How to master your menstrual cycle - Women's Running

How to master your menstrual cycle

Author: Women's Running Magazine

Read Time:   |  January 5, 2021

What’s the one thing that will help you manage your mental health, navigate your work/life balance more easily, and transform your training? Understanding your menstrual cycle, that’s what

Words by Alex Parren | Illustrations by Justyna Green

You may not realise it, but your menstrual cycle has a huge effect on your daily life. Fluctuating hormones and their related symptoms could mean the difference between a happy productive day and a new 5K PB, or a day full of brain fog and everything feeling much harder than usual. Understanding your menstrual cycle and the effect it has on your emotions, your training ability, and your nutrition, can be a huge asset not only for running performance but for everyday happiness as well.

The better you understand what you’re feeling and why, the better you can maximise your training, predict how you’re going to be feeling on certain days, and design a training and racing plan that works for you. We’re going to take a look at each phase of the cycle and how it impacts on training, nutrition, emotion, and how you can take control of your menstrual cycle to be the best and happiest runner you can be.

Understanding the menstrual cycle

The most important thing to remember is that every woman is different and will experience different symptoms throughout her cycle as well as having varying cycle lengths. There is no right or wrong answer and if your cycle isn’t ‘regular’, it’s usually nothing to worry about.

Faye Townsend is a Registered Associate Nutritionist at the Rhitrition Clinic in Harley Street. She says, “The average cycle lasts around 28 days; although this will vary from person to person and doesn’t always run like clockwork. You can view your menstrual cycle in two main parts: The Follicular Phase (day 1-14) and The Luteal Phase (day 15-28), with ovulation happening in the middle, around day 14.”

Suzie Richards is a triathlon coach and founder of trainlikeafemale.com. She adds, “During our cycle, hormones rise and fall, the two main hormones being oestrogen and progesterone.

“These hormones affect thermoregulation, bone health, appetite, serotonin levels in our brain, and much more. When we understand how and why oestrogen and progesterone are fluctuating in our bodies, it enables us to understand why we feel the way we feel at that moment in time and empowers us to take control of our body and mind.”

Phase 1: Menstruation (Days 1-7 of your cycle)

The first day of your cycle starts with the first day of your period. It’s important to note that every woman will experience her period differently, and for some it is three days of light bleeding and business as usual, while for others it’s seven days of heavy bleeding along with bloating, severe cramps, headaches, nausea and more.

Symptoms you may feel during this phase
Phase 1 of the menstrual cycle is a double-edged sword. During this phase, hormone levels are low and you will experience a higher pain tolerance and higher energy levels. In this phase, we generally feel energised, happy, clear-minded and ready for anything. Unfortunately, for many women this phase is tarnished by an excruciating few days of menstruation and its associated symptoms. If you are able to minimise your period symptoms, you could be in for a great few days of training.

How best to train during this phase
Thanks to a higher pain tolerance and energy levels, this is a great time to go after those high-intensity workouts such as tempo runs, threshold runs, and even chase a PB. You may also feel stronger during this phase, meaning you can lift heavier in the gym and burn through a killer conditioning workout. If you’re able to plan your races and you don’t suffer too badly from period symptoms, this would be a good time to race as you’re more likely to perform well and end up with a better result.

However, Faye Townsend notes, “White blood cell count is lower in this phase, meaning immune function may be dampened.” So, although you may find you can train harder during this phase, it’s also important to prioritise rest and recovery at this time to prevent illness or injury.

What to eat during this phase
Due to the bleeding that occurs during this phase, it’s important to prioritise iron sources such as red meat, eggs, fortified cereals, tofu, and green leafy veg. You’ll also want to stay hydrated and eat nitrate-rich foods such as beets, pomegranate, and spinach to ease headaches and other symptoms. Finally, make sure you get plenty of essential fats for their antiinflammatory properties and enhanced recovery.

