As a female runner and coach of women (not exclusively) I want to encourage a better understanding of our monthly cycle and how we can maximize it in our training and racing. Let’s start with a quick recap of the female cycle and a reminder of terminology. The number of days for each phase is personal to each woman so treat this as a guide.
- Day 1 is when you get your period (bleeding) for between 4 -8 days depending on each woman. Both estrogen and progesterone levels are low which can make you feel low in energy and irritable.
- Day 5 moves into the follicular phase where estrogen helps boost endorphins and you can have more energy and feel calmer.
- Day 12 -16 is when ovulation occurs (egg is released) where you may feel your best physically and emotionally.
- Day 15/16 until day 28 is the luteal phase where progesterone increases and as you get closer to the end of your cycle you may feel more anxious or irritable.
How does each phase affect your training and what can you do to mitigate and maximise?
Day 1 – 8 – During your period – A tough time, moderate training can help
The blood loss from a period means that you are losing both fluid, hemoglobin and iron. Therefore your body’s ability to transport oxygen is reduced. Hydrate and get a source of iron such as nuts, apricots, fortified cereals, wholegrains and dark leafy veg (as well as meat of course). Vitamin C also helps you to absorb iron so do consider combining with Vit C rich foods like citrus juices, berries, brussel sprouts.
If you suffer cramps turn to the hot water bottle which works by increasing your core temperature, which speeds up your body’s circulation and production of pain-killing endorphins. Moderate exercise will have the same effect and anecdotally whilst it may feel harder to get out of the door to training, most women feel better afterwards.
Nearly 30% of women suffer from period diarrhea (phew it’s not just me). Period diarrhea combined with long distance running is uncomfortable and potentially dangerous in that you may lose too many fluids. Keep pre run meals to carbohydrates like wholegrain toast or a bagel, avoid dairy which can lead to stomach issues. Also make sure you find a gel that works for you and doesn’t exacerbate stomach issues. I like Maurten which doesn’t have such a significant glucose load as other gels. Make sure you hydrate well after your run.
Day 8 – 15 – Follicular stage – PB zone
Your body is accessing and storing carbohydrates most effectively in this phase which means you may feel that you have more energy and can recover more quickly. Physically women are more powerful in this stage. Anecdotally with the group of women I train, many of them report feeling strong during this time and can add training load. If you are competing you may get a PB in this phase.
Day 15 – 28 – Luteal phase – Hormone hurricane and interventions needed!
After ovulation at day 14, the hormones are having their greatest effect. Some women can lack energy owing to the fact that the body isn’t accessing carbohydrates as well, plus recovery is compromised. Dr Stacy Simms argues that taking protein to boost amino acids both before and after exercise is key here. Good sources of protein include pulses, nuts, meat, dairy, fish, soy, cauliflower, broccoli.
As your body isn’t accessing carbs as well as in the follicular phase, it can be better at using fat as a fuel, therefore Dr Anita Mitra states this can be a better time for more endurance based training.
Your plasma levels drop in this phase which means that your core temperature is up and your body finds it harder to sweat. Make sure you are well hydrated by using a sodium based sports drink to help you stay balanced.
If you keep track of your period in your training plan or on an app like Strava, or FitrWoman you can start to adapt your training and nutritional approach.
If you don’t have a period
Amenorrhea, or loss of your periods is due to not getting enough calories to support your exercise demands. Whilst it may feel like a win not to have to deal with your periods, this is not a healthy place to find yourself in and means you are at greater risk of stress fracture, infertility and elevated cortisol (which can lead to a host of thyroid related issues). Dr Stacy Simms emphasizes that from a performance point of view you are losing potential gains (such as being able to add training load in the follicular phase). In a study of sports teams those without periods, recovered less well from training and didn’t adapt as well.
If you have lost your periods, like I have done historically, I suggest dialing back your exercise intensity and increase your calorie intake, focusing on nutritional foods. Loss of your periods is worth seeing your GP about – running may be the cause, but it could be another issue.
Menopause and running
Due to the hormonal changes taking place during menopause, continuing running can be tough, but here are some tips on how to mitigate some of the common issues.
You feel hotter, with two thirds of women having hot flushes, owing to reduced estrogen levels and reduced hypothalamus activity. There is no danger running through a hot flush, but amino acid beta-alanine can help to reduce effects, as can a cool drink, or water-soaked bandana if it is hot outside.
Night sweats and trouble sleeping can plague menopausal women and if you are training then you can lose out on vital recovery. Try to run in the morning so your core temperature isn’t boosted just before you go to bed. Tart cherry juice can increase melotonin, plus avoid the screen 90 mins before bed.
You can have a faint like feeling after running as your blood vessels are not tightening quickly enough. A cold drink / cold bandana or towel can speed along constriction as can compression gear to stop pooling in your legs.
Lower estrogen leaves you more sensitive to carbs meaning you may need fewer to maintain a healthy weight.
What about men?
Ok so this is a blog about women’s cycles but it should be noted that men have a hormone cycle too. Testosterone is the main hormone and men go through one cycle in 24 hours with the highest point of their testosterone being in the morning, which men may find is the best time for them to train and compete.
Men too can experience ‘andropause’ which is a lowering of testosterone in middle age and is associated with a feeling of fatigue which can affect running.
Like women who lose their periods due to exercise, men who are training hard and not consuming enough calories can suffer from Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (REDS) meaning that they are not maximizing their training or performance. If you feel constantly fatigued, it may be worth talking to your GP about REDS.