PERIOD – Female Athletes and Menstruation

Angela Neath smiling and riding near Boulder, Colorado.

Real talk. Real life. I get my period monthly. I have PMS, monthly. I have days I’m fatigued, and the world seems to be ending. It’s almost like I’m drugged. I’m not rational. The days leading into my period, I become more irritable and frustrated at minor things. I could cry watching re-runs of 50 First Dates. I get the body changes – enlarged breasts (for me, that’s noticeable!), water retention, and bloat. I become tired and annoyed at things that I usually don’t care about. A dirty dish in the sink, ruffled bed… it’s nonsense I would be concerned with minute issues. I know in the back of my head it’s PMS, but it’s almost as if my rational brain is *slightly fogged.  On top of this, I often find typical workouts harder, power is low, I have low motivation, and become a little irritable at harder efforts. It’s only when the hormones change, my period starts, I can see the light.

Day 1 of my period, I’m back to being Wonder Woman. My energy is hard to contain, and I can do intervals like nobody’s business. The next few days I hit the workouts with a new vengeance and usually hit my highest wattages on a bike in a month. I am dumbfounded – what the hell was wrong with me yesterday?? All is well in the world again. 

Ah, the joys of being female! Most women can relate to the above. Our hormones change how we feel both on a physical, and an emotional level. I have to be honest though, after all the research, using a phone app to follow my cycle (best thing I ever did), it still hits me by surprise.

Truth be told, more often than not, my boyfriend knows it’s coming before I do. My boyfriend is also my coach (not that, that matters). He not only sees patterns in my workouts (my comments from workouts, lower pain tolerance; lack of power), but he lives with me, and notices my mood change, and fatigue levels. My last cycle, we were hundreds of miles away from one another. I was frustrated at something and was finding it difficult to get on my bike. He called me, and asked, “when are you getting your period?” I opened my phone, checked my app, it was not for another 10 days. “Well, perhaps it’s coming earlier this month.” Ha! I told him no, I have been on a 28-day cycle for the last 9 months. 

Two days later, I got my period. It blew my mind! Am I that blinded by my own reactions and actions, that my boyfriend (who was hundreds of miles away!) can read my body better than I can? We laughed.*

*NOTE: I do realize that many women may not enjoy having their boyfriend/spouse/significant other calling them out on PMSing, but I do!  I want full communication and understanding in my relationships, and him being able to see that I’m irritable, emotional, tired etc., and help me become aware of it, is what I want, especially if it’s something I wasn’t aware of. NEVER does he use it against me, nor does he use it in arguments, or says it to piss me off. It’s more of a suggestion as to why I feel so crappy.  If it was for one of the latter reasons, and him asking me made we want to punch him in the face, then 1) I would punch him in the face, and/or 2) I probably wouldn’t be dating him. 🙂   

So, why are we (or perhaps just me), so hazy on what’s going on with our own bodies? Are we just trying to cope with the change in hormones? Perhaps. For the last two years, I have been using a phone app to document when my period starts, ends, and future cycles. For 12 months of this, I had an IUD. The latter 12 months, I have used no birth control. I’ve read peer reviews, articles, and books on the topic. I have raced, trained, and documented what happens to me monthly – physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’m a study of “one” but, I’m certain what happens to me, happens to all women, to some degree. 

The Menstrual Cycle

Not to go into depth here, but I feel it best to provide a general sense of the different stages of our hormonal cycle.  

Follicular Phase (typically days 1-14):  Menstruation. A typical period lasts 4-7 days. Estrogen and Progesterone levels have dropped. After your period, estrogen slowly begins to ramp up. 

Luteal Phase (typically day 14-28): Ovulation. Primed to have a baby. Progesterone levels rise. Estrogen and progesterone are both high in this phase of the cycle. 

What do our hormones do?

Hormone levels change how we metabolize carbohydrates, fat, and protein, how we regulate heat, changes our blood plasma levels (fluid in our blood), among many other processes going on in the body. As a female, we are affected by our changing estrogen and progesterone levels. To keep things on a basic level we will focus on these (please see sources below for more in-depth reading). When estrogen is high women tend to utilize more fat as fuel and conserve glycogen (a form of carbohydrates). This can lead to more difficulty in higher intensity training (luteal phase). Progesterone promotes the breakdown of protein. When high (luteal phase), protein is critical for recovery.

Plasma volume (volume of fluid in our blood) is related to our sodium and potassium levels (electrolytes). When our hormones are high (again, the luteal phase), are blood volume drops creating thicker blood, which lowers performance. Progesterone increase sodium loss and also elevates our court temperature. This can affect your training/performance by causing earlier fatigue, decreased performance and lowers your heat tolerance. One hormone I haven’t talked about is prostaglandins. In the first days of your cycle, you may have loose stools because of its effects of muscle stimulation during this time. 

Recommendations for training with a menstrual cycle: Work with it, not against it. 

I have raced pre-period, during my period, and all days in between, in the last 10 years.  I have had great performances when my body most otherwise says, it shouldn’t. I go into each race with a mindset of “Let’s see what I’ve got!”,  and focus on mental cues of being strong, letting the day unfold as it may. Racing (and training), is about not hoping for the best day, but learning how to deal with whatever comes your way and making the most of it.

Below are some tips/tricks I’ve used, and have researched/found to be useful as an athlete, and my performance. This is my personal experience, a fierce one at that! 🙂 Do understand, no two people are the same, and no two cycles are either. I recommend doing as I did, documenting over time how you feel throughout each cycle, and getting to know your own body.

