Chances are, if you are female and a runner, you will likely at some point run a race during your period. No one wants to talk about this, as the participation of female runners in road races and trail races increases, topics unique to women’s running are becoming more and more relevant.
Paula Radcliffe, who broke the marathon world record while on her period, lamented that periods were the “last taboo in sport” due to “lack of learning.” Running is a realm in which a whole host of gastrointestinal issues are openly discussed; racing on your period should not be too taboo to talk about.
So let’s talk about it – racing on your period. Despite myths surrounding it, you can race well on your period. So does your period affect performance? How can you optimize racing during it?
I will note before the start of the post that this addresses the general female population. There are specific instances – endometriosis, PMDD, fainting during your period, etc. – that do make it more difficult to run and race on your period. If you suffer from any of those, listen to your body.
Your Period Won’t Hinder Performance
With the exception of cases of endometriosis and PMDD, your period won’t actually hinder your race performance. Let’s look at basic physiology to understand why.
After you ovulate (approximately 14-16 days before your period in a normal, healthy cycle), your progesterone levels surge. Progesterone levels stay high until your period begins; this high-progesterone phase is known as your luteal phase, which ends with the onset of menstruation. With this surge of progesterone, your body temperature increases about 0.5 degree Fahrenheit. Your heightened body temperature means you will feel more fatigued, be more likely to overheat during a race, and sweat more. Progesterone impacts your metabolism, meaning you require more carbohydrates during long bouts of exercise during your luteal phase.
On the first day of your period, your body temperature returns to normal and your progesterone levels drop. Hormonally speaking, you are most like a man at this point in your cycle, since your progesterone and estrogen are both lower during menstruation. So while you will likely feel less than stellar due to other aspects of your period, know at least that your hormones aren’t hindering your ability to run fast.
For more about your hormones, cycle, and running, be sure to read this post.
NSAIDs and Proactive Pain Relief
While you may be at a hormonal advantage for performance during your period, as progesterone and estrogen drop, but that little tidbit of science neglects to factor in the cramps, GI upset, and bloating that come with your period. If you are able to proactively reduce cramping, you will be able to improve your experience of racing on your period.
Prostaglandins are compounds that are involved in inflammation and pain. Your body releases these at the start of your period, thus causing menstrual cramps. NSAIDs such as naproxen (Aleve, which is long-lasting) and ibuprofen (Advil, which is fast-acting) block the effects prostaglandins. For NSAIDs to be most effective, you want to start taking them 24-48 hours before your period starts and/or before your race.
A common caveat regarding NSAID use is that it can mask a running injury – which is true. If you have been dealing with an injury before your race, be cautious about pushing hard during the race, as the medication you take to deal with cramps may mask that injury pain.
However, do know that a majority of the warnings seen about taking NSAIDs involve cases where runners take it to numb the pain of racing, treat post-workout soreness, or mask injury pain. Obviously, you do not want to do that – but taking NSAIDS for only a couple days to relieve period cramps is a different scenario than these.
NSAIDs can increase the risk of GI distress, so be sure to eat before taking them on race day. Do not take NSAIDS if any health conditions contraindicate.
For more advice on how to manage period pain, check on this post on dysmenorrhea and running.
Adjust Your Eating as Needed.
If you are prone to GI distress with your period, adjust your fueling to ensure you have enough energy without eating too much and overwhelming your gut. Try spreading your carb-loading out in the days before the race rather than in a single huge meal the night before the race. A large meal the night before can upset your GI system and leave you feeling sluggish.
Even if you don’t have much of an appetite on race morning, eat. No only will a pre-race meal provide energy for running your best, but food on your stomach will reduce the risk of GI upset from NSAIDs.
Tampons vs. Menstrual Cups
Marathons can be hours long affairs: in addition to running for 3-5 hours, you must arrive at least an hour prior to the start, if not earlier for big races like the Boston Marathon. The last thing you want to worry about is either (a) changing a tampon in a portalet or (b) toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Pads pose the risk of chafing or leaking, and no one wants to race feeling as if they are wearing a diaper.
For female runners, menstrual cups can be a game-changer. Menstrual cups are a silicone-based device (meaning: no cotton to risk TSS) that can be worn for up to 12 hours, then rinsed and reused. That means you can insert it, get to the start line of your race, run a race, celebrate afterward, and not have to deal with it during that entire time. For ultra runners, menstrual cups are the perfect option; even if your race lasts longer than 12 hours, you do not need to deal with tampons in the woods or carrying out your used hygiene products.
Menstrual cups can be safely worn even before your period starts, unlike tampons. So if there’s a chance your period might arrive mid-race, you can wear a menstrual cup as a precaution without the risk of TSS. Plus – no chafing! Now, like any piece of gear, you want to use it before race day. There is a slight learning curve with menstrual cups, so don’t try it out on for the first time during a marathon.
If you do use tampons, opt for OB tampons or other small applicator tampons. Store them in a waist belt or, if that’s too irritating for your cramps, in a pocket of your shorts (I love the Saucony Bullet shorts for their generous pockets) or a hydration vest.
Supplementing for Energy and Less Cramping
If you are prone to low-iron levels, especially during your period, speak to your doctor and have bloodwork done. You may find that supplementing iron keeps your energy high throughout your menstrual cycle. (You do not want to supplement iron unless your blood work indicates such or your doctor thinks you need it.)
In the book ROAR, Dr. Stacy Sims suggests supplementing with magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids in the week leading up to your period. Zinc inhibits the metabolism of prostaglandins, thus reducing period cramps, while omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation. Magnesium can aid in both energy levels and gastrointestinal function.
Mental Toughness Can Win the Day
The physical aspect of racing is only part of the equation; mental toughness can make or break your race no matter what time of month. If you are racing on your period, you need your mental game to be strong.
Embrace the pain that comes with both your period and your racing. Trying to fight it or ignore it can only wear you down mentally, thus leaving you the most likely to give up during the hardest part of the race. If you think, “I’m on my period, I’m not going to race well,” then you aren’t going to race well. But if you think “I’m on my period, but I can still give my best for today,” then you place yourself in a much better frame of mind for performance.
You cannot control the external factors of race day – the weather or your period – but you can control your reactions and how you choose to race. Try these tips for overcoming a negative mindset on race day.
Yes, racing on your period may pose extra challenges, but it won’t ruin your race. Channel your inner Paula Radcliffe – if you don’t place mental limits on yourself just because you are on your period, you might walk away with a new personal best.
Have you ever raced on your period?