Mastering your Menstrual cycle for running. Period
I don’t know about you, but my monthly cycle has more often that not been a rollercoaster of physical and mental symptoms of varying sorts. Whether it’s irritability, a tight lower back, and hamstrings, in the week leading up to my period or, cramps and bloating when I am ovulating or general feels of exhaustion and fatigue during the first few days of my period.
All of these create some challenges when it comes to running, training, and recovery.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Understanding your own cycle, managing your symptoms, and building cycle resilience is not as daunting as it might sound. It can help you train more with your body rather than fighting against it.
In a study of 14,000 active women, 72% said they had never had any education about exercise and their menstrual cycle.
Let’s start with the basics - It’s not just about your period
Here’s the science part.
The word ‘menstrual’ comes from the Latin word ‘mensis’ – meaning ‘month’. Your period is often referred to as a monthly cycle or ‘time of the month’ because a typical cycle is 28 days long. Saying that, only 13% of women have a 28-day cycle, and a healthy cycle length can vary from 24 to 38 days, with cycles in teenagers extending anywhere up to 40days. Some women will experience a cycle as regular as clockwork – the same time and length, each cycle – but many women experience cycle lengths which vary up to +/- 8 days per month.
Having a period is the part of the cycle that we can see, the menstrual cycle is more than just your period – it is a whole cycle of hormonal fluctuations which, when healthy, will happen predictably, each month.
There are four main hormones involved in your cycle, which are telling your ovaries what to do:
- Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)
- Luteinizing hormone (LH)
And, of course, the two lead characters in your cycle –
The pituitary gland in your brain releases FSH which is responsible for encouraging the egg cells in your ovaries to grow and mature. As the eggs mature, the follicles in which they are growing release oestrogen, and it’s this hormone which rises to its peak in the first half of your cycle, just before ovulation.
Oestrogen has many amazing functions, with one of its most important functions being to buildup the lining of the uterus (aka the womb), preparing it for the implantation of a fertilised egg.
Because this is the time when your egg follicles are developing, this first half of your cycle is called the follicular phase. When oestrogen levels rise, they send a signal to the brain to start producing LH, telling the ovary to release the most mature, dominant egg. At this stage, the egg cell bursts out of its follicle and through the ovary wall, and this is what we call ovulation.
When your egg is released, it moves along the fallopian tube, which connects the ovaries with the uterus, and if it’s not fertilised by sperm within 24 hours, it’s incredible journey comes to an end and it dies. The empty follicle, which once held the developing egg, turns itself into a temporary gland called the corpus luteum, and it starts to produce progesterone. It also continues to produce oestrogen and the two hormones become elevated in this second half of the cycle known as the luteal phase – the name is related to ‘corpus luteum’.
If the egg is fertilised by sperm, the corpus luteum will go on producing progesterone until about eight weeks into pregnancy. But if a fertilised egg does not implant into the uterus, that’s the signal for the corpus luteum to stop producing progesterone and oestrogen. Subsequently, these hormones fall quite rapidly from their peak, and this time of plummeting hormones is often known as the premenstrual phase.
Premenstrual phase and your period
The declining hormones are also the signal for the uterus lining – which has been building up to accept a fertilised egg –to be shed so that the body can start to rebuild the lining in the next cycle. This marks the end of your menstrual cycle.
Next, the lining of the uterus leaves the body in the form of blood and tissue, and this is known as your period – the first day of bleeding is the first day of your next cycle. If you want to track the length of your cycle, you count from the first day of bleeding right up until the day before the next period starts.
It’s normal for your period to last up to eight days, with the first few days bringing the heaviest flow. Having a healthy period each cycle is a definite thumbs up for your general health and wellbeing. It’s a sign that you are getting enough energy from your diet to fuel all your training. If you miss a period for more than three months, if you have a heavy flow that you find hard to manage without frequent changes of period product (every two hours or less), if your period is more than eight days, or you have bleeding between your periods – you should go and speak to your GP.
We spend about 40 years of our life as women with a menstrual cycle, that’s about 450 cycles! It’s normal for your cycle to change throughout your lifetime – cycle symptoms are often more severe during adolescence and cycles can change a lot after having babies. Also, remember, our cycle is also really influenced by your diet, lifestyle and exercise habits.
A healthy cycle should be regular, with mild and manageable symptoms, and a manageable period. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your GP or practice nurse if you are in any doubt or have concerns about your cycle.
Let’s now relate this to real life
Follicular Phase. Oestrogen rising
In the early follicular phase when your period starts, your levels of oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest (Day 1). This is known to cause a dip in energy for those few initial days of your period. Cramps, stomach upsets, and lower back pain can be a few of the symptoms you experience.
Phase 1 - Early Follicular.
- Oestrogen and progesterone at their lowest during your period
- The premenstrual decline in progesterone (phase 4) kick starts and inflammatory response that carries through into phase 1. With that symptom of your periods, such as cramps
- Your white blood cell count is lower which may increase your risk of certain illnesses. It is important to fuel correctly, and to optimise your sleep to help reduce the risk of injury
- Cognitive function is greater and in this phase of your cycle it can be a great time to learn a more complex skill where good coordination is required. Why not focus on your running drills and what about spending some time learning to map read for a fell or orienteering race?
Phase 2 - Late Follicular.
- Oestrogen levels