We recently joined up with our partners the Ladies Gaelic Football Association to host a webinar for players where we discussed:
What Athletes Need to Know about the Menstrual Cycle.
We have pulled together a brief overview of some of the topics we covered including an overview of female physiology, hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle and how these affect your body, some top tips on training and nutritional recommendations for women and why it's important to track your menstrual cycle to get the best from your body both on and off the pitch. We also answered a number of your questions which we have posted below.
In case you missed it, here is a link to the webinar:
Females have a unique physiology which is separate and distinct from their male counterparts. Women can train as hard and intensely as men, however, training and exercise regimes require different planning and preparation which can ultimately better support performance. Until recently little consideration has been made of the physiological differences between women and men by many coaches or athletes, resulting in huge scope for improvement.
The menstrual cycle is driven by fluctuations in luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). These hormones are secreted from the pituitary gland and act to stimulate the secretion of progesterone and oestrogen from the ovaries.
The cycle starts with the onset of bleeding and lasts until bleeding starts again. It can be divided into 4 main phases: menstruation (Phase 1), the second half of the follicular phase, up to ovulation (Phase 2), early and mid luteal phase, from ovulation to the premenstrual period (Phase 3), and finally the premenstrual phase (Phase 4). Throughout the cycle, the primary sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, are continuously fluctuating.
Oestrogen’s main role in the reproductive system is to initiate ovulation, stimulate the growth of an egg and maintain the uterus lining. Oestrogen is low in Phase 1 and then rises in Phase 2 where it reaches a peak just before ovulation. It then dips initially in Phase 3 before rising again, and then finally falling in Phase 4.
Progesterone is released from the ovaries and also helps maintain the lining of the uterus, and prepare it for a potential pregnancy. Progesterone is low in Phases 1 and 2 and then starts to rise in Phase 3 where it reaches a peak, before dropping again in Phase 4.
Since the hormones circulate in the blood, they travel all over the body, so can have an effect on a whole range of different functions, including your ability to train and recover, the way your muscles adapt to different training types, your metabolism and the fuel sources your body uses and needs, the risk of different types of injury, your immune system, the types and timings of menstrual cycle related symptoms and your sleep.
During the webinar we covered some nutritional needs that are unique to women and can vary throughout the cycle. Here are some top tips:
Zinc - Woman often don’t have enough zinc in their diet. Zinc helps to support the immune system, essential for hormone synthesis, recovery, adaptation and repair.
Protein – It is important to hit your daily protein requirements. Protein is essential to help with recovery and adaptation to training.
B vitamins – Essential for maintaining health, supporting metabolism, regulating menstrual flow, growth and development, and red blood cell development.
Iron – Women often eat less iron than men and lose iron through menstruation, increasing their susceptibility to deficiency. Iron is essential for red blood cell development and many other factors involved in health and well-being.
Calcium – A key mineral that helps with bone health and muscle contraction. It should be consumed alongside vitamin D.
In order to get the most from a workout, both the athlete involved and the coach should be aware that energy levels, pain thresholds, endurance and strength can vary depending on the cycle phase. Follow the tips below to consistently get the best out of your training:
Typically women are more quad dominant - It is important to include core, glute and other posterior chain activation work to make you stronger and more efficient, and also to reduce injury risk. Be particularly careful when squatting.
Acceleration work - Women typically need more acceleration work than men. This can include plyometrics and sprints.
Lower bone density - Women start with a lower bone density than men and lose bone density at a faster rate than men. Including strength training in your routine is one important way to improve this.
Developing muscle and tailoring training - It is important to tailor strength training to your own body, evidently women have different biomechanical movement patterns than men, and also typically take longer to develop muscle mass.
Additional Considerations - Women have smaller shoulder girdle so it is important to include upper body strength and power exercises. Women have an increased risk of certain injury types such as injury to the ACL, so a tailored warm up and cool down to reduce the risk of these is important. Focus on maintaining a good landing position during explosive/plyometric training to avoid injury.
Tracking your period can allow you to get the best from your body on any given day. You can now map your menstrual cycle alongside your physiology, training and nutrition:
- Track your menstrual cycle and symptoms
- Understand what is happening in your body during each phase of the menstrual cycle
- View recommendations of the best training type to do for maximal adaptation and benefit
- Connect with Strava and sync your daily training
- Regular Sports Science Insights with female specific focus
- Phase specific top foods and recipes
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Q. What is the easiest exercise to do when menstruating?
