I’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?