Your Menstrual Cycle and Athletic Performance

Your Menstrual Cycle and Athletic Performance

Oh yes, we are totally going there! If you aren’t one who enjoys talking about periods, female “issues” and hormones you can stop reading right now. However it is 2019 and these topics are becoming more popular but are still not nearly mainstream enough to have the attention this topic so dearly deserves.

So here we are! I love talking all things periods, menstruation and hormones. Why? Because they effect my life every dang month. Hell, every day is more like it! And because knowledge is power, the more you know about your body and why it does the things it does the better off you will be.

I am particularly excited to talk about how a woman’s menstrual cycle affects athletic performance because I think it is such important information to have in order to determine training cycles, training load and when to just give ourselves grace or take a rest day (or two).

For this post I will be specifically addressing women who have a regular menstrual cycle – fairly dependable timing each month and lasts 26-34 days and who are not on hormonal birth control. Those with amenorrhea (no period), PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) or those with irregular cycles will need to work with either a healthcare professional or doctor to make sure they are doing what is best for their individual situations.

I can, however, speak to those who have regular menstrual cycles and how either have symptoms throughout the month or starting before their period because GIRL I’VE BEEN THERE. Honestly, I’m still there but it’s getting LOADS better with supplementation, seed cycling, stress reduction and figuring out the root cause of my symptoms. Overall, it has been an interesting and exciting journey as I learn more and more each month about myself.

If you want to learn more about menstrual cycles and PMS head here to read this post about 10 things to try before turning to NSAIDs or ibuprofen. Now, remember I am not a medical professional nor can any of this information be intended as diagnosis or treatment. This is merely educational and anecdotal information that I hope to be able to share.

Two of the most helpful guides I have had throughout my journey to learning more about my own body and cycle have been Beyond the Pill by Dr. Jolene Brighten and The Period Repair Manual by Dr. Lara Briden. These books are well worth their weight in gold and have been extremely useful for information on PMS symptoms, hormone management, troubleshooting and overall education about women’s health and health issues. I highly recommend that you pick up both books and get ready to change your world!

Let’s dive on into what a menstrual cycle actually is. What hormones are at play, how they affect our bodies and common issues women may experience with different hormone imbalances?

A woman’s cycle can last anywhere from 26-36 days with 32 being the average. Day 1 of the cycle is the first day of a woman’s period or the day she begins to bleed. Bleeding can last anywhere from 3-7 days, shorter or longer than that can be considered abnormal. Around day 14 or halfway through the cycle, ovulation occurs. Women’s bodies produce an egg every month which then if fertilized with sperm, can create a pregnancy. This egg travels down the fallopian tube, if it is not fertilized, will then dissolve and pass out of the body along with the uterine lining which starts the next cycle with bleeding.

It is easier to think of the cycle into 4 main parts: the period, follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. These four distinct parts of the cycle allow the magic to happen. Fascinating stuff here, really. Now that we have a rough idea of what happens to the body during a woman’s cycle, let’s dive into the hormones at play.

There are two main hormones that rise and fall at different parts of our cycle. Estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen is typically most dominant during the first half of our cycle while progesterone is typically most dominant during the second half, after ovulation occurs.

If hormones are relatively balanced, day 1 of our period both estrogen and progesterone levels drop low to shed the uterine lining and start the bleed. This drop in hormones stimulates the brain (specifically the pituitary gland) into releasing follicle stimulation hormone (FSH). This stimulates the growth of the follicles in the ovaries to get an egg ready for ovulation.

During the 3-7 days that a woman is bleeding, estrogen starts to rise to a peak around day 8. Then, around days 9-10 testosterone also spikes to increase libido. Women also have testosterone, just not in the amounts that males do. Our bodies “want” to get pregnant and the spike in estrogen and testosterone makes sense to encourage women to seek out their partners for fertilization during ovulation. This would be a good time to either use a condom, use other non-hormonal forms of birth control like a spermicide or to abstain from sex if you are not looking to get pregnant.

Ovulation occurs around day 14 and the egg lives for 24 hours. Sperm can live for up to 5 days so the window of time that women can get pregnant is 6 days. Days 12-14 during ovulation estrogen is at its highest point and after ovulation occurs, starts to drop. After ovulation, our bodies start to release progesterone from the ruptured follicle released during ovulation. Progesterone continues to rise until about day 21 and then the cycle starts over again!

To recap: the first half of a woman’s cycle is called the follicular phase and prepares the body to release an egg and builds the lining of the uterus, the second half of the cycle is called the luteal phase and prepares the body to accept a fertilized egg (pregnancy) or to start the cycle over again. All the while, the body is sending the brain signals to elevate certain hormones.

From the image above, hopefully you can get a little bit better visual as to what the levels of different hormones look like throughout a cycle. Hormones are KEY to how we as women feel every single day. Too much of one hormone or too little of another can create anxiety, moodiness, lack of self confidence, acne, bloating and so much more! That’s why it is so important to work with a practitioner that you trust to make sure your body is operating optimally for your health. Or if your body isn’t operating optimally, what you can do to support it and create more balance.

