Athletic Performance and the Menstrual Cycle
Are you a woman of ‘child-bearing years’? Do you exercise regularly? If so, you might have noticed that your exercise performance can change depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle. Maybe you enjoy different types of exercise at different times in your cycle. Maybe you’re thinking, “Duh.”
Sadly, we have only just begun to talk about women in the scope of exercise performance and athletics. Throughout the history of modern science, women have been underrepresented–not only in the field of exercise science, but in all research areas. Scientific inquiry has been largely performed on men, and, thus, the recommendations extrapolated from these studies have most often benefited men. One large review done in 2014 found that of 1382 major exercise science studies performed between the years of 2011 and 2013, only 39% of them included female participants. A more recent 2019 review looked at that year’s articles in two major journals and found that only 4% of the studies were performed exclusively on female athletes.
But not all is lost! Women and girls have been enjoying more and more representation in athletics and the fitness industry. The conversations are happening, and scientific communities have been asking: Where the girls at?
A woman’s menstrual cycle varies, lasting between 23-35 days, and is comprised of four distinct phases, all with unique hormonal fluctuations. Women are never in the same hormonal state twice a month, and each day is different physically, physiologically, mentally, and emotionally. There have been quite a few studies and articles released in just the last year alone that have examined the relationship between menses and exercise and, specifically, the influence that a woman’s monthly cycle might have on exercise performance, including risk of injury, rates of recovery, etc.
You might be surprised to learn that many studies have found little to substantiate the claim that the menstrual cycle affects exercise performance (demonstrated in these articles here and here), except in the case of endurance exercise. There are also just as many articles that say, yes, definitely, there is an effect and you need to adjust your training schedule according to where you are in your cycle (here, here).
A Grain of Salt
So, among all of the conflicting information, what ‘truths’ have risen to the top? Is there anything that a menstruating person can do to maximize her hormonal phases, prevent injury, recover, and perform at her absolute best?
Sleep to Recover
For many individuals, sleep quality is especially impacted by menstruation…which is why I am skeptical of the claim that a woman’s cycle has no impact on athletic performance. Numerous studies and investigations have found that during certain cycle phases, especially right before a period and the phase of decreased progesterone and estrogen levels, sleep quality suffers. Sleep, as we know, is essential for everything–including recovery, injury prevention, strength and cardiovascular performance. Many experts recommend that you prioritize rest during this phase (to help yourself get the best sleep of your life, read here) and perform light, low-impact movements. Stay active if you can but be gentle with yourself! As many of us know, the phase right before a period can be mentally and emotionally challenging, and the right physical activity can be awesome for managing anxiety and depression and supporting our general well-being.
Exercise as Pain Management
No two periods are the same, and pain levels during one’s period also vary from person to person. But as long as you’re not debilitated by period pain (and if you are, girl, you have my sympathies, please talk to an expert–you deserve better!), aerobic exercise has been shown to be an effective method for improving premenstrual and menstrual pain. There’s no need to kill yourself on the elliptical; even just a 20-minute brisk walk or jog should help to alleviate symptoms.
Are women and girls more prone to injury during certain phases of their cycle? There are some reports that say “Yes!” while others are more skeptical. One study looked at a group of female soccer players and found that players were twice as likely to suffer a tendon or ligament injury in the late follicular phase (the follicular phase typically falling in the 6-14 days after the end of your period). Interestingly (and confusingly), another study found that ACL injuries were quite a bit more common in female athletes during the ovulatory phase…but the researchers’ definition of the ‘ovulatory’ phase in this study is very similar to the other study’s definition of ‘late follicular’: days 9-14 after the end of your period. What is implicated in both of these studies is the rise in estrogen, which peaks during the late follicular phase, and is hypothesized to reduce ligament and tendon stiffness and strength. So, what can you do to prevent these types of injuries? If able, don’t go too heavy on the knees when lifting during this phase; this may mean lightening your training load and refraining (if you can) from playing fast-paced sports requiring a lot of agility and speed.
Undoubtedly, this article falls short in explicating the entire relationship between menstruation and athletic performance. These are only a few facets to consider when building a training regime around your menstrual cycle. Just as every person is different, every cycle is different as well, with varying hormone levels and phase lengths–plus, we have to take into account all of the contributing lifestyle factors that are specific to each individual, such as diet, stress levels, sleep quality, etc. The science of menstruation and exercise is still underdeveloped, and we have so much more to learn when it comes to women’s bodies and health.
One of the best ways to get the exercise recommendations most relevant to you is to get an expert’s opinion. An elite, experienced personal trainer will pay attention to you and can program workouts and training sessions to align with your needs as they change throughout your cycle.
Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!
Written by Theresa Faulder, Masters in English, and Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit Blog Writer.