Phase 2: Pre-ovulation (Days 8-13 of your cycle)

Phase 2 is the best phase out of the four. You’re past the painful symptoms associated with your period and can enjoy the feelgood hormone levels and features of the fertile window. This is certainly the best time to try for a PB and to race.

Symptoms you may feel during this phase
Faye Townsend says, “Oestrogen is a feelgood hormone, so as it rises you feel energetic and positive. During this phase women are at the peak of their fertility, so they tend to feel more confident, energetic, and sexy during this phase.”

How to maximise your training during this phase
Once bleeding ceases, oestrogen begins to rise to prepare for ovulation. Oestrogen is an anabolic hormone, so rising levels lead to greater protein synthesis. This primes the body for building lean muscle and making strength gains so it’s the best time to hit the gym and work on strength. However, Faye adds, “Overall strength will peak at this time, but be sure to maintain good form when exercising as there is an increased risk of injury and ligament damage when oestrogen levels are highest.”

What to eat during this phase
At this point, blood sugar levels are more stable, and the body becomes more efficient at using fat for fuel, especially during moderate-intensity training. While carbohydrates are still important for exercise, you’ll be able to use a higher percentage of fat for fuel, meaning exercise may feel a bit easier and you’re likely to feel stronger. It’s a great time to maximise your healthy fat intake and reduce carbs. Be sure to get plenty of antioxidant sources from fruit and vegetables, and prioritise calcium and Vitamin D sources such as milk, cheese, yogurt, oily fish, and tofu.

Phase 3: Luteal (Days 15-21 of your cycle)

Sadly, all good things must end, and this includes the feel-good factor from your hormones. Once ovulation has occurred around day 14 of our cycle, we enter the luteal phase and post-ovulation hormones are put into high gear. Progesterone levels surpass oestrogen to prepare the uterus for egg implantation. If the egg is not fertilised and pregnancy does not occur, oestrogen and luteinising hormones will fall over the preceding days, while progesterone begins to rise.

Symptoms you may feel during this phase
The shift in hormonal balance during this phase causes varying symptoms. The effect of progesterone increases your BMR (basal metabolic rate), which means you burn more calories at rest resulting in an increased appetite and cravings. Your heart rate may also increase as well your temperature and sweat rate too. To prepare for this phase, start drinking water before your training, especially if you’re exercising in the heat. Due to the increased body temperature, start to take it more easy during training and don’t be surprised if you overheat.

How best to train during this phase
With rises in progesterone, blood sugar levels fluctuate a lot more, and the body relies on carbohydrates for fuel during training. Therefore, the body has to work harder, which is why the same exercise can feel much harder than in the previous phase. In that case, don’t be too hard on yourself if you find you can’t hit the numbers you did a couple of weeks ago. Focus on endurance runs and low-intensity work to build your aerobic base. In the gym, focus on mastering technique and work on skill-based exercises, rather than hitting big numbers and chasing PBs.

What to eat during this phase
As progesterone levels rise, so does protein catabolism, which is the breakdown of protein. To counteract this process, make sure to eat more protein before and after training. High levels of oestrogen reduce your carb-burning ability and the body starts to burn more fats. This is beneficial for endurance activities, but it’s not a great time to increase intensity. If you’re doing high-intensity exercise during this phase, you will need to eat more carbs than usual.

Phase 4: Premenstrual (Days 21-28 of your cycle)

The infamous PMS phase. Premenstrual stress is something many women will experience during this phase and it can be the worst few days of the month. Take it easy on yourself and understand that it’s simply a change in hormones that is causing your symptoms, not anything you have done wrong or need to change. The best thing to do during this phase is simply ride the wave and communicate openly with your partner or close friends about how you’re feeling, especially if you have a shorter temper than usual.

Symptoms you may feel during this phase
There is an endless list of PMS symptoms and every woman will experience this phase differently. From intense cravings, bloating and exhaustion to a short temper, crying spells and insomnia, it’s really not an easy time. You may also experience differences in bowel movements due to the hormones secreted that prepare for menstruation and the shedding of the uterine lining. During this phase, make sure there are plenty of toilet stops along your run route and give yourself more time before you head out.