Now that we have a little bit better of an idea of the hormones at play in the body let’s dive into why they are so important for the body and why it is so important to make sure the hormones are balanced in our bodies.

Estrogen is a group name for the hormone compounds that contain estradiol, estriol and estrone but for ease of understanding is typically grouped into the general term of estrogen. Estrogen is key for brain health, heart health and also keeps our bones strong. It is key in the reproductive system for helping to regulate the menstrual cycle, thicken the uterine lining and helps direct the distribution of body fat in the body.

Progesterone also helps to regulate the menstrual cycle and is crucial for maintaining pregnancy. If no pregnancy occurs that month, progesterone levels drop off so the uterine lining can be shed. Other important functions that progesterone help with include: blood clotting, immunity, regulating inflammation, skin elasticity, thyroid health and bone strength. Seems pretty necessary huh? Men also produce progesterone but in much smaller amounts than females.

From this information we can then begin to understand why females can feel so strong or good in one part of their cycle and tired or flat-out defeated in a different part of their cycle if certain hormones are either too high or too low. Keep in mind that there are plenty of other factors at play here: sleep, nutrition, internal and external stress all have a large effect on overall health.

Generally speaking, women tend to feel stronger or “better” in the first half of their cycles due to an increase in estrogen. This would be days 1-14 or as soon as you feel ready and able after the cycle starts. Again, estrogen is what helps to build bone strength and density but it also has an effect on satiety cues in our brains and can help us to feel more full with less food. I call that a win-win, as long as you are eating enough in the first place!

This would be a great time to focus on more strength-based activities such as heavy hangboarding or fingerboarding, heavier isometric drills (weighted two-arm hangs, weighted one-arm hangs and any other heavy weight pulling exercises), deadlifts, heavy bench press and more. Anything that requires a lot of physical strength would be a great fit for this time of the cycle creating larger strength gains overall. Women will typically also feel especially awesome leading up to and right before ovulation. Take advantage of this!! Set out to onsight or redpoint the hard boulder or route and push yourself to expand your limits if your body is feeling it!

As far as training for strength goes: high intensity, low volume and lots of rest. That means heavy loads, not that many reps and make sure you get plenty of rest between sets of whatever exercise you’re performing.

During the second half of the cycle and after ovulation, progesterone begins to rise and women might start to feel a bit more fatigued and “heavier.” Progesterone can cause the body to retain water, so don’t panic, it is normal to feel heavier or a little bloated in the second half of a cycle.

This is also a great time to focus more on the endurance aspect of the sport. This might mean taking the intensity down a notch and decrease rest between sets. This could be a great time to work on power-endurance with a shortened work:rest window, so doing an exercise such as 4x4s on boulder problems. Anything that isn’t max intensity or heavy loads will be beneficial in the latter half of the cycle.

As you get closer to starting the cycle over again and bleeding, be sure to listen extra carefully to what your body is telling you. If you need rest, take it, during this time of the cycle women are extra prone to injury due to low levels of estrogen and therefore creates less elasticity between the tendons and bones. Calorie requirements (especially carbohydrates) during this time will also be higher in order for your body to undergo shedding the uterine lining. This process is no small feat and requires fuel, sustenance and rest to do so.

Of course, these are just guidelines but I encourage you to give it a try! By adapting this approach for my own training I have seen gains in both my strength and endurance and more importantly I am able to give myself grace and be a little more patient with myself when I am just “not feeling it” a few days before my cycle starts. Having a deeper understanding of exactly what is happening and when it is happening has really opened my eyes to a sustainable approach to climbing training.

I highly recommend starting to track your menstrual cycle if you don’t already! My personal favorite app is Flo, but there are plenty of cycle tracking apps out there. Get to know your body and the signals it is sending you! It is so important for you to get in tune with your body and to train in sync with what it is telling you.

Lastly, I would like to bring up what it feels like to have “balanced” hormones so you can know what to look for in your own health journey. If your hormones are balanced well, your period will come and go easily. You might not even notice any of the typical PMS symptoms like breast tenderness, moodiness, fatigue, bloating, cramps or other symptoms. Your cycle will be regular, predictable and generally pain-free.

On the other hand, if hormones are imbalanced or poorly regulated, symptoms will be very prevalent and can cause further issues such as autoimmune disease, endometriosis, fibroids, PCOS and more if ignored for too long. Examples of hormone imbalance include: estrogen dominance (too much estrogen), low estrogen, low testosterone, high testosterone, too little progesterone, too much cortisol, too little cortisol and too little thyroid hormones.

As you can see the list for why hormones might be imbalance is long and not entirely straight forward. I highly recommend working with either a practitioner that you trust and can ask questions from or in conjunction with someone such as myself who can work with you to discover what your current hormones situation looks like and where to go from there to become more balanced and create a healthier life.

Thank you for making it this far in the post and for following along! As always, I love hearing from you and let me know if you have any questions or comments in the comment box below. I love hearing from you!!