MISC // 01 JUNE 2023
As athletes and outdoor enthusiasts, our lives revolve around training blocks, powder days, swell forecasts, weekend trips and race schedules. Any wrench of unpredictability thrown into our activity calendar, is never very welcomed, including your period. The period, or bleed part of the menstrual cycle, comes with a myriad of potential symptoms that can start up to two weeks before bleeding and undoubtedly affect anyone’s performance and headspace. These symptoms are attributed to one of the most innate and codified cycles that affect menstruators and is the most intelligent design nature has come up with for reproduction. It has to be said that up until this point, periods have gotten a pretty bad rap. But more and more people are clueing into the entire menstrual cycle, not just focusing on its most visible part and are working with it in its entirety. So the question I have is if this is the best we’ve got, is there some way to harness the menstrual cycle to perform better as an athlete or go with the flow, so to speak?
Firstly, before we can “hack” our menstrual cycle, let’s get down to some generalized facts about it and all the hormones in this symphony menstruators’ bodies conduct every month. The cycle typically lasts about 28 days, although it varies from person to person, and any cycle that falls between 21-40 days is considered normal.
Flows in hormones throughout that cycle perform their main function which is to prepare your body for pregnancy, whether that’s your goal or not. Hormonal fluctuations occur throughout the menstrual cycle and can be categorized into four main phases: the menstrual phase, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. Dinara Muhk, a women’s health coach, likes to describe these phases as seasons, and it really makes a lot of sense looking at each of their specifics.
Winter, or the menstrual phase, is when menstruators bleed. This is the start of the menstrual cycle and marks days 1-7. Estrogen and progesterone are low, and the uterus lining is shedding. This is when most people see less-than-ideal symptoms, such as back pain, cramping, and low energy. This is generally considered a great time to relax, and eat more iron-rich foods
Spring or the follicular phase overlaps with the menstrual phase and is technically from day 1-14. During this phase, follicular growth is revved up in your ovaries caused by the FSH hormone. The FSH hormone helps create a follicle or fluid-filled sac that surrounds an undeveloped egg, and at the end of this phase, one egg is intuitively “chosen” to be released. Meanwhile, the rising estrogen levels are building the lining of the uterus and preparing it to host a fertilized egg, should that happen. You can expect to feel more capable, creative and stronger. This is a great time to take initiative and have more intense workouts. You’ll also feel less anxious by the end of this phase, as estrogen has a calming effect on the nervous system.
Summer or the ovulation phase is from day 15-18, estrogen is at its peak, causing the release of LH that lets the follicle know that it’s “go time”. The fallopian tube connects with the ovary, and the follicle releases the mature egg. Sometimes a cramp can be experienced on one side when that follicle bursts. The egg stays in the fallopian tube for 12-24 hours to see if a sperm will join and fertilize. If fertilized, the new multi-cell fused clump formed from the sperm and egg travel to the uterus and bond to that nice lining that’s been created over the last 18 days. Otherwise, the egg makes the journey on its own and is shed along with the lining during the next menstruation phase. This is usually when people feel at their peak confidence and most extroverted as these hormones super boost the communication part of your brain.
Fall, or the luteal phase (aptly named), is from day 19 until the next menses. The burst follicle that releases the egg temporarily becomes a progesterone-producing gland that thickens the lining of the uterus at the beginning of this phase. If pregnancy doesn’t happen, levels of both progesterone and estrogen drop sharply and finally become so low that they cause menstruation, and we start all over. This phase is associated with PMS (Pre-Menstrual Syndrome) and PMDD (Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder). This is where all those spicy symptoms that can really disrupt our lives come in. The list is long, but many people experience cramping, backaches, headaches, acne breakouts, mood swings, tiredness, insomnia, cravings, and nausea, to name a few.
The combination of this whole hormonal journey going on in our internal world while we as athletes are trying to progress our skills or perform at a certain level, can be a lot to manage and lead to a lot of inner turmoil if we don’t know what to expect from ourselves depending on what phase we’re in. So in a world where the health norm is based on studies of men and their 24-hour cycle, how can we better harmonize with our menstrual cycles and create better training regimens and general expectations for ourselves?
One great starting point that’s becoming more mainstream is cycle tracking. By tracking their cycles, menstruators can better tune into what’s normal for them. And you better believe there’s an app for that. The popularity of period tracking apps has been steadily on the rise. It’s said that 1 in 5 American women between the ages of 18 and 45 use a menstrual cycle tracking app in a study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology in 2019.
Many of these apps come with various features, including but not limited to, period and fertility prediction, mood and symptom logging and alerts as to when phases change and expected periods may come. These apps have become so advanced that there’s one that’s been approved by the FDA to be used as contraception, called Natural Cycles. Though you can easily go analog and get a period tracker workbook or create your own.
Once we know how we move through our own cycles, some menstruators take it a step further and cycle sync. This is where one truly starts to consider where they’re at in the menstrual cycle and adjust actions and expectations to meet them. This looks different for each person, but some adjustments people make are their diet, the activities they choose and the work they take on. For example, in 2019, the Women’s US Soccer Team partially attributed their world cup win to tailoring each individual’s training schedule to their menstrual cycles.
Alexis Lentine, a chef, ayurvedic practitioner, and endurance athlete, has lent her skills as a nutritional consultant and coach, creating many plans for athletes that factor in their menstrual cycle. Overarchingly she believes there’s intelligence to tap into and celebrate when it comes to our menstrual cycle as it relates to sport. “[It is] inconceivable to compartmentalize the humanness that runs through our veins… The menstrual cycle is one such rhythm.”
Lentine goes on to say each sport is so individual as is each person, but “…a suggestion for how to create a supportive athletic schedule for women, it would be one that included important parts of the season for rest, reflection, internal work, and cycles for challenging training.”
She also adds that self-acceptance, compassion and listening to your body’s cues are critical for making programs like this work. For example, during the luteal phase, brain fog or less energy can be seen as laziness and create a negative feedback loop of guilt (I’ve certainly been there). Our biology is set up on a much more dynamic and complex cycle than a 24-hour, seven-day cycle, so self-compassion is a huge piece for cycle syncing.
People who menstruate have been treated like tiny “men” for a very long time, and we’re just not. Just 6% of sport and exercise studies have focused on women specifically, reports Kelly Lee McNulty – a researcher of the menstrual cycle’s effect on exercise. Meaning we know very little about how it works specifically from an athletic performance lens. Until more recent history, there’s been very little data, mainly as it has been seen as a taboo instead of a cultural priority, even though half the population experiences the menstrual cycle. As a society, we gave it humorous names like the Visit from Aunt Flo, Girl Flu, and Shark Week to mask our discomfort talking directly about it.
I’m going to leave you with a personal story from this season. While filming this year as the only woman in the group, I was having a particularly bad period, and it was really affecting my energy level and my willingness to take risks. I actually ended up bringing it up with the group because I felt really bad about not being able to perform. I was shocked at how well-received and liberating it was, as I felt like this weight and expectation had been taken off me. One of the filmers went so far as to say he was impressed I was even out there, which felt both empowering and a twinge of, well, obviously. I know this may be an outlier experience, and I feel fortunate, but the more we talk as a collective about it, the more we can break down the stigma.
I think Lentine said it best, “I don’t know that anyone was ever going to give us an opportunity to talk about periods and performance. […] But the more that women express their experiences, stand up for themselves, and take control of knowing their own bodies and acting on that wisdom, the more prolific stories and information will become.”