By Jenna-Caer Seefried
Okay ladies, “pink it and shrink it” isn’t good enough anymore. That kit that they made slightly smaller and pink but still in men’s proportions, the stock training plan with a 2/1 build and recovery cycle that has you doing hard intervals the day your cycle starts -- these won’t cut it.
We have different needs and challenges than men when it comes to training, and it’s time we talk about them. It’s possible to take advantage of our unique strengths and challenges when it comes to your menstrual cycle.
Unfortunately the menstrual cycle has become stigmatized to the point women are uncomfortable speaking about it to their coaches. Especially if the coach is male, but it’s even a conversation some don’t want to have with a female coach because it makes them feel awkward. We’ve been taught it's something private, embarrassing, and you just don’t talk about it. This does us a disservice in health and training.
It's not something to be embarrassed about; it’s a natural part of female anatomy. Let's start by breaking down the parts of your cycle.
It can be broken down further but we will talk about the Follicular phase (roughly days 1-14) and the Luteal phase (14-28). These are rough estimates on the days, because it is completely normal for women’s cycles to be between 20-40 days.
- Follicular Phase: The time for high intensity and setting PR’s
- Luteal Phase: More focus on recovery, hydration and fuelling.
The Follicular Phase
This encompasses the first half of your cycle starting the day your period starts. Estrogen levels start low and slowly increase to day 14; progesterone levels are also low.
What that means for training:
During this time your body is revved up and ready to perform. This is the low-hormone phase and because of that you have increased muscle strength, power, pain tolerance, and ability to utilize carbs more efficiently. It also means your body temperature is more consistent; this is a bonus for training and racing on hot days as well as at high intensities, increasing the time to fatigue. Basically if you have to race, do high intensity reps, or an FTP test, now is the time to go.
The caveat: for some women on the first day or two of menstruation the symptoms may cause some discomfort and you may not feel great. After that though, your body is ready to go. It’s also worth noting that as hard as it is to get moving on those days, exercise can also help reduce the symptoms.
Around day 14 of your cycle (depending on cycle length), ovulation occurs and that’s when estrogen levels peak and progesterone levels increase. During this phase your progesterone levels continue to rise, estrogen levels fall, and your basal body temperature increases.
What that means for training:
This is the time you have to focus more on hydration, recovery and fuelling. It’s also when it may be harder mentally to push: progesterone can be a depressant and it is increasing as estrogen (which has mood-elevating benefits) falls.
At this time of your cycle your body temperature is increased by about 0.4 degrees Celsius and at the same time your body will start sweating later than normal. This means that the time to fatigue during this phase is reduced, and your body is working harder to cool itself.
It's important to keep fuelling in mind during this phase. Increased estrogen and progesterone (both of which peak during this phase) have been shown to suppress your body’s ability to access stored carbohydrates (gluconeogenesis) and can cause protein catabolism. This means you need more external fuel for workouts and a higher protein intake to combat that process. These hormonal shifts can also cause disrupted sleep late in the luteal phase and reduced ability to recover.
Now it’s not all doom and gloom and it doesn’t mean you should stop training during this phase. It just means you have to pay a little more attention to your fuelling and training schedule to make sure your needs are being met at this time.
If you are not on hormonal birth control you can’t schedule when your cycle starts and it’s likely at some point that Aunt Flo will show up race day. While it’s not ideal, you can make sure you are prepared and understand what is happening to your body at that time. If you are able to track your cycle and line it up with races (which I know isn’t always possible with logistics) it can set you up for some big PR’s.
Have you had any training or race day stories where Aunt Flo made an appearance? Let's share some of the stories on the MX Endurance Women’s page so we can commiserate or have a laugh about it.