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Trail Tips

Training For Transgender Athletes

Happy Transgender Day of Visibility! Trans Day of Visibility is an annual event celebrating trans lives and stories. This is a day to raise awareness of the issues we face as trans people and athletes. Before getting to the rest of the article, we want you to know that we see you and are here for you. You are awesome, you are enough, and you are loved! 

Unfortunately, increased visibility is often followed by increased hostility. There has been a lot of trans-negativity in the news and in public spaces recently. From transphobic legislation being introduced in a record number of states, to an increase in discussions about what trans people should be allowed to do, it can be hard to find a space free of constant reminders that transphobia is out there. We want to change that, so in this article, we’ll attempt to be as trans-positive as possible, while also providing some (hopefully useful) training advice.

Before we get started, a note to any cisgender people who may be reading: as a cis person, it can be really easy to think of conversations about trans people as purely hypothetical discussions about the science of mental health, hormones, chromosomes, socialization, and whatever else pops up in the social media scroll. But these discussions affect real people. What may feel like a casual debate about whether trans people should be allowed to participate as their affirmed gender in sports, to many trans people, is really a discussion about whether trans people have a right to exist as their full selves in that space. It can be incredibly jarring and hurtful to trans people to see you casually trying to decide what rights we should have, even if you are being as respectful as possible. 

So when you engage in a discussion about trans issues, please remember that you are talking about actual people’s lives. Think about what it would feel like for people to ask the same questions about you or someone you love. And make an effort to listen to what we as trans people have to say about ourselves.

Now let’s move to the training advice! The big principle: for all of us, athletics can be an opportunity to fully express ourselves as humans. And the pursuit of athletic potential means finding what works for each of us as individuals, then putting in the long-term work to explore our limits. For trans athletes, the specific training science is limited, so we’ll share some of our takeaways from running and coaching. 

One: Trust Yourself

Given the large number of people online who seem to know everything about trans people’s bodies, there are surprisingly few resources on how to adjust training to help trans people best achieve our athletic goals. We have unique needs, both medical and social, and unique bodies, and it can be very difficult to find information on what implications studies including only cis athletes have for transgender athletes. Since we don’t have that data, the advice here is a starting point to think about your own training decisions. 

With the absence of trans-specific training information, the best thing you can do is to trust yourself. That trust applies to how you adapt to training stimuli, and how your body and goals may evolve over time.

Start by trusting yourself to think critically about how the studies you see discussed in other training articles relate to you.

Start by trusting yourself to think critically about how the studies you see discussed in other training articles relate to you. Current hormone levels play a significant part in how you adapt to training stimuli. So if your hormones are testosterone-dominant, pay some attention to studies on cisgender men. If your hormones are estrogen-dominant, pay some attention to studies on cisgender women. If you have low estrogen and testosterone, pay some attention to studies on postmenopausal cis women.

You can then filter what you focus on based on how the study matches to your body. For example, some studies on cisgender women examine the relationship between training and various phases of the participants’ menstrual cycles. If your hormones are estrogen-dominant but remain at relatively constant levels (as is the case for some transfeminine people), you may want to look up the reference ranges for estrogen and testosterone during the phases of the menstrual cycle and pay particular attention to the phase that best aligns with your hormone levels.

As a place to start with specific training guidelines, if your hormones are estrogen-dominant, you may want to focus more on fueling during training and avoiding planned fasted runs. The transition process may affect bone density, so make sure you are paying attention to small injuries before they become big ones. As hemoglobin levels change, be patient with recovery rates, particularly in higher stress times in training and life. Runners with testosterone-dominant hormones may want to try adding a bit more volume or intensity from baseline – just make sure you are careful at first. It may even be worth trying doubles (two training activities in a single day) if you haven’t before and are looking to increase training volume. Those with low testosterone and estrogen may want to emphasize strength work a bit more (although that’s likely helpful for everyone). 

Those types of guidelines can be a place to start, before adjusting based on how you respond to new stimuli. Be inquisitive and thoughtful about the information you come across, and if other information feels relevant to you, that’s great too. 

Be inquisitive and thoughtful about the information you come across, and if other information feels relevant to you, that’s great too. 

Hormones can be more complex than just testosterone- or estrogen-dominant. If your hormone levels have recently changed, if you microdose hormones, or if you take nandrolone instead of testosterone, it may be more difficult to apply studies on cisgender athletes to your own training. And there are many other biological factors at play besides hormones, which might affect how you respond to training. 

Trust yourself to know your own body. We as trans people are often experts and advocates for ourselves, because it is a survival mechanism, and that gives us a leg up in understanding how we react to training. You alone know how you feel when you train. It is reasonable to experiment with changing up your training, especially if you are starting to medically transition, or are newer to running. Trust yourself to learn over time what works best for you. It can be helpful to write it down in a training log and track patterns over time, or work with a coach that can provide guidance and feedback. 

Trust yourself to know your own body. We as trans people are often experts and advocates for ourselves, because it is a survival mechanism, and that gives us a leg up in understanding how we react to training.

