One of the joys of being a woman is that every month your body goes through hormonal fluctuations in order to allow you to menstruate. Some women suffer rather unpleasant side effects from these fluctuating levels such as cramps, bloating, headaches, food cravings and so on. Not all symptoms occur in every woman and they will vary in severity.
In earlier times before much research had been done on women and menstruation, females were advised to refrain from partaking in physical activity during this time of the month as it was thought to be harmful to their health.
Now however, researchers are learning more about how this cycle effects physical performance abilities throughout the entire month and guidelines are changing.
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Author, Shannon Clark.
This proves to be particularly beneficial to high level athletes as obviously it is not advantageous to their training to have to schedule down time each month, and if a competition or game occurs during the time they happen to be on their cycle, it's not a practical solution to sit it out.
Overview Of The Menstrual Cycle
For those who aren't entirely aware of how the menstrual cycle works, a typical cycle will last 28 days with the first day of the period being classified as "day 1." Usually this shedding of the uterine lining (which produces the period) lasts for approximately five days, so to day 5 of the cycle.
These first five days, along with the next ten (day 1 to day 15) are termed the "follicular phase" and then the days after that, day 16 until day 28, are termed the "luteal phase." The main hormones that are at play to create this cycle are estrogen and progesterone and they act along with luteinising hormone and follicular stimulating hormone (LH and FSH respectively).
While most research points to the fact that menstruation should not impact your physical performance, all it takes is talking to a group of women to see that this does not always seem to be the case. Some will report feeling significantly weaker or experiencing more fatigue during the luteal phase while others have trouble during the follicular phase.
These first hand reports from women seem to vary considerably both in terms of when problems occur and how severe they are once again. Therefore, the whole process of menstruation on general well-being seems to be very subjective in nature.
On the whole however, more women will report having issues when they are trying to perform endurance type of activities around their cycle than strength or sprint activities. And furthermore, there are some individuals who actually report feeling better during menstruation. These women are a minority however.
When looking at the research, again the results are mixed. Some studies show that there is no difference in how the body utilizes carbohydrates and fat during the luteal and follicular phases of the cycle while others show that glycogen repletion after exercise is enhanced during the luteal phase, meaning there is an increased chance you will recover better and the sensation of exercise may improve.
When researchers put women on a temporary low carbohydrate diet though and then made them perform endurance sessions at moderate intensity, a decrease in blood glucose levels was seen while they were in the luteal phase (not the follicular however).
This could point to one reason why endurance athletes state they have feelings of fatigue when they are trying to perform during their period. Since this is the time when you should be restoring muscle glycogen more effectively, it could be a beneficial practice to eat a slightly higher carb diet during this time.
On the strength training side of things, research suggests that there is no variation in strength during menstruation using the measurements of handgrip and leg extension.
One thing to note in particular however, maximum strength gains were seen in the women in the study who reduced training frequency down during the luteal phase, suggesting that those individuals who do tend to notice feelings of fatigue or weakness before their period, may do better by either reducing the volume of their lifting sessions or decreasing the frequency per week.
Finally, some of the factors that could be underlying reports of poor performance during menstruation could come from indirect means as well.
For example, one of the common symptoms of PMS is increased mood irritability and a general sense of anger, frustration or unhappiness.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a collection of physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms related to a woman's menstrual cycle. While most women (about 80 percent) of child-bearing age have some premenstrual symptoms, women with PMS have symptoms of sufficient severity to interfere with some aspects of life.
If an athlete has not been eating optimally in the days preceding a session for example, that sub-optimal nutrient intake could be what is in fact affecting their performance. Then this, coupled with the increased mood irritability causes more psychologically damage pertaining to the reporting of a poor performance then what is actually going on physiologically.
For many athletes, the mind plays an enormous role in how well they are doing so if this is suffering, it is very likely performance will as well. They could then misattribute this to the fact that their menstrual cycle was effecting the way their body functioned.
Further from that, since many women do typically crave either salty foods or foods very high in carbohydrates in the PMS period, this increases water retention even more than is already seen with just the process of menstruation alone.
Along with this water retention comes a weight gain and in endurance events, transporting an extra two to five pounds across a distance could definitely impact feelings of fatigue over a long enough session.
So next time you are approaching your menstrual cycle, keep these points in mind. As stated, some women will not experience any decrease in performance and will feel fine the entire month through. If this is you, then just carry on as you are and don't worry.
If on the other hand you do find that you have a harder time with your workouts, then look at cutting back the volume during the luteal phase, as this is likely going to be most beneficial.
Further, remember that the psychological factors you experience during your period may be making the biggest impact on performance so doing your best to stay in a positive mood (maybe through relaxation exercises earlier in the day) could help. Paying more attention to food intake during this time, to both prevent excess bloating and to also ensure you are eating enough fuel may also be help your situation.
Definitely do try and do some physical exercise though if nothing else as most women, even though they may not be able to perform optimally during this time of the month, do report that at least doing mild exercise eases with their other PMS symptoms.