Diagnosed anaemic in 2010 and put on an IUD for eight years, American 4-time-Olympian, Allison Schmitt has spoken about a scientific pathway to dealing with the hormonal changes female athletes’ bodies undergo, while chasing peak performance, opening about gaining awareness to sporttechie.com. She also spoke of the concerns of coming off birth control medication, once sport ceased to be the priority.
One of only seven American swimmers to compete in four Olympics, having competed in the Beijing, London, Rio and Tokyo Games, the freestyle specialist, won 10 medals—four gold, three silver, three bronze—including five podium finishes in 2012. In London, the Pittsburgh born, set Olympic and American records while winning gold in the 200 free and contributed to a world record in the 4×100-meter relay.
Schmitt was coached by renowned American coach Bob Bowman, who also steered Michael Phelps’ career. However it was a learning journey for both, dealing in female health and blending that knowledge with peak elite performance towards the end of her career, buying into science much later than she’d have liked.
“I needed that (scientific help) because of my performance at a time. I wasn’t able to finish practices. I wasn’t able to do practices at the level that I needed to do them at. And, I mean, it was kind of like hands up in the air. Bob and I don’t know any information on the female health side, so teach us what we can [learn] and what’s going to be beneficial. It ended up working—all of us working together (she worked with bloodwork experts) —and results started improving. From where I was in March and April to where I was in Tokyo was a drastic difference, and I don’t think that we could have got there without the help,” she told sporttechie.
Accustomed to following the relentless training pattern intensity of men, she slowly unlearnt the philosophy that brought her success but wasn’t healthiest. “I come from a mostly male training environment, and my mentality, which in that environment has gotten me a lot of success in sport, is, ‘Okay, put your head down, push through, you can get through it.’ But I think just now learning the difference between pushing through something, and getting the right help in this situation, is a big difference, but also the difference between men and women,” she said.
A fundamental biological question that sport blithely ignored, nagged at her. “Why are we training females like males? And why is all the research on males when females and males are different people? How our bodies are made up is completely different. It’s critical to treat your body how it’s made up, understanding that [females] can use those hormones and the differences to their advantages, and they can be more powerful than what they already are,” she noted.
Schmitt initially retired after the Rio Olympics in 2016, and pursued a master’s degree in social work at Arizona State. She reduced to a part-time load when she began swimming again in 2018 and now is on track to graduate in May.
Her early struggles were different. “I was diagnosed anemic in 2010, and the only really cure for that, I was told, was on an IUD so that I would bleed less. That’s all I knew, and I was on an IUD for eight years. I came off of that into the end of 2018. I just wanted to see how my body reacted. The myth is that the only thing we really know about female health is that our body changes every seven years. So I figured that maybe my hormones have changed, and I wouldn’t bleed as much,” she told sporttechie.
Her anxieties went beyond playing career. “That was my thought process. Coming off of birth control essentially was—I mean, I didn’t know what exactly an IUD was—my only question was, ‘I want kids some day. Is this going to stop me from having kids?’ They were like, ‘No, as soon as stop, you can have kids.’ I didn’t really realize the severity of the synthetic hormones (birth control) and what it does to your body. So when I came off it, my body was adjusting to it for quite a few months because of the synthetic progesterone was being produced for those eight years, and now all of a sudden, my body’s trying to produce it.”
Schmitt would recall how she got into weekly monitoring of bloodwork. “I didn’t really know what was going on with my body, which is when I got connected with the USA Swimming director of sports medicine, Keenan Robinson. He connected me with Dr. Georgie, and I have been working with her ever since. I was very involved. I talked with Georgie almost daily. I would be on mostly weekly calls with the whole team. It was like a team. We would talk just to check in, make sure everything’s going right. For what was needed, we would have blood work. So going towards Olympic trials, from probably October of 2020 through May of 2021, I was going through a lot of health things, and they helped me through that. And by the end, when I was actually into full training again, I was getting blood tests every Monday to check on my cortisol levels to see how it was in response to training,” she added.
The follow up involved nutrition, recovery and training. “But on Mondays if that number came back extremely low, I would have to adjust the training for that day or for that week. That was a different type of challenge, I guess for my coach, Bob Bowman, in just adjusting that based on what the scientific numbers are. I love that about Orreco: everything is proven and scientific-based, and it’s not just opinion.”
Technology was making its way into health matters for athletes, 50 percent of them, having rarely addressed the menstrual issue.
“We look at it as four phases in a female athlete, and yes, there’s different modalities that are ideal for them. But, at the end of the day, yes, we have our goals that we want to accomplish and adjusting to your needs and your period is not asking for less work. I’m still putting the same amount of work in, I just need to be more conscious and educated on ways that I can perform better. So whether that be nutrition, whether that be more recovery, whether that be more warm up—whatever that is for that day, I as an athlete have to be educated in that. But also, from a coach standpoint and pushing their athletes, I think there’s a lot of times where athletes are hard enough on their selves as it is. And they’re gonna want to do better week after week,” Sporttechie quoted.
The changes might have wafted in late, but Schmitt is glad. “I’m very passionate about getting that education out just because I feel like I learned so much about it. And if I’m learning this—I’m a 30-year-old female and am just learning about my body—how many other females are going through the exact same thing? If we can get this information out to kids at a younger age, in high school and college, there’s a lot of obstacles that they will be able to avoid throughout their career and hopefully have a more successful career.”