The Olympian and cycle-mapping devotee is planning for perimenopause in her late 30s. And no, that’s not too early – she tells Kerry Potter why

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“Being in tune with your body is a powerful thing,” says Jess Ennis-Hill. That’s Dame Jessica, to you and me. “If you can get to grips with how you feel daily and monthly, and then use that information and incorporate small changes into your lifestyle, it’ll make a huge difference. We can absolutely use our hormones in a positive way, rather than feeling like we’re at the mercy of them.”

Since retiring from sport in 2016, the Olympic heptathlete and poster girl of the unforgettable 2012 London Games has reinvented herself as a femtech founder. Her app, Jennis launched in 2019 as primarily a fitness platform but more recently added a cycle mapping function, for women to calculate how to best harness our hormones, and make nutrition, exercise and wellbeing choices accordingly, during each phase of our cycle.

Now Jess, 37, has launched a new ‘perimenopause’ section on Jennis, following feedback from women whose cycles had started to ‘degrade’, and who were experiencing new symptoms as they headed into perimenopause. It’s crammed with expert advice and a way of logging issues, so you have a body of evidence to share with, say, your PT or doctor.

We caught up with the entrepreneur and mother-of-two, who lives in Sheffield, to find out what she’s learned about harnessing her hormones along the Jennis journey.

Image: Jay Kamara for Jennis

When I was competing, I had to ‘ignore’ my period

“I used to ignore my cycle when I was an athlete. I knew I felt different while training at different stages of the month, but I didn’t really understand it and it wasn’t something we focused on. My team was male-dominated, which is common for a lot of sportswomen, and I didn’t feel 100 per cent comfortable talking about it.

“There were a few big competitions when I knew I’d be on my period and it played on my mind. I just had to find a way of getting on with it and putting it out of my mind, which is challenging when you’re trying to be at the top of your game. Now thankfully there are more conversations around all of this. You’ll hear lots of high-profile sportswomen talking about the challenges they have with their cycles.”

Discovering cycle mapping: how I vary how I exercise during the month

“I’ll look at where I am in my cycle and how I’m feeling and that dictates what I do. Variety in exercise is important to me too – I do yoga, Pilates, running, weights, HIIT. Switching it up helps keep me motivated.

Best exercise in the follicular phase – the first half of your cycle 

“In your follicular phase you’re more likely to train and recover better, and build lean muscle. So that’s the time when I push yourself harder with, say, a HIIT class, and see bigger strength gains.

Best exercise in the luteal phase – the second half of your cycle 

“Whereas in the luteal phase I might choose yoga – that’s when you’re revving down and a steady state exercise where your heartrate doesn’t spike or drop too low is preferable.

I was naïve about perimenopause, but it’s not too early to start thinking about it in your 30s

“I know that some younger women can feel scared about what’s ahead and part of me used to feel like that. But I think it’s better to be proactive rather than reactive, and to acquire the tools to navigate your way through the next phase. I only really started to understand my hormones during pregnancy and postnatally.

“And I was quite naïve about perimenopause until I spent time researching with Jennis’s physiologist Dr Emma Ross. I now understand it’s the opposite to what happens in puberty: instead of your hormones increasing erratically, your hormones are decreasing erratically, and that’s why you start to experience all these symptoms. You change hugely physically and mentally, over a big chunk of time before enter menopause. During this time women are feeling under served, not really understood and in need of solutions.”

I’m not as ripped anymore, but bodies are meant to change

“I always compare myself to how I looked in 2012 and that is very unrealistic! My husband Andy is, like, ‘What are you doing?’ Then, I was in the prime of my life and my abs were ripped.

I’ll look at those pictures and think, Hmmm, I’m not quite like that anymore. But our bodies change so much. I’ve had two kids [Reggie, eight and Olivia, five], I don’t have any injuries, my body feels great, I can exercise the way I want – and that’s an amazing thing. I have to remind myself that our bodies are supposed to change. And if we can still function and do the things we love and exercise the way we want, that’s a great place to be in.”

Exercise is so important in perimenopause

“In perimenopause, the way you exercised before probably isn’t going to be the right way for you to exercise now, so don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t do the same runs you did before. You have to adapt. It’s important to incorporate strength into your training because you’re losing muscle mass and that slows down your metabolism. So you need to increase muscle, which also helps with injury, bone density, osteoporosis risk. Be flexible in the way you train, try something new and don’t feel you have to push yourself all the time.”

“I really feel exercise is a key tool in navigating perimenopause. It’s so powerful. The majority of my career was dictated by deadlines and competitions, whereas now I can exercise for the way it makes me feel. I absolutely love going for a run by myself and switching off rather than focusing on a particular goal.

My supplement regime for different times of the month

“I take a magnesium supplement at certain times of the month because I get quite bad headaches during certain phases of my cycle and it helps prevent them. I take Healthspan Elite Magnesium Plus, £11.04, which I started using when I was an athlete.

“I also take Healthspan Elite vitamin D3 4000iu, £16.99, and Altrient Liposomal Vitamin C, £49.96. Although when it comes to pre- and post workout refuelling, I don’t take protein powders or anything like that, I prefer to do it naturally. I makes smoothies and I eat a lot of nuts. And I try to keep as hydrated as possible – that’s something I’ve struggled with in the past but I’ve realised it has a big impact on the way I feel.”

Find your Zen, whatever it may be

“It’s so hard juggling everything in life. Balance a big thing for me – I’m always asking myself, ‘Am I getting the balance right with everything?’ What helps me is breathwork.  Georgie Lawlor does these five-minute sessions on the Jennis app that help so much.

“When I’m stressed I almost hold my breath so I’ve been training myself to breathe properly – it sounds really basic but it makes such a difference. I also started cold water swimming – my mum got me into it. She goes three times a week with her friends in the Peak District.

“I used to do ice baths all the time as an athlete – but I’d go up to waist height. But with cold water I go right up to my head and it feels really exhilarating. Connecting with nature and switching off from the buzz of life is really important.”

Jennis Perimenopause is now available through the Jennis app and costs £5.99 per month