“There’s no other sport that I’ve been involved in where I just love it so much. I love being in nature, I love feeling empowered and inspired,” said Meg Lewis-Schneider. For the 26-year-old freelance journalist from Canada, the sport is running.
“When I was a kid, I couldn’t decide on one sport because I loved them all.” It was only after she finished her degree in Radio and Television that she picked up running—just for fun. But when she started entering races, it quickly became more than just a hobby. “I was so committed to my training and I started to see improvements in every race I did. I was completely hooked.”
While she ran one personal record after another, Meg experienced massive success in running right from the start, running some fast elite standard times. In 2018, Meg finished third at the Victoria Half Marathon on Vancouver Island, Canada, in one hour and fifteen minutes—just three years after her half marathon debut.
But she didn’t know that this success would be short-lived. “So often, when we get good at something, we start to think: OK, what else can I do to make myself better?” Meg said. She started mixing up her workout routine with strength training and yoga, and decided to change up her diet. It seemed to be the key to keep improving.
Then she got sidelined by a navicular stress fracture. “I had no idea what caused it and I just thought it’s a result of hard training and pushing my limits. I didn’t take it too seriously. I thought I would just let it heal and then I’d get back to running and do the same thing that I was doing.”
But the bone injuries kept coming. First the navicular stress fracture, then the fifth metatarsal and sacral, topped with a stress reaction in the femoral neck. After her third stress fracture at the beginning of this year, she began looking for reasons and started seeing a dietitian and a sports doctor.
That’s when she realized that the stress fractures were just the top of the iceberg. Down below, there was a row of connected issues: relative energy deficiency, low bone mineral density and amenorrhea, which is the medical term for the loss of the menstrual cycle. All of these combined to form the female athlete triad. The disorder often goes by unrecognized because the symptoms are subtle and can be mistaken as a side effect of hard training.
When Meg changed up her diet and went vegan, she also found that her nutrition intake was not matching her output, which got her into a relative energy deficiency in sport, also called RED-S. “I was riding a fine line because the more running or the more cardio you do, the more you lose your appetite,” Meg said.
While her personal bests for the 10K and half marathon kept dropping, her weight did too. Her teammates noticed that she lost weight and looked too skinny, but she didn’t take their opinions seriously. “I thought I looked this way because I’m training more and I’m faster.”
But the damage doesn’t show until later on, when the low bone density leads to stress fractures and even osteoporosis. “I dug my own hole when I could have been avoiding all those signs and warnings,” Meg said.
One of these warnings can be amenorrhea, which is one of the key symptoms of the female athlete triad. Amenorrhea can have many causes ranging from stress to overtraining to undereating, which ultimately result in low estrogen levels and a missing period. But for Meg, this warning sign remained undetected.
“I was in RED-S and I didn’t know because I was also on birth control. And when you’re on birth control, it masks the problem because you’re still getting [your] period. But I didn’t know that it was actually fake,” Meg said.
Birth control pills are a common treatment for amenorrhea because they bring back the period. But compared to the natural hormonal system of the body, birth control pills are not as efficient in maintaining the bone mineral density. The hormone estrogen is a crucial regulator for the bone metabolism in both women and men. And when low estrogen levels remain undetected because they are hidden behind an “artificial” menstrual cycle due to birth control pills, it can have devastating impacts on the bone mineral density.
“You don’t notice the consequences because it takes a while for the damage to kick in,” Meg said. The third symptom of the female athlete triad, a low bone mineral density, develops over several years. And once it is detected, it is already too late to turn around and make the necessary changes in diet and training. “It’s not going to take four months. It’s not going to take a year or two to reverse the damage.”
Meg learned that the hard way, when she transitioned back into training after her sacral stress fracture. “By July I got my period back and I was off birth control. I thought I’m healthy and I’m going to get back to running the way I used to run.”
She started running that same month, only to find herself knocked down by another bone injury a month later. After building up her bone density for six months, the diagnosis was both shocking and unexpected at first. But even though stress fractures are devastating to anyone who loves running, Meg also sees this row of injuries as a chance.
Being injured during a global pandemic pushed her into finding other passions and hobbies. “Through my other injuries, I would try to go to the pool and biking, but I’m being kinder to myself these days. I don’t need to cross-train like the machine to feel good,” she said.
Instead, she discovered that baking helps to keep her positive, as well as spending more time with friends. Meg loves an upbeat music playlist that helps the mood and she also tried gratitude journaling. “Even when we’re struggling, there’s still so much to be thankful for,” she said. Along with walks in nature, it’s inspiring books and podcasts that get her through both the pandemic and the injury.
“Sometimes it takes all these setbacks or failures to really learn. I know this is all part of the process,” Meg said. “The biggest lesson for me is that I have to take things much slower and be way more patient and compassionate for myself.”
To run healthy, it takes more than a regular training schedule. It also takes good nutrition, enough rest and the ability to listen to the body. On her blog, she writes: “I have gained way more from my setbacks than I have from any victory. I may have made too many mistakes and suffered far too many injuries, but I am not discouraged.”
One of Meg’s biggest goals for the future is to get up from sitting on the sidelines and get out running on the roads again. “I have so much fire inside me and once my bone health is restored and I’m fully healthy, I want to get back to running and prove that I can be much better than the former version of myself.”