I (Bee) know from experience that I respond very well to high-volume training, but don’t feel like increasing my workout intensity does much for me. This is different from my pre-transition training response. I think this works for me because I have significantly lower testosterone levels than most cisgender women, though the why is less important here. What matters is that I know what works for me based on multiple training cycles of monitoring training responses. And I continue to learn and adjust all the time with the help of a coach.

Workout Recommendation – introspective long run: On your next long run, think back through your running history. Are there any times where you felt particularly good about your running? If so, what kind of training were you doing then? How has your training changed over time? Is there anything new you’d like to try?

Two: Avoid the Comparison Trap

It can be extremely easy for anyone to fall into the trap of comparing yourself against your past performances and using your past speeds and race times to inform your current target paces. As trans runners, this can be an even bigger issue. With the existence of gender-graded pace calculators, it can be tempting to compare your pre-and post-transition running times. When I first started transitioning, I had a habit of plugging my pre-transition paces into those calculators and thinking that as long as I did not slow down by more than that amount, I would still be progressing in my training.

Give yourself the flexibility to transition your running along with the rest of yourself.

The issue here is that you’re not giving yourself the flexibility to transition your running along with the rest of yourself. As mentioned in the previous section, training responses can vary widely based on hormones, but the transition process is about so much more than hormones. If you keep the same training plan as you transition, you may respond better or worse to that training, even from a gender-adjusted point of view. Transitioning may also affect what kind of runner you are. Before transition, I was significantly better at shorter distance events, and now I excel at longer distances. My 5k pace has not kept up, but my marathon pace is way faster than my original expectations.

Even excluding a medical transition, transitioning can still affect your running. Training and adaptation are strongly affected by your mood and stressors. It is reasonable to expect that transitioning and living a more fulfilling life will have positive effects on your running. At the same time, transitioning can often create stress. Many people experience temporarily increased dysphoria when they initially start transitioning, due to focusing more on who they are and their sources of dysphoria. That may affect how you perform as an athlete. 

Running has always been my safe space. I am most at home with myself and my body when I am running, and the first time I ran while presenting as myself, I ran close to a minute per mile faster than my normal pace, completely unintentionally. Invite yourself to include running in your transition, and give yourself the flexibility to change as a runner.

Running has always been my safe space. I am most at home with myself and my body when I am running.

Workout Recommendation – first time tempo: The first time you go on a run while presenting as your affirmed gender, channel your emotions, whether it’s happiness, nervousness, excitement, fear, or anything else you may be feeling, into a 20-30 minute moderate tempo. Make sure to run this tempo by feel, not by an expected pace. If you have already presented while running before, try instead to do this tempo run right after doing something that is affirming to you, or while wearing something particularly affirming.

Three: Ignore the Haters (where possible)

You’ve probably heard the refrain – “never read the comments.” I’ve been very lucky here, but for all the things I’ve read online, I have yet to experience transphobia while participating in an actual running event. I bring a sheaf of documents to races, proving my identity and documenting years of hormone levels, because I’m terrified of the possibility of someone challenging my gender. I’ve never needed to show anyone those papers. That’s not to say that the running community is perfect. We need to do more to support nonbinary runners who are not comfortable identifying as male or female, binary trans runners who can’t or don’t want to medically transition, runners for whom current policies are financially prohibitive, and many others.

While you have every right to feel fear, anger, or frustration, we as runners share a common goal of seeking happiness through running.

While you have every right to feel fear, anger, or frustration, we as runners share a common goal of seeking happiness through running. There are plenty of trolls on the internet, but there are also many allies in person. Let’s be very clear: the only thing that’s unfair is that we even have to worry about this in the first place. We are allowed to be athletes, at any level, just like anyone else.

There are plenty of trolls on the internet, but there are also many allies in person.

Workout Recommendation – 2-minute affirmations: 2 minutes on, 2 minute off intervals. On: run at an easy recovery pace for 2 minutes. During this time, focus on self-acceptance, self-care, or self-forgiveness. If you’re searching for ideas, try repeating a mantra like “I am not unfair,” singing your favorite song, or forgetting the recovery pace entirely and dancing instead. Off: run at your normal 2-minute interval pace (moderately hard, like you’re running a 10K). Repeat 5-10 times depending on your training volume (you know best).

The best part about this affirmation workout? You can do it outside of running too, for any amount of time. If you’re doing it outside of running, with time, maybe we can make it one long affirmation interval. Because you are awesome, just as you are. Always.

Resources to learn from, and support.

The Freedom Fund is an LGBTQ-centered bail fund.

Lambda Legal is an organization that provides advocacy and legal support to the LGBTQ community and people living with HIV/AIDS.

The Marsha P Johnson Institute is dedicated to supporting Black transgender people.

PFLAG is a network providing resources and support to friends and family of LGBTQ+ people.

Trans Lifeline is an intersex, nonbinary, and transgender specific crisis hotline.

Transgender Law Center is a legal support and advocacy organization for the trans community with an explicitly intersectional focus.

The Trevor Project provides support services to LGBTQ youth.

Bee (she/her) is a transgender trail and ultra runner.

David (he/him) is a running coach who has coached Bee for over four years.