Orreco’s Female Athlete Consultancy team began working with four-time Team USA Olympian and ten time Olympic swimming medallist (4 golds, 3 silvers, 3 bronzes) Allison Schmitt back in 2019.
Allison explains how the work she did with Orreco helped her to understand more about her body, to train and fuel in synch with it and to subsequently recover from Unexplained Under Performance Syndrome (UUPS) and illness just months out from the Tokyo Olympics, where she added two more Olympic medals to her impressive collection.
Allison describes her story from coming off hormonal contraception, adapting her fuelling and training during the pandemic and how she came to learn more about managing her menstrual cycle and symptoms through natural means.
“I’ve always had heavy periods and in college I was diagnosed with anaemia and told the solution was to go on birth control” said the 31-year-old.
“The pill I was prescribed didn’t do anything for me, so I ended up trying the IUD (intrauterine device) which stopped my periods altogether.
“In December 2018 I came off the IUD and that was the first time in eight years I wasn’t using hormonal contraception. I didn’t know that I could manage my body and my menstrual cycle without medicine and that you could help symptoms by managing your sleep, what you’re eating and your exercise regime.
“After I came off hormonal contraception I felt terrible all the time. I was very bloated and my mood was down, but working with USASwimming and Georgie (Orreco’s Dr Georgie Bruinvels) taught me about how my body responded to nutrition and different training types and made me realise I didn’t have to go back on hormonal contraception.”
Learning she could have a natural cycle and still perform at her best, Allison cites nutrition and menstrual cycle tracking, using the FitrWoman app, as the biggest game changers for managing her cycle and symptoms.
“I didn’t realise how important carbohydrates were and the need to eat more carbohydrates around certain periods of training. So many coaches throughout my career told us that carbs are bad for you and make you fat. I didn’t learn that training the female body is different to training the male body. We have to train differently and eat differently to men, and that knowledge has given me such a big advantage to help understand my body and reach the highest peak.
“Usually around my period I am exhausted and Orreco’s help with nutrition meant I had much more energy (in phase 1). It’s also hard for me to sleep around my period and I get hot at night so I’d make sure I’d go to bed an hour and half before the usual time so that I could get that extra time in there. With fuelling I’d make sure I had my snacks readily available after I’m done working out or competing and fuelling before practice correctly as well.
“Through tracking my cycle and using the FitrWoman app, after a few months everything was in synch and now it’s right on point. My cycle is consistent, I have a 28-day cycle and I know exactly when it’s going to be which is helpful to me in many ways.
“It’s helpful especially because I have a heavy period and I have to prepare for it in the days before or if I’m going to be travelling I need to be prepared for it to come and when I have it (her period) at a swimming meet I have to prepare my snacks and have them ready for which ever phase I’min.”
In March 2020 the pandemic turned everyone’s lives upside down and Allison comments on how it impacted her as an athlete.
“For me, I love competing and being around people, I’m a very extroverted type of person and get my energy from those around me. Covid was a whole different world and the stress of the unknowns such as ‘Are we ever going to compete again? Is the Olympics going to happen? When are we going to be racing again?’ and not ever knowing was difficult. Usually as athletes we are able to adapt very easily but it’s a lot harder to adapt to the unknowns.”
In addition to the pandemic to compete with, in the months leading up to the Olympics, Allison fell ill and found the illness very hard to recover from. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with Unexplained UnderPerformance Syndrome which is typically characterized by an athlete presenting with persistent fatigue in the absence of disease coupled with a decline in performance acknowledged by the athlete, coach, and support staff.
Allison reported feeling heightened levels of fatigue, the inability to complete set training and a performance decline that progressively deteriorated over several weeks. Allison also reported sleep disruption, emotional instability, and an elongation in menstrual cycle length during this time.
“I’m not one to get sick very often and normally I can bounce back very easily, but for whatever reason it was a lot harder for me to bounce back from this one. The Orreco team really helped me backing off on training and getting the right nutrition to keep fuelling. The mindset was ‘I’m not training as hard, I’m not competing as much so I don’t need to eat as much and some of that is my thinking mentally, but also you’re not as hungry as you’re not doing the output and the work but the Female Athlete team helped make sureI had the right nutrition plan in place.”
Orreco’s nutrition plan included the provision of weekly meal plans which recommended increasing the amount of protein in Allison’s diet as well as an increase in the uptake of antioxidants such as fruits and vegetables alongside carbohydrate periodization to align with her subsequent training load.
Through work with Allison’s team at USA Swimming, Orreco also advised 14 days of reduced volume training, with all forms of strength training also suspended for that period.
“Orreco checked in on everything from my nutrition to my menstrual cycle, whether I was eating right, which phase I was in, but also my mental state and everything in between like how practice went- it was an all-round health check-in.
“I call Georgie ‘the period expert’, but it wasn’t just about periods, it was an overall health check. Having someone that understands and someone who can empathise with you and being able to connect with someone made such a difference. Each week I would check in with the team and they were very consistent and the excitement and belief that they had in their work made me believe and gave me a lot of hope.”
Through her life experiences Allison has a huge desire to spread the educational messages she has been taught in the past number of years to female athletes.
“I think being a female is a superpower. For me, I always thought guys have it so much easier but the female body is amazing to see the processes it can go through, but it can also accomplish great feats in the athletic world. As a female you need to have the knowledge that you can put the work in, have the right nutrition and know your period doesn’t have to stop you from competing or achieving your goals. I don’t think a lot of girls have that knowledge around their period as it stops them from competing or sees them pullout their sports lessons.
“I want athletes to know there are other options. When I was20 years old I thought an IUD was the only option so that I’d be able to swim and compete and not have my menstrual cycle be a barrier, but now I’m able to understand that there are other ways and other options. It’s going to be different for every person but to give them the knowledge and education that there is not just one avenue to go down is the biggest message that I would like to spread.
“Mental health is also a huge passion of mine. My cousin committed suicide the week before her 17th birthday back in 2015 and since then it’s been a huge passion. For me now, I want to spread how having a healthy menstrual cycle, getting the right nutrition and exercising and working out is all part of having good mental health as well.”
Allison will be speaking at the Web Summit Conference alongside Orreco’s Director of Sport Science and FemaleAthlete Lead Dr Georgie Bruinvels and CEO of Orreco Dr Brian Moore around her experience working with the company’s Female Athlete Programme and as part of an expert panel asking whether health research has failed women and how sports science is ready to step up with a solution.
More information can be found here.