How best to train during this phase
Faye Townsend explains, “The change in hormones commonly causes an increase in water retention, a decrease in blood plasma volume, and makes you more prone to central nervous fatigue, all of which makes exercise feel much harder than normal. During this time, you may struggle to hit previously achieved goals which can be frustrating. Try not to judge the results of training undertaken during this phase in isolation. If you are suffering from PMS, on the days leading up to your period try to do activities that relax the body such as yoga and Pilates, as this may relieve some of the symptoms such as cramps and muscle fatigue.”

Many of us run because it reduces stress and allows us to clear our mind. During this phase, running could be the best remedy. Try leaving your watch at home and run by feel rather than pace or time and enjoy the endorphins and runner’s high.

What to eat during this phase
Higher progesterone levels can cause constipation, so to keep things moving, you need to increase your intake of wholegrains, nuts, seeds, and drink plenty of water. Be sure to eat adequate protein to enhance recovery as well as B vitamins from meat, poultry, fish, eggs, leafy greens, and milk.

Missed periods and hormonal contraception

Suzie Richards says, “The health profession widely acknowledges that regular menstrual cycles are a sign of health, but we are now discovering that many factors can interrupt menstrual cycles. Hormonal contraception is a huge factor, while low energy availability and stress are others.”

Whether intentionally done or not, over-exercising and under-fueling can result in a condition called Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-S). When energy availability (calories) is not enough to adequately support all of the physiological functions, the body goes into battery-saving mode, making metabolic shifts to preserve functions needed to sustain life. It’s been noted that females who don’t meet sufficient energy requirements often suffer from hypothalamic amenorrhea or HA (loss of periods). Specifically, we often see a reduction in the production of oestrogen (the sex hormone) in these women, resulting in depression, anxiety and low bone density leading to an increased risk of osteoporosis, digestive concerns, a suppressed immune system and poor adaptation to training.

Put simply, if you’re training excessively and not eating enough, your body will shut down your menstrual cycle in an attempt at preservation and this could lead to a number of negative symptoms. Faye Townsend states that, “female athletes are more vulnerable to disordered eating than the general population – disordered eating affects approximately 20% of elite female athletes and 8% of elite male athletes.”

Try to view your monthly cycle as an indicator of health. It might be tempting to think that periods are a pain and something we wish we didn’t have to deal with, but they are your body’s way of telling you that everything is working as it should. Unless you’re on hormonal birth control, are pregnant, or have gone through menopause, you should not be missing a period. You should definitely seek advice from your GP if you’ve suffered from amenorrhea (absence of periods) for longer than six months.

Hormonal contraception
The pill comes in all shapes and sizes and there is usually a type to suit everyone. In general, it works by releasing synthetic versions of oestrogen and/or progesterone which downregulate the natural production of these hormones. Depending on what type of pill you take, the dose will vary; this means that fluctuations in hormone levels will vary greatly between women and can’t easily be generalised.

Many people take the pill for decades without problems. It may well only be a minority who experience ill effects from taking hormonal contraception but it’s still important to be aware of the risks and impacts it might have on your running performance.

Research has linked hormonal contraception with rises in body fat, weight and fluid retention. The pill has also been shown to increase your risk of deep vein thrombosis and blood clotting. This could be a concern for athletes who travel by air and are forced to sit for long periods of time without moving.

Hormonal contraception is a suitable choice for women who are a healthy weight and take in sufficient energy for their lifestyle, meaning that they have a regular menstrual cycle. However, for those who are under-fuelling, overtraining and/or underweight, being on the pill could disguise menstrual irregularity. This is typically the first red flag when someone has an imbalance between training load/stress and energy intake, and is an important sign of underlying health problems.

Be sure to talk to your doctor about the best birth control for you, detailing your lifestyle and overall health.

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