A. In terms of adaptation to training, there is evidence to suggest that high intensity and resistance training is better. But let’s be realistic, it’s important to do what you think is right for you…
On one side - If it’s game day, you have no choice, you’ve got to play. But in everyday life, from a wellness point of view, do what works for you.
We know that stress can exacerbate symptoms, so doing something that makes you stressed may make your symptoms worse. It might be a good idea to try an exercise that you know gives you that ‘zen’ time, that should be your go-to at that time if you feel really rubbish…e.g. a walk in the country, a long cycle ride or yoga.
Q. I find it hard to hydrate after long endurance cycles. I find myself with a headache. I do drink a lot, electrolytes etc… what am I missing?
A. Are you basing your hydration on the colour of your urine? There is some research to say that you need to fuel alongside hydration to help with the absorption of the fluids. So make sure you’re fuelling alongside it – maybe try a protein and carbohydrate drink mix. Anecdotally, I find that if you ‘over-electrolyte’ that can affect the concentration of your urine, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not getting the hydration benefits. So... think about nutrition and what your strategy is in terms of electrolytes (maybe you need to change the electrolyte that you’re using?). In regard to the headaches, sometimes pushing yourself hard during exercise can cause these – maybe look at your heart rate alongside the headaches to see if it’s to do with how hard you are pushing yourself.
Q. What can I do about DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) and how/why is it affected by my menstrual cycle?
A. Thinking about the cycle, in the first half, oestrogen levels are increasing…and we know that oestrogen levels may enhance recovery. Potentially DOMS may be reduced/lessened in the first half of the cycle compared with the second half. In the second half, when hormones are dropping off, DOMS may be exacerbated. So what can you do about this?
-Focus on sleep and sleep hygiene
-Focus more on recovery
-Use a marker, like morning resting heart rate, to see if you’ve recovered from your workout/training from the day before
Q. I always find that I get a cold/feel ill towards the end of my cycle…why?!!?
A. If fertilisation were to occur, the ‘sperm’ would need to be accepted as a foreign body. As a result, in the second half of the cycle, your immune system needs to be suppressed a little bit to allow for this. So, in the second half of your cycle, you might be more prone to illness. Actions: be savvy about nutrition. Maybe try:
-Making sure you get enough sleep
Q. How can I look at my training and menstrual cycle together, as I have previously had times of disrupted cycles (especially when I was marathon/in intense training)?
A. That stress of intense training can definitely affect menstruation and delay periods. So one of the ways we have tried to address this is through our Strava integration… you can now connect your FitrWoman account with your Strava account, which is really cool because you can see over time if your cycle is affected and how it is affected by particular types/styles of training. You can then use this to address/change your nutrition and recovery strategies around these times.
Q. What are your thoughts about postnatal women do you think women are encouraged to use contraception too soon and in doing so do you think this compromises their hormonal health, postnatal recovery and potentially their sport performance?
A. Bang on! I (Georgie) really believe that, particularly after any change in your body (i.e. after puberty, pregnancy, coming off hormonal contraceptive) you need to try and let your body settle down into a normal routine and normalise its self. It’s important to check that you are actually menstruating – hormonal contraception will ‘mask’ your hormonal cycle. It’s important to know if you’re ‘healthy’ and normally cyclical.
Q. How can I use FitrWoman if I’m on hormonal contraception?
A. In terms of the combined options (oestrogen and progesterone e.g. the combined pill, vaginal ring) – the body isn’t effectively going through a ‘normal’ cyclical process. This means that the body isn’t experiencing the same fluctuations in hormones or going through the same physiological processes on which the information in FitrWoman is based.
In terms of other (progesterone-only) forms of contraception (e.g. mini pill, hormonal IUD, implant, contraceptive injection), your body may still be releasing oestrogen and so this can still fluctuate. About 73% of IUD users still experience the same changes in oestrogen through a cycle as non-hormonal contraceptive users. If you are on one of these forms of contraception, then you can get an ovulation kit and find out when you’re ovulating…and 14 days later would be ‘Day 1’ of your cycle.
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