I always thought that a woman would naturally be at her “worst performance” athletically speaking, during the days of menstruation. After all, these are the days where women will typically feel fatigued, in pain and generally worse for wear out of any other days in the cycle. I was so surprised to learn that in actual fact, the athletic ability and performance of women is heightened during menstruation and also for the week or so following it (the Follicular Phase, days 1-14 in typical 28 day cycle).
Then I remembered…back to a couple years ago, I was experiencing pretty bad period symptoms and didn’t want to move at all, but something inside me just really wanted to go run. I decided to just go for a mile to see how I felt. Once I started running, the symptoms lessened greatly and I just kept going and going until I had run about 5 or 6 miles. It didn’t feel “hard” or like a ton of effort. I always thought that that experience was some kind of fluke, but after reading a lot of current research on female cycles and working out, it definitely makes more sense to me now.
So, how can this be? What makes a woman a better athletic performer during the Follicular Phase of her cycle? In a one word answer, hormones. Your hormones estrogen and progesterone both ramp up and peak about 5 days before you start bleeding.
When your period first begins, your body has just eliminated the possibility of a pregnancy, so naturally it goes into a more relaxed state. The high hormones from the Luteal phase (days 15-28 in a typical 28 day cycle) that you have just gone through are available for you to exert. It’s terribly ironic, but it seems that your athletic physiology is most like a male’s on the days of your period and the following days (Follicular phase).
According to Exercise Physiologist and Nutrition Scientist, Stacy T. Sims, studies have been done showing that women are able to add more strength and produce greater results when training during the Follicular phase of their cycle versus the Luteal phase. I was fascinated to learn that Paula Radcliffe earned the title of fastest female marathoner in Chicago in 2002 while experiencing menstrual cramping!
During the high hormone Luteal phase, workouts can feel harder and your reaction time and coordination when playing sports can be slower. Even your aerobic capacity can be slightly lower and blood plasma can drop as much as 8 %. As you can probably imagine, this can have a huge impact on the hydration needs of your system. With such a significant drop, it makes it harder for your body to cool itself down by sweating. Added to that is the fact that Progesterone is high at this time and also makes you feel hotter to begin with, increasing your core temperature. If you do high intensity workouts such as Crossfit, HIIT or tabata drills, you may notice a slight lag in your ability to go as hard and then recover as well.
So what is a woman to do about this? What if you’ve signed up for a race or athletic event during the high hormone Luteal phase? Don’t despair, there are strategies you can employ to work with your cycle now that you are armed with knowledge about how it affects you.
First off, if you don’t already, start tracking your monthly cycle. It’s good to know how many days yours typically lasts and then from there, when you will be experiencing the Follicular and Luteal phases and also where your peak in estrogen and progesterone will occur. There are even apps that can do this now days.
Nutrition can play a big part in how badly the side affects of high hormones are presented. During the high hormone PMS phase (7 days before bleeding begins) supplementing with magnesium, zinc and omega 3 fatty acids can really help. This not only helps with athletic ability but can also lessen the pain of cramping when the uterus begins to shed its lining on day 1. Also, making sure you are getting adequate amounts of protein during this time is vital due to Progesterone being a hormone that breaks muscle down (catabolic). You probably need more protein than you might think.
Another thing you can do, is try to do your hardest training and intense workouts in the first half of your cycle (days 1-14) and go a bit easier during the second half (days 15-28). This will be intuitively working with your physiology and making the most of when your body is at the “top” of its game.