Power of your Period:

In the follicular phase (during your period, and first 14 days of your cycle – see below for more info on the menstrual cycle), I have higher energy, and pain tolerance levels. I tend to recover faster and am ready for almost every workout. It’s a great time for me to push more intensity in my training. As I get closer to ovulation and into the next phase of my cycle (day 14-28), I tend to slowly feel changes until I’m pre-menstrual – where I most definitely am more fatigued, irritable, bloated and find it hard to handle the heat. All of this can be explained by our changing hormone levels. 

Consider your menstrual cycling when you look at your program/training plan. 

-Listen to your body. Usually, exercise helps with menstrual cramps/symptoms.  If it’s difficult, consider easing into the workout, and/or going easier until you feel good.  The body knows best. Consider more aerobic training before your period, and more high-intensity workouts after your period. Use your period to your advantage.  Get a Menstrual App on your phone.

-Document your period for many months to see how you respond to your cycle and to potentially document when you will get your cycle in the future.  There are several apps on the market. I currently use the free version of Period Tracker. It has been very helpful in seeing when my period will potentially be, and what I need to prepare mentally for if for instance, pre-menstrual days fall on a race day.

-Consider a day off.  Even with the app I have. We schedule as we would, and adjust daily, as needed. That’s the only way. I have some months PMS affects me so greatly, while others, it doesn’t. Overall though, I can bet at least one day of complete and utter fatigue. 

-According to a Swedish study, you can gain more muscle mass by training during the first weeks of the menstrual cycle, from the beginning of your menstruation until ovulation (See worthy Reads/Articles at the bottom for more). Use this to your advantage in your training with higher intensity training, and efforts.   

-Find a coach (if you have one), that you can be 100% open with about your cycle. Hormonal changes affect you as an athlete and he/she should be well-versed in this area.  If you feel uncomfortable, and/or your coach doesn’t understand these issues, I highly recommend looking at this.  It can only help you as an athlete to be able to be open and communicative with your coach. If you’re a female athlete working with a male coach or any coach for that matter, this conversation should be a common one. 

Nutrition and your cycle: 

Pre-period: (high hormone phase; luteal phase; later days of days 14-28 in your cycle): Your hormones are somewhat working against you. 

  • Take in a few extra carbohydrates to help with performance/training.  
  • Be diligent on your post-workout protein and carbohydrate intake. Recovery drinks are key here. 
  • Increase your fluid intake. Be diligent in your hydration and sweat loss. Add more sodium and electrolytes/fluids during this phase of your cycle.
  • you can pre-load workouts with sodium and other electrolytes.   
  • Beets and other foods high in arginine can help thin the blood 

During your period:  

  • Increasing your magnesium, and iron levels have been helpful. I personally make sure to eat more red meat and leafy greens during this time. Loose bowels (from prostaglandins during this time) is common. Magnesium glycerinate is best absorbed. Consider a supplement.  

Race day:

Luckily for us, we have 12 months a year to learn how we react to our period (even if it hits you as a surprise every time!). The best time for a great race performance is during the follicular phase (during your period and the days after). Bleeding is not convenient but if I had to choose when to get my period it would be the days leading into the race and/or even race day. Mind you, we don’t have that ability (unless by use of contraceptives – more on that, below), so I try to optimize my body the best I can (with the tips above for nutrition/rest leading into a race). If you happen to have your period on race day, my best tips are to be prepared – mentally and physically. If you have cramps/bloating, consider looking at what helped you in previous cycles. For me, I usually take some Advil and have it in special needs. I put extra tampons in all my transition bags. But truth be told, most often, I don’t typically worry. If I bleed, I bleed. I’m racing, and that’s the least of my concerns (I know this is not the mindset of many, so having extra tampons is a must!).   

Pay attention to how your body responds through your app, or in your general training diary. Keeping track can help you understand in advance how you will feel, what you might expect, and you can then make a plan of action when symptoms hit during a race, or lead up into one.  

To note, I continue to learn new things on how my body responds to the hormonal changes of my cycle. and how I can get the most of myself, training and racing.  And yes, my boyfriend has been part of this. I have learned to laugh when he asks, “is it almost your period?” and understand, he might just see something I don’t.  Communication is key. Trust yourself, and trust those close to you. Being female is anything but straight forward. 😉 

 

Woman crouching near a pool, talking to women in the water. Most likely training or coaching them.

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Growing up in British Columbia, Canada, Angela Naeth, known in the triathlon world for her prowess on the bike, is a multiple 70.3 Ironman Champion, twenty-five 70.3 podium finisher, Ironman 2014 Chattanooga Champion (her third Ironman) and the 2015 North American Ironman Champion with her scorching under 9-hour performance! With a Masters degree in Physical Therapy and Bachelor’s in Health Sciences, Angela graduated in 2005 and worked as a pediatric and orthopaedic physiotherapist for three years. In 2008, she competed in her first triathlon and shortly thereafter made the jump into full-time racing. She is now currently ranked among the top triathletes in the world - with 2 sub-9 hour IRONMAN performances, 30+ podiums at the 70.3 and Ironman distances. Angela continues to pursue her career in these distances. Giving back - Angela created a women's triathlon/cycling community in 2017. www.iracelikeagirl.com. Growing in numbers, iracelikeagirl is her ability to support others in the sport of triathlon.

Professional PEARL iZUMi Athlete

One thought on “PERIOD – Female Athletes and Menstruation

  1. Thank you for this, seriously. As someone who was just diagnosed with what they call PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) I can totally relate. I seriously thought I was crazy, what’s wrong with me? I thought I was reaching the perimenopausal phase but after a full blood work up realized I’m not there yet. So what can you do? All of the things you mentioned, track, know what’s going on with your body, ask for help if you need it. Take cyclical SSIs for those difficult 14 days up until your period starts if you have to or it helps.

    This is very real and a challenge. Thank you for this blog!

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