Amazing people doing amazing things - Femmi is leading the way when it comes to training females holistically.
Longtime friends and accomplished runners Esther Keown and Lydia O’Donnell launched Femmi a little over a year ago, motivated by their own personal running experiences. They have developed a diverse team of experts that focus on coaching females based on their individual physiology. Femmi works collaboratively with their athletes, developing programs focusing on both physical and mental symptoms of their menstrual cycle. These programs are created through a research based approach to better support and encourage female athletes in fulfilling their potential. Most importantly, their goal is to help females “feel confident and empowered in their bodies”.
We caught up with co-founder Esther Keown to hear the Femmi story and holy shit we learnt stacks. She shared the importance of understanding female physiology and the benefits of being in tune with the menstrual cycle when it comes to running. No matter your gender or running level, this is worth a read. Enjoy.
When and how did Femmi come about?
Femmi has just turned 1 - it all started in the early days of lockdown. Lydia O’Donnell and I (the founders of Femmi) were chatting about how our menstrual cycle affected our training so much, our energy levels, ability to take on load, ability to adapt, our mood and so much more. After so many years where we were training extremely hard, we both struggled with hormonal issues, having stages in our lives where we lost our periods and were suffering from RED-s (Relative Energy Deficiency syndrome in sport), we weren’t getting the results we wanted and ultimately felt frustrated by the lack of understanding around female athletes. Once we understood our bodies better and became educated on how to use our physiology to our advantage, we decided to start Femmi.
There is a huge disparity in sports science studies around how to train for female athletes versus for male athletes. Less than 10% of these studies have been done on females, with the reasoning being the menstrual cycle creates too many outliers and too much variability, which in turn has led to women being given advice based on studies with male only participants. The two just don’t quite match up. We are not men, we have a completely different hormonal cycle during our reproductive years to take into account and these studies cannot be taken as exact truth for female athletes.
Throughout my life I have been told by a coach that I was training hard enough because I lost my period. This type of miscommunication, lack of knowledge and understanding of the dangerous health implications of losing a period needs to change. Recently there has been a shift with more sports science studies being done specifically on women which has led to a better understanding of working with your hormonal fluctuations rather than ignoring them. Studies that show throughout the menstrual cycle how best to train, how we should be fueling and the times where we should be pushing the hardest or focusing more on recovery based on hormonal fluctuations. At Femmi we have recently expanded our team to bring in experts in these fields. These include an endocrinologist with a passion for women’s health. A registered dietician who has many years of experience helping women with eating disorders, focusing on getting their cycle back through fuel and managing common hormonal disorders that many females suffer from. And lastly a physiotherapist who is also very experienced working with females around hormonal disorders, pre and post natal return to running and much more.
Our goal at Femmi is to inspire and educate women all over the world to understand and work with their bodies. We want to educate all coaches male and female, to understand and embrace female physiology and train their athletes accordingly. By teaching women that our menstrual cycle is something that we can use to our advantage, to better our performance and to use as a very obvious sign if something is not quite right within our bodies, we are hoping to change the way women see themselves and learn to fall in love with the way their bodies work in a holistic and healthy way.
What was/is the motivation factor behind Femmi?
The major motivator behind Femmi was our own personal experience. Throughout my teenage years my male coaches were incredibly uneducated on how to work with female athletes. They truly believed that having a period was a nuisance and that not having one was a sign that I was training hard enough. They were focused on being lean as they thought that would result in being fast. How wrong they were.
Menstrual cycle irregularity (unless underlying medical issues) is a sign that our bodies are being under fuelled and are not in a safe space, leading to the shut down of ovulation. If this continues for a sustained time, menstruation will completely stop and this can lead to multiple health issues, such as weakening of bone density, suppressed immunity and metabolism and other health complications associated with RED-s (Relative Energy Deficiency in sport). Regular menstruation is incredible for the female body. It is a key sign that you are fueling appropriately for the workload you are doing, you are nourishing your body enough to adapt, to get fitter, stronger and faster.
Every coach at Femmi has sadly, but also importantly, had their own experience with some form of over training, under eating, or being too highly stressed and their bodies have suffered due to a lack of education. At Femmi we want to change the narrative and help other females to never get to the point we were in. RED-s is hard to get out of and getting a healthy cycle back takes time and commitment. Our hope is to educate and inspire those who menstruate to understand the importance of their cycle, understand how they feel throughout the cycle and work with their bodies. We want to encourage a holistic approach to training that not only looks at the physiological changes throughout the month but lifestyle impacts for each athlete alongside the mental and emotional changes that come with changing hormones. The fluctuations of our hormones can come with changing moods, energy levels, cravings, strength, ability to push hard and we want to make sure these changes are listened to and not ignored.
How was your team formed?
Lydia and I have been friends for over 15 years, she is an inspiration to many around the world with her positive energy, compassion, ability to run very fast and also inspire others through her words, love for running and people. We have always talked about the fact that one day we would work together and make something together and now it’s come true. During lockdown we got to thinking about how we could help females never go through what we’d been through. As more sports science studies are done on females more information is becoming readily available and females are catching on. We joined forces with another amazing coach and friend Paige Gilchrist and set to work.
We spent a long time reading, studying and getting a better understanding of the menstrual cycle, diving deep into the research that has been done in the area and how best to work with females. Confident in our coaching abilities from years of running at competitive levels and coaching athletes ourselves we launched Femmi, a community for women to feel empowered in their bodies, a community to further educate females around their physiology and a safe space where women feel heard, can speak openly about important topics and grow together.
Femmi references Dr Stacy Sims research - tell us about your relationship to her work?
