicated runner like you are, but I know it’s still going to be hard to adjust to all of the small things I can do now that I won’t be able to once I start HRT.

    You seem to be pretty honest, so if I’d like to ask a frank question. It was worth it, right? The things you’ve given up have taken a toll, I’m sure, but on the whole would you do it again?

    Thanks,
    <3 Aly

    • Yes, without a doubt it’s worth it. Like…I can’t even put into words how worth it is. The simple answer I give people sometimes is just that life is simply worth living now.

      If you get a chance, check out this post: . It really is true. I went from hating myself to loving myself and being happy. Before I started my transition, I used to read other people saying how happy they were and I didn’t believe it could make that much of a difference, but it really did.

      There are difficult parts during transition, it wasn’t always easy, but I’m glad I didn’t give up on myself.

      Anyway, I try to be open and honest about everything. I think it’s helpful to other trans people and it can help cis people to be able to understand more about our lives. Please feel free to ask me anything!

    • I can’t speak for Amelia, but as just a generally in-shape person, yeah it’s worth it. Sometimes, the lack of muscle stinks (like moving furniture). Other times, it can be nice like if you’re attracted to men and they go out of their way to help you, or if you enjoy quirky little things like putting a guy’s manhood on the line by asking him to open a jar, or if you like feminine gender expression (a lot of clothes and jewelry won’t fit well until you lose most of your muscle mass).

      Some of it is stereotypical, I know. But losing muscle mass can also help with more important things like simply being accepted as female in your day-to-day life, or (in my case) getting rid of something that used to bring out fear and violence in other people.

      • I’d just like to add that even if you value strength, the loss in muscle mass can be a good thing because you feel more like that strength is “yours”, and you’ve earned it as a woman.

  7. I really don’t have a lot to add but this was so interesting to read and you are truly inspirational (I know probably not what you want to hear). You are awesome though and I always enjoy reading.

  8. Thanks for a really interesting read! I am interested in the effects of hrt on muscle mass. I am pre-hrt and am an avid swimmer ( which, I expect will present its own challenges when I begin treatment). But I worry about building too much muscle that I don’t want and feel I might not lose when I excercise. Also, at 37, I wonder if age is a factor in maintains muscle mass though hrt. Avital

  9. Hi Amelia,
    This is the first time I’ve visited your blog.
    I’ve been running for quite some time, not to a serious level but I have a tendency to do races from 10 miles to marathons when I enter a race. I’m also in the process of transitioning so I’m always interested in how people deal with the issue of being transgender and taking part in races.
    To date I’ve only taken part in one race as a female because I’ve always been led to believe that as transgender females we have physical advantages over cis-gender females. Its interesting to see someone that has taken the time and effort to do their own study of this.
    I’ve been on Estradiol for nearly two years and my testosterone levels are quite low now.
    As far as my own racing is concerned I’ve never been up there amongst the top performers, usually I’m middle of the pack or towards the tail end depending on the particular event or size of field.
    Last year though I did a half marathon with and decided I wanted to try to beat my PR so put in some serious training. I was pleased with the result as I managed to beat my PR that I set back in 2005 by about one minute. I see this as being due to training I did rather than any physical advantages I might have had.

    Over the last couple of months I’ve sort of been doing my own comparison of my abilities compared to other runner both male and female by doing our local Parkrun and its weekly 5K.
    I’m registered to run under my birth gender at the moment because of the belief that I’d have an advantage over other females. So far my results have shown that I’m consistently finishing around 40th in the men’s category and until my last run about mid-teens in the women’s category, although the last run I did had a PB for it which would have left me finishing as 8th female. I’m planning to monitor that as I train for an event in March and see how putting in some structured training changes my finishing position.

    Over the past few years I’ve been taking part in triathlons and because of the nature of the sport I’ve noticed that I have no particular advantages over any other particular athlete whether male or female because everyone has their own particular element that they are better at. One thing that I did find interesting was when I contacted British Triathlon about updating my membership details.. When I explained I was transgender and asked if it would be a problem with me taking part in races as a female they responded by telling me that it wouldn’t be an issue provided that I wasn’t going to be winning prizes or age group categories as a female, other than that then they would step in if I had any problems with taking part in races.

    Thank you for an interesting article.

