Training and your menstrual cycle

I’m sorry girls, but I am one of the few who rarely experiences menstrual symptoms so it took me several years of coaching female athletes before I started to take women’s cycles and how they affected their training seriously.

Physically, there is no reason why a woman’s body can’t perform as well during her cycle than at any other time of the month. However, it is the mind that comes to the training session in a fatigued state.  The brain is exhausted from dealing with the hormone fluctuations, mood swings, bloating and cramps. This lowers the athlete’s tolerance to pain, meaning they will give up earlier than usual or not perform to their best ability due to a higher level of perceived exertion for a lessor effort.

If this happens, my already moody athlete also becomes discouraged from her sudden lack of performance.  She will feel like she is working just as hard, if not harder than in past training sessions, but isn’t able to complete the same times or distances that she is accustomed to.

My solution is not to fight mother nature. A training schedule is built with rest weeks which typically occur every 21 days. “Ahhh,” she says with revelation. Most schedules will allow for 3-10 days of recovery after 2 or 3 weeks of increased volume or intensity.  If your cycle is regular, your coach can manipulate this recovery time to coincide with your monthly schedule.  If your cycle isn’t regular, you can adjust the program by swapping the training week.  This may mean that you may get your recovery week a few days early or you may have to push through another week of intensity.  This may seem hard at the time but not as hard as doing hill repeats with cramps and bloating.

For those of you who believe in the ‘No Pain No Gain’ way of training or in the thought that sometimes you need to train when tired, I agree with both philosophies and generally use them as principles in my programs. However, the menstrual cycle is not applicable to either rule. Your body is not actually tired. It is your mind that is tired. Your pain receptors are at a lower threshold so everything will feel more difficult than usual.  By training in this state, you achieve little to no strength and no endurance benefits, which means you have put yourself through hell for no reason.

If your goal is to perform well in your race or event, you gain more benefits by staying home on the couch with a hot water bottle on your tummy. Don’t worry about feeling guilty (most athletes feel guilty staying home when they aren’t really sick) because you come back the following week feeling rested, full of energy and ready to make up for the lost time!

If you are concerned that Madame Flow will visit you on race day, don’t stress.  If this happens, take some Advil in the morning and pack some with you to take during the event. Then allow the endorphin rush of wearing a race number take the pain away.  Remember, it is mental! You will forget the pain as soon as the race begins and there is no reason why you can’t perform just as well if your mind is strong!

Follow your body’s natural instincts and perform when you are at your best.

Written by Kristina Bangma

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6 thoughts on “Training and your menstrual cycle

  1. Dear Kristina

    I am one that used to have big symptoms from my periods and I can tell you that it is NOT mental. The bloating, the cramps and the hormonal fluctuations are all physical symptoms. Not mental ones. In a world of competitive athletes you will not find many women with physical symptoms because they can’t compete due to their menstrual problems. Undermining these women is missing a good oportunity to say: ” sorry, I can’t understand what you are going through”. I can only exercise regularly and I am starting to enter certain race events because I went through an endometrial ablation. This changed my periods drastically. It is an insult to be told that the problem is in your head. Too many female issues have been treated like that for far too long. Just count your lucky stars you never had bad periods!

    Renee

    • I very much agree with Renee, to say that the symptoms are just mental is pretty insulting. When signing up for a Fondo last year I had to make sure the event was not anywhere near the lovely time of the month as no matter the amount of pills I take I am physically exhausted, bloated and suffer a few days of heavy bleeding during my cycle and could in no way ride 20km never mind 120km.
      Not everyone is as lucky as you Kristina!
      Lisa

  2. Thank you for your responses and valuable input, Renee and Lisa. I’m sure many women are also angry with me, thinking that I was belittling their pain however that was not the intended message and I apologize for having given that perception. Yes, I do make a comment at the end that you can take a pill to take the pain away, however I should maybe have specified that extreme cases or not everyone applies to this principle. However quickly into the article I quote, “Your pain receptors are at a lower threshold so everything will feel more difficult than usual. By training in this state, you achieve little to no strength and no endurance benefits, which means you have put yourself through hell for no reason. If your goal is to perform well in your race or event, you gain more benefits by staying home on the couch with a hot water bottle on your tummy. ” Meaning that yes, your pain is real and your body is tired and exhausted – which is why I encouraged you to stay home instead of training. The one exception was a race event – where I have seen many athletes overcome all odds to complete their goal – which is definitely not possible for everyone. My apologies for making women feel less than the amazing athletes they are by telling them something is wrong with them if they are not one of these women who can take a pill and keep on racing.

  3. I really enjoyed reading your article. I found it “bang-on” with how to manage symptoms around training with a period.And I have found that taking “advil” on race day helped to reduce a lot of my physical discomfort. But Krisina is correct that the endorphin “rush”works! My Dr’s in past have told me to exercise to help with my period pains. Thanks again for another informative and great read Kristina.

  4. As a long standing “cramp” suffering sporty, I really enjoyed this article. I have had such severe pain that I have been found passed , then taken by ambulance to the hospital, to find out that it wasn’t an appendix burst but my lovely period.

    I do agree with what Kristina has written, listening to your body, scheduling your training rest time around the “worst days” and so on.

    I have never let my period stop me from participating in a race… maybe I just don’t like walking away from the money paid out for the entrance fees. I have found Advil to be the best to help reduce the symptons on race day too. But where you hit the nail on the head for me was your information ont the effect of endorphins on race day. Ever since my teens, my Dr’s have encouraged me to exercise to help reduce the symptons… and yes at times I don’t mentally want to go out in the rain, etc, but once I am out there and the endorphins kick in I always feel physically and mentally better.

    I look forward to reading more of your articles Kristina, keep up the great work!

  5. Thank you Kristina for an insightful and informative article. I personally didn’t find it to be minimizing women’s pain or saying that it was in their heads. I found it refreshing that it addressed the mental fatigue that results from that point in the cycle. Often when training near or during that time i find i do feel much more exhausted and more easily frustrated – and now i know why! It is real. Now i know to schedule the more mentally and physically exhausting challenges during other times- if possible! l know there are some ladies who, unfortunately, have terrible, extremely painful experiences, and for that I am sorry! But I think for those of us who experience the average symptoms, this was a great article. Thanks!

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