Dr Stacy Sims is a leader in sports science research pertaining to women’s athleticism both in their reproductive years and menopausal years, she is an advocate for the movement to better understand and respect half of the population instead of grouping them with men when our physiology is different.
Her saying is famous; “women are not small men” and she has been a real inspiration for us at Femmi and how we coach our amazing athletes. Dr Stacy Sims co-wrote a brilliant book called Roar which I recommend to any female who trains and she continues to pioneer important studies for women. At Femmi we are so appreciative to those involved in sports science studies on females as all their hard work allows us to make changes to our training, and our athletes training, that will ultimately better female sport, empower and educate women and very importantly keep young girls in sport.
What common issues do females face with running and their menstrual cycles?
The most common issue females face is menstrual cycle irregularity or loss of a period. This can come from too much stress on the body, whether it be from purposefully under-eating or not, overtraining and any other life stress, emotional, mental or physical. If a female suffers from a loss of a period, even just 1 cycle, they should reach out to a women’s health professional to assess the causes and make sure they get their period back.
When we speak about ‘issues’ throughout a regular menstrual cycle, we try not to term them as issues and more as symptoms as we don’t want females to create negative connotations with their cycle. But the more common symptoms we see are around the luteal phase, from post ovulation until you menstruate. The menstruation phase can also cause some symptoms. PMS (premenstrual syndrome) affects up to 75% of women worldwide and it is no joke. Women can suffer from multiple symptoms from sleep interruptions, mood swings, cravings, cramping, headaches and others. PMS tends to hit in the last week or so of your cycle when your hormones drop away suddenly. Prior to this progesterone would have been peaking and progesterone has a calming effect on the brain, so when this suddenly plummets away some women can feel moody, unmotivated and irritable. On top of this, during the luteal phase (the higher hormone phase), a woman's core temperature is higher, her heart rate and cortisol level is naturally higher meaning pushing hard in training can feel a bit tougher. At Femmi we do not want women to become fixated on their cycle but more to understand on certain days if they don’t feel as flash, there is a potential reason behind it. It’s also important to note that you can still perform, race, train and compete well during the luteal phase, as there are ways to mitigate these symptoms.
Your programs cater for fitness levels and individual physiology - can you tell us more about your holistic approach to training females?
Every athlete we coach is different. They can handle different loads, they may be more susceptible to injury, they may be on the oral contraceptive pill meaning they don’t have fluctuating hormones, they may adapt better to more speed work training or they may adapt better to more endurance based training. We work with each athlete collaboratively to create a strong relationship with them and get to know their strengths and weaknesses. If an athlete does have a regular menstrual cycle we get to know their specific cycle and understand that not every athlete feels the same throughout, some barely suffer from any PMS and some are unable to run in this part of their cycle.
With a regular cycling athlete we taper the training to match her hormonal fluctuations with the harder work being done in the follicular (low hormone phase) and ovulatory phase where hormone levels align best with more high intensity training and then pull intensity back somewhat in the luteal phase (the high hormone phase). Athletes still train hard throughout the cycle, just the maximum intensity work tends to be done in the first half of their cycle and more endurance based tempo work in the second. It is important to note that we are mindful in all phases of how much high intensity work an athlete is doing as recovery and recovering properly from a hard session is just as important as the session itself. Alongside the training aspect we understand that every athlete at Femmi is unique and is starting from somewhere on the spectrum of a beginner all the way to aiming to smash a 100km trail race.
We know firsthand that for too long women have been grouped with men and finally we are getting the information we deserve, at Femmi we will never group all women as the same. We are all different and we acknowledge and thrive on that.
Your journal entry Running Saved Me is honest, inspiring and I’m sure relatable for many people. Tell us about your own running:
Thank you, that’s really nice. My running has been a journey, I was a successful junior runner winning lots of national medals, qualifying for world junior champs, world youth champs and winning the world secondary school cross country champs but it was all at a cost. When I began succeeding I was praised for succeeding all my self worth was built upon my running success, when I started going through puberty I put on a little weight and didn’t like what I saw, so began restricting my eating. My running went really well for a year but I lost my period, got really thin and slowly all the health issues associated with RED-S and amenorrhea began popping up.
At 18 I quit running, I couldn’t handle the stress anymore, at that stage I still associated success with winning and I wasn’t winning anymore so that was it. I stopped running for about 3-4 years properly and then at age 22 I realised I missed it so much. It wasn’t the winning aspect I missed but the running aspect. The feeling fit and strong, the pushing my body to its physical limits as well as the community of runners, so I started again. Since then I have represented New Zealand and won some National medals. Although I was initially successful coming back into running, it took me until last year to actually get the mental aspect of my running under control. I think that mindset where success only comes from winning or running personal bests plagued me for longer than I like to admit. Listening to mindset podcasts, journaling and making sure having fun is my ultimate goal again has led me to find happiness in racing and training again. I now look forward to getting onto the start line because I am proud of myself regardless of the result. Of course I still want to do well, be successful and break PB’s, but I am more accepting of myself if I don’t because the backstory to getting there is the true success.
How can people get involved? I hear there is a run group starting in Melbourne soon?
A Femmi Run Community is definitely on the cards in the future - COVID permitting. If you want to follow along with our journey follow us on instagram: femmi.co and check out our website also at femmi.co. If you feel like our training sounds right for you you can join up through our website, we’d love to have you.
Any other plans or goals for Femmi in the near future?
Our main goal is to continue to build the Femmi community. Continue to inspire and educate the females both within our community and beyond, to be confident and feel empowered within their bodies. We certainly have some exciting plans for Femmi in the near future so keep your eyes peeled.