HARRIET BROWN // let's talk about PERIODS ❤️
This blog post was written by Exercise Physiologist Harriet Brown.
Let’s talk about periods. Now more than ever, us female athletes need to start understanding, tracking and discussing our menstrual cycle. Periods should no longer be a taboo topic.
Throughout my athletic career I have always leant away from learning about the menstrual cycle. I knew there was evidence that supported different times in the cycle when athletes were stronger and could tolerate more intensity, however I chose not to listen. I had the stubborn belief that I didn’t want my cycle to affect my confidence when racing. In other words, I didn’t want to go into a race knowing I might not be at my peak in my cycle.
However, as an Exercise Physiologist I started working with young female athletes who came to see me to help them manage their menstrual cycle when training. I knew it was time to dive in deep and learn more. My mind is blown away with the new research out there on females. In the past, most research has been done on male athletes. Understanding our menstrual cycle can help us train better, recover more effectively, understand our mood and nourish our bodies better.
But first, let’s talk about your cycle (skip this part if you want to go straight to the practical stuff):The average menstrual cycle is 28 days (can range between 21 – 35 days). The menstrual cycle has two different phases; the low hormone follicular phase (days 1 – 14) and high hormone luteal phase (day 15 – 28). Your period starts on day one, that’s when you experience bleeding. During your period you have low hormones and are most similar to a male (more on that later). After your period ends, about day 5 – 6 of your cycle, your estrogen starts to increase during the follicular phase. Around day 12 your estrogen surges and ovulation begins, where you release an egg from your ovaries. Ovulation is in the middle of the follicular and luteal phase. Estrogen then dips but will soon rise again during the next phase, the luteal phase. During the luteal phase both progesterone and estrogen start to rise, as if to prepare the lining of the uterus for an egg, and peaks about 5 days before you have your period. This is where premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms can show up. Your progesterone and estrogen levels then fall, you shed the lining of your uterus and are back to day 1.
(note: this relates to females who are having a natural cycling and not on hormonal contraception e.g. the pill)
Racing on your period is awesome!Firstly, you can stop worrying about having a period on race day. I understand as a water sports athlete this doesn’t seem ideal at all. However, your hormones favour performance when you have you period as you are in your low hormone phase (follicular). In fact, when your hormones are low your physiology closely mimics that of a man’s which has so many performance benefits.
When is strength training and high intensity training best?
The optimal time for strength training and high intensity efforts is the first two weeks of your cycle (the follicular phase - during your period and the week that follows). Your hormones are low, which makes it easier to build muscle and help with muscle recovery. Target high intensity training and gym sessions when your hormones are still low. Push a little harder in the intense efforts in the pool and don’t be afraid to increase your weights slightly in the gym.
I do a skill-based sport, when will should I focus on learning new skills?Your hand eye co-ordination is slightly faster and more accurate during the low hormone phase (follicular phase). Use this time wisely to learn new skills and develop speed and power.
Why do I sometimes struggle in the heat?
This could be due to your hormones. During the luteal phase, the last two weeks of your cycle, before your period, your hormones are high and your body temperature is also slightly elevated. Be aware of this when training in the heat, it may be why sometimes you can cope more than others. Adapt your training by training when it’s cool or use ice baths for recovery afterwards. It may also be more difficult to sleep when your body temperature is higher. You can use a lighter blanket or fan to help you sleep during this phase.
You guessed it, hydration changes too!During the luteal (high hormone) phase your progesterone is high, you don’t retain as much sodium, and your blood volume can drop by 8%. What does this mean? It’s more difficult to remain hydrated during this time. Combine this with your increased core temperature and hydration suddenly becomes extra important! Hydrate with electrolytes dissolved in water.
Please explain my cravings!!
Do you get cravings before your period? “Where’s the chocolate or chips? Now!!!” Your body struggles to use carbohydrates efficiently in the luteal phase, just before your period, so you need to make sure you’re eating more carbs, especially before or during high intensity training. You burn more calories overall during this time so eating a bit more overall will help your training. Research shows about a 5 – 10 % increase in metabolism, so eating 100 – 200 extra calories should help avoid those sugar cravings. Coincidentally, that is about the same number of calories of a small chocolate bar.
When is endurance exercise best?Your Vo2Max and lactate threshold remains the same throughout your cycle. During the high hormone phase (luteal), whilst estrogen reduces your ability to burn carbohydrates, it increases your ability to use fats. So, endurance exercise is great in this phase when high intensity exercise might be a little more difficult.
Should I program my training around my menstrual cycle?
Many top athletes are starting to program their training program around their cycle. Hit the high intensity and hard gym sessions in the low hormone phase and focus on endurance and recovery during the high hormone phase.
If you follow these tips you can really make the most of your training and really work with your body. These are the basics of what I know works from both research and my own training experiences. Gone are the days of a one size fits all training program. This is just a start, there is so much more to understanding about the complexity of the female body.
If this excites you and you want to learn more you can check out:
- ROAR by Stacy Sims (much of the research from this blog was based on Stacy’s ideas)
- Ted Talk – Stacy Sims: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5LYGzKUPlE
- Track you cycle
- FITRwoman app
- On your iphone health cycle tracker
This blog post was written by Exercise Physiologist Harriet Brown.
Harriet will be going live on our Instagram (@jolynaustralia) on Tuesday the 27th to talk about all things menstrual cycle related and give you some tips on how to maximise your training and racing potential by becoming more educated about your cycle! If you have any questions you'd like her to answer, please leave a comment below or DM us on IG! She'll be live at around 6:30pm AEST (QLD time)/7:30pm AEDT (NSW/VIC time) on Tuesday the 27th of October.