  10. I fell in love with running during the Army but it wasn’t until I was well into transition that I began running again. For me age, and being a former smoker has a lot to do with my stamina. I can say this though. I knew I loved running but when I started again I found it difficult. I didn’t have the massive explosions of testosterone. Until one day everything started to fit into place. I get a inner sense of peace and fulfilment I didn’t have pre transition. And yes I still get that same thrill looking down that highway in a hundred degree weather, seeing the road shimmering inviting me to test myself.
    Running at any level has the potential of seriously enhancing a persons life.

  11. This was really interesting to read. I love hearing your take on it. And I definitely don’t have a problem with you competing as a woman!

  12. Amelia, first off I want to say think I think you are too stinking cute!!! and I am absolutely in love with your blog!!! I cam across this post over at the transgender subreddit, and it immediately jumped out at me as this is something that has been on the forefront of my mind with me being both trans and a runner/triathlete. Although I have yet to start HRT, I have been fearful of not how it will affect my running performance, but rather what the perception would be towards me as a trans woman competing in the women’s races. It has just been a breath of fresh air to read your blog (which i have been making my way through each of your posts!) , and to find somebody out there that is very similar to me in so many aspects, especially your running lifestyle! If you have time, I think it would be just lovely to exchange emails! Anyway, I just want to thank you for your wonderful blog, and thank you for being such an inspiration to this girl just beginning her journey!!! xoxo

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’m sending you an email to the address you used to comment!

  13. Hi Amelia 🙂 Enjoyed your article.. I am an 50 yrs been an ultra trail runner since 2000, on average due i do 4 ultras mostly 50km distance & six 25km & 30 km trail races . I have been transitioning MtF fulltime since March 2013. My running performance has improved some probably due to being happier person and i have loss 20 lbs in body weight from December 2012 to March 2013 from having FFS in early Feb. could only eat soups and soft foods and March i had breast implants which i found i had to redo my running movements . A new HRT regimen ( 150 mg estradiol pellets & oral progesterone) has helped me endure hot temps much better than previously . I have not had dry heaves or have foot cramps after a trail race in hot temp above 100F last June & August ..

  14. I know, this is old, but I just stumbled across your blog somehow. We must be twins (except that I’m 10 years older and you’re way prettier 😛 ).

    I’ve only been on HRT for 4 months, and haven’t done any serious riding (can’t run thanks to spine damage and a destroyed left sciatic nerve) since starting, and I’ve lost a huge amount of weight since I stopped riding regularly in July, but I don’t really see much difference in muscle mass yet. Everything else mass, yes (ok, except the boobs, they didn’t get any smaller with the weight loss), but my thighs have stayed about the same. Now that it’s cooled off from “surface of the sun” to “freeze to death in those cute yoga pants I thought were a great idea to wear when it was 45 degrees last month” (Texas has 3 seasons, summer for 11 months, winter for 3 weeks, and a week of srpall) I can tune up the bikes and get back on the trails. Then I’ll see how much I’ve gained or lost. I do know, from a handful of brief, extremely sweaty rides in August, that a sports bra is now mandatory, and that was a week before I started HRT. Guess I’m just lucky that way. I’m at 14% body fat, 6’4″, and 36B.

    Oops, I’m rambling again. I try to blame that on estrogen, but I did it before, so… ya 😀

  15. thanks for that post, I have been thinking of transitioning and I run as well so its good to know someone has done it and continued to run.

  16. Amelia, it has been really cool to come across your blog. I’m a pre-T ftm college runner (competing in the female division) and it is incredibly interesting to read about running and transitioning. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Thanks for the comment! I wish you the best of luck when you do start T!

      If you’re interested, I run a Facebook group for trans runners. Any trans person, no matter what stage of transition they’re at is welcome. And it’s a private group so no one can see you joined. Let me know if you’re interested!

      • Amelia,

        Your blogs are a great break into the trans world and I especially love reading your running blogs. They are a great motivator for prepping for my first half!

        If you’re still throwing out invites to your FB running group, anyway you could hook a fellow runner up? Thanks and I hope you can keep supporting this side of the blogosphere!

  17. My 18 year old son just told me today that he is a woman and I’ve been searching the rabbit’s hole of the internet all day trying to learn as much as possible about what she is facing. Alex is also a runner, which is what drew me to your story. I’ll let her know about your facebook page. Thank you for sharing your story!

  18. I think whether someone who is MTF should compete with cis women depends on a lot of factors, such as how long they have been on hormone therapy, bone structure, and how athletic they were before transitioning. I think a male bone structure and presumed neurological advantages that testosterone conveys on the brain with respect to spatial and motor skills can result in a clear advantage when competing against cis women in some instances. In running, you will have longer limbs than most cis women, and a higher center of mass, making it easier for you to swing your legs and hit the ground faster (it is for this reason that Africans tend to be faster runners than non-Africans). In kick boxing or cage fighting, a person who is MTF will have a more robust bone structure, and likely more spatio-motor connections in their brain, making them faster…with the added benefit of having had testosterone while training in the past, they will also be able to focus their power more precisely…stenght is not just about muscle but nerve tissue as well and you will probably not lose nervous system wiring with HT.

  19. Hi Amelia
    I’m Chris, 34yo MTF, from New Zealand but living in Australia. I started blockers a few hours after my annual marathon ten months ago… which was a bad idea… It took me 8 days to recover instead of three!

    Anyway its training season again, with ten weeks to go, and I’m really out of shape. But I’ve decided that I haven’t “retired” after all! We have VERY similar pre-transition PBs (mine was 3:05:28) so I’d like to talk more about your experience if that’s okay? Email is fine.

    Either way congrats! Great page, very inspiring 🙂

  20. This was a very interesting read. I started transitioning 9 months ago and I was actually scared at how much muscle mass I lost. I was thin athletic build at about 6’4″ and I lost 17 lbs while putting on fat in my first 3 months. I’ve recently started training again to get into shape for Ultimate frisbee, and it is a very strange experience. Thank you for sharing yours, it helps me know this is not unique to me. Now to relearn my bodies capability.

    {Also how does anyone run in sports bras? better than the alternative though 🙂 }

  21. Great article, (even if I’m a couple of years late in finding it), it’s always exciting to hear other people’s experiences. So much of what you have written on your site(s) resonates with me.

    Before starting HRT I was never much of a distance runner. I found it…annoying, but now three-ish months in, I have suddenly found running enjoyable, exciting even. It struck me the other day that, for the first time, I ENJOYED being alone with my thoughts. For the first time the little voice inside my head was calming instead of agitating, and for the first time I wasn’t afraid to listen. The experience has been good enough that I am planning to sign up for the Oakland Marathon in March. I would like to run my first marathon as my correct gender. I’m still half closeted and floating in and out of the occasional dark place; transition and, unexpectedly, running have become a sanctuary from that and I would like for them to continue together. My times even pre-HRT would not have come close to being considered competitive for either men or women, I’m running this race for myself, so I am less concerned about having a competitive advantage than I am nervous about the logistics surrounding the race. While I expect to be at or near full-time before the race comes around, I do not yet expect to have changed my legal name and gender.

    At what point in your transition did you start competing in the women’s category? What issues, (if any), did you have with race organizers, packet pickup, other competitors etc.?

  22. Just curious how did you wife take all of this if I may ask? I know that has to be hard on them

    • What the f*** ? You ask Amelia borderline question, and then next sentence answer it yourself, claiming that you “know” something already.

  23. I think of course you should run as a woman, even if you do have an advantage over some AFAB women. You are a woman, you should run with the women end of story. Everyone has different advantages, and I doubt the difference between you and a random AFAB woman is bigger than the difference between the AFAB woman with the “best genes” for running and the AFAB woman with the “worst genes”. As with most gender differences the within-group variation eclipses the between-group variation so gender isn’t really a useful construct when trying to understand individual behavior or performance.

    That all said, I think it’s unfair of you to claim “I have no advantages” based on some anecdata. I wonder: what’s wrong with saying “I might have some advantages, I’m not sure. Everyone has advantages and disadvantages. I’m still a woman, and some AFAB women have more running advantages than I do.” That seems much more honest to me than you claiming with absolute certainty that you have none.

  24. Just a little off the issue, but I have been on M2F HRT for about 10 weeks and my breasts just started budding. Really uncomfortable to run. I could only stand about 30 minutes of running because it was to torturous for me. I didn’t think my normal male sized breast would be that much of a problem. How do I find a sport bra tight enough to give my small breast more support as I am not out yet

    • Hi Staci, unfortunately, I didn’t experience that same issue. I know it’s common for breasts to be sore as they grow, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone complaining about it being that bad.

      Maybe someone in the Facebook group I run for transgender runners might have some advice. Would you be interested in joining the group? I can send an invite to the email address you used to comment.

      • Thanks for the reply! It has calmed down considerably this week. At least it is tolerable now, LOL!
        I would love to get and invite to the FB group.

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