How does the menstrual cycle impact training and racing?

How does the menstrual cycle impact training and racing? Jesse Lambert-Harden explains how to maximise performance throughout the month…

How does the menstrual cycle impact training and racing?

Despite it being at the heart of your health and wellbeing, the menstrual cycle is often overlooked by many women in their training plan. Our hormones impact how we feel both physically and emotionally, but not always negatively as you might fear. What if we could use this to our advantage and manipulate our training accordingly, both optimising performance and recovery?

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Tracking your cycles increases your awareness and understanding of exactly how it impacts you individually. By monitoring symptoms such as energy levels, cravings and mood, and also training capacity and recovery using RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) and heart rate, you can develop a deep understanding of just how your physiological and psychological capacity changes throughout the month and can adapt accordingly.

Painting a picture of what your ‘normal’ is provides a useful tool for monitoring changes, which can be indicative of health problems, particularly energy deficiencies (RED-S or Female Athlete Triad). Also, typically we look towards the negative aspects of the female cycle, but it’s important to recognise that at some times of the month women are supercharged.

The menstrual cycle

A typical cycle lasts for between 28 and 35 days and for some women the pattern is predictable; others, not so and this is another reason to understand what is normal for you as an individual. The cycle can be broken down into two main phases:

The follicular phase (typically days one to 14): Day one starts with menstruation. Oestrogen levels are low on day one and slowly increase to day 14; at the same time, progesterone levels are low. Around day 14 (depending on cycle length), ovulation occurs and an egg is released. At this time, oestrogen levels peak and progesterone levels increase.

The luteal phase (typically days 15 to 28) is the hormone phase when progesterone is higher. Basal body temperature increases, too, so you may feel slightly warmer. Should an egg not be fertilised, both hormones then begin to fall and the next phase begins again with menstruation.

So now on to the interesting bit: how do you adapt and periodise your training to work with this? During the follicular phase when oestrogen-dominant, you’re more insulin-sensitive with the capacity to gain more muscle and store less fat, utilising more carbohydrates for energy. Pain threshold is higher and stress response and recovery better; in turn, our capacity to train harder means that this is the optimal time to train at higher intensities, pushing harder and chasing those PBs.

Theoretically one is a powerhouse, ready for action. However, for some women, menstrual cramping and heavy bleeding can be a barrier for the first few days of this phase, often passing after day three, so it’s important to recognise this and do what works for you.

Towards the end of this phase, prior to ovulation, there’s an increased risk of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) damage as the ligaments become laxer due to hormones, which could be applicable to any joints in the body.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t train, but you must ensure a thorough warm-up’s performed prior to training. Continued attention to training the lower limbs using both isolation (individual muscles such as quadriceps) and compound (multi-joint such as squat) movements, core strength and plyometric training to strengthen support the muscles, joints and coordination are all preventative measures.

During the luteal, high-hormone phase, increasing progresterone levels mean women’s bodies are more insulin-resistant and thus want to hold on to fat stores more, in readiness for potential pregnancy. Often during this time, your pain threshold and energy levels are lower, training can feel cumbersome, and breathing and heart rate is often faster. Now is a good time to lower the intensity
and perform slower, steady-state training and focus on technique.

Due to higher body temperature, sweat rate may increase, so be aware of hydration levels. Using electrolytes when training’s advisable to replace those lost through sweat. The luteal phase is also when most women experience some form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) with symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, mood swings, bloating, weight increases, sore breasts and food cravings.

This is often the time when training feels harder, uncomfortable and motivation is lowered. Gentle exercise often helps ease PMS symptoms, releasing endorphins, so pencil in steady-state training, restorative exercise such as yoga and mobility, and plenty of fuel and recovery. All of these are key features of an athlete’s programming, so switch your mindset and view it as an opportunity for a well-executed deload/ taper week as opposed to a week lost from training. 

Ultimately, your menstrual cycle isn’t your enemy. Track your cycle and work with a coach or plan your own periodised training around it, hitting hard, intense sessions in the first 14 days when you’re feeling like Wonderwoman and backing off a little if you need to later in your cycle. Be kind to yourself and manage your expectations accordingly, viewing progress over the month as a whole rather than days in isolation.

Managing your period on race day

Don’t underestimate your ability to perform on your period. This low-hormone phase is a great time for high-intensity performance but, of course, this might not be the case if you suffer heavy bleeding and cramping. Avoid any race day surprises by tracking when your period is due and planning accordingly. As with all racing strategies, avoid trying anything new on race day. Stations along the course often don’t offer sanitary wear so pack extra, just in case. 

Management of PMT symptoms is personal. A ‘trial race’ carried out at the same time the month(s) before is a chance to see how you respond, paying particular attention to fuel, sleep, hydration and recovery, all of which can impact PMT.

Finally, a longer warm-up and applying heat packs on the abdominal region can help reduce cramping. If you suffer bloating and cramping, looser-fitting clothing will probably be more comfortable, rather than compression kit. Swollen, tender breasts will need a supportive sports bra to ease bounce so consider this in your kit choices – the integral ‘shelf’ bra in many women’s tri-suits isn’t enough for most women, so add your own underneath.

Jesse Lambert-Harden is a nutrition and lifestyle coach and personal trainer, specialising in female health and performance. She is one of the expert coaching team at Her Spirit. The Her Spirit community provides a fun, safe and supportive space for every woman to get fitter, stronger and healthier with useful tools for mind, body and fuelling.

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