Paula Radcliffe once lamented how the sport of running lacks an understanding of periods and unique female issues. Sports medicine doctors and coaches will give female athletes hormones to delay menstruation. Very few resources discuss anything about periods and running, much less female hormones and running. Honestly, it’s downright frustrating at times, especially as the percentage of female participants in the sport of running rises each year. You don’t have to suppress or fear your physiology. By understanding how your menstrual cycle affects running, you can optimize your training around your cycle.
Dr. Stacy T. Sims declares it in her book Roar: Women are not small men, especially when it comes to running. Several aspects of training are the same for either gender. However, hormones do affect how our bodies respond to training. Women deal with more hormone fluctuations than men because of our menstrual cycles. As a result, we have to deal with the effects of hormones on our training more than men do. With the right knowledge, you can optimize your training around your cycle for better workouts, more adaptations, and improved confidence around your training.
How can my menstrual cycle affect running?
There are two phases in the menstrual cycle: the follicular phase, which begins on the first day of menstruation, and the luteal phase, which begins after ovulation and ends when your period starts.
During the follicular phase, you have an athletic advantage: your testosterone levels are higher. You run faster, recover better, and overall feel more energetic.
The hormone progesterone spikes after ovulation, which can lead to all sorts of issues that affect your training: fatigue, hydration problems, etc. Along with the increase in progesterone, your body temperature spikes by nearly a degree – leaving you more prone to overheating.
During your luteal phase, your workouts might feel harder than usual. You might feel more fatigued and tempted to skip a workout. If you are racing during your luteal phase, you may encounter more issues with hydration and nutrition. You may need more rest days or easy days during this time, as lower testosterone means slower recovery.
How do I track my cycle?
You can count on a calendar, but that does not work for every woman. Even a healthy woman’s cycle can vary by a couple days each month. If you have irregular cycles, short cycles, long cycles, or a history of athletic amenorrhea, counting on a calendar won’t effectively measure your cycles.
That’s where the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) is useful. For data-minded people (like many of us runners are), FAM is precise no matter what your cycle length. FAM relies on physiological markers of your body’s hormones – primarily your Basal Body Temperature (BBT) and cervical fluid – to accurately know when you have ovulated. For the simple task of taking your temperature every morning as soon as you wake up, you can gain significant insight into your body and your training.
By knowing the exact date of ovulation, you can know which phase of your cycle (follicular phase or luteal phase) you are in. With that knowledge, you can know exactly why you might have been tired during that speed workout or when you can handle a higher training load.
FAM also allows you to notice anovulation and amenorrhea. This is incredibly valuable for female athletes because the loss of menstruation is an indication of Female Athlete Triad, which increases your risk of stress fractures, and overtraining. (Although amenorrhea can be linked to other health issues, so always speak to your doctor!).
You can learn about it in the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility and from websites such as Kindara. Dozens of apps make tracking your body’s signs simple, such as Kindara, FitrWoman, and others.
How can I optimize my training around my menstrual cycle?
Plan your cutback weeks based on your cycle.
Cutback weeks are a crucial part of any training plan. Cutback weeks deliberately lower intensity and volume and allow your body to recover. This recovery facilitates adaptation and re-energizes you for progressively harder weeks of training.
Most runners benefit from a cutback week every 4-6 weeks. If a cutback week can happen every four weeks, why not time it around your cycle, which occurs within this same timeframe?
While the week of menstruation is hormonally a good week for performance, many women feel awful during their period. Bloating, cramps, and GI upset aren’t exactly conducive to peak performance. Women with these symptoms might opt for a cutback week during their period. I personally prefer to plan my cutback weeks around my periods, since I suffered from dysmenorrhea prior to pregnancy. (Here’s a post on how to run with dysmenorrhea.)
If your periods are not painful but your PMS is brutal, consider scheduling your cutback week for during your luteal cycle (the week before your period starts). Fatigue is common during this part of the cycle, so you are giving your body extra rest when it already needs it.
Know when to adapt your hydration and fueling.
During your luteal phase, you burn more carbohydrates, recover at a slower rate, and need more fluids and electrolytes. If you are racing or doing hard workouts during your luteal phase, adjust your nutrition and hydration accordingly.
According to Dr. Sims, you should both eat more carbs on a daily basis and consume more carbs during a long run or race. You do not want to bomb your gut with too much volume. Sims recommends up to 0.45 grams of carbs per pound per hour during this phase. If you are prone to GI distress during PMS, consider these fueling options for sensitive stomachs.
Since high progesterone does not facilitate muscle-building, you should tweak your recovery nutrition as well. Be mindful to eat enough protein after long runs and hard workouts (such as intervals or tempo runs) during your luteal phase.
Finally, be extra mindful to hydrate well during the luteal phase. On a daily basis, drink more water. During your long runs, take in slightly more fluids than normal and include electrolytes with those fluids.
Do harder training during the follicular phase.
In those two weeks between the start of your period and ovulation, your body is primed to adapt to training. You can tolerate harder workouts and recover more quickly. These weeks are ideal for increasing mileage, tackling intense workouts, and focusing on strength training.
If you do end up racing on your period, know that your hormones can actually be to your advantage. Read more about how to race on your period in this article.
Note your cycle and phase in your training log.
As a coach, I encourage my female athletes to do this – and for the ones who do, it is illuminating. Your cycles can explain why a workout felt abnormally hard. Noting your cycle in your log will reveal individual patterns. Do you struggle with fatigue during PMS? Are long runs more challenging during this time? Once you know, you can adjust your plan accordingly – and not have your confidence squashed by a bad workout the week before your period.
If you are working with a coach, share these observations with him or her. Runners comfortably talk about bodily functions like GI distress, bathroom habits, and blisters. If we can talk about these, we should not be bashful about menstruation and hormones.
Knowing your body as an athlete is empowering. Even if you can’t completely adapt your training completely to your cycle because of the timing of your race, you know why some runs feel the way they do – and how to minimize the negative effects.
Do you adjust your training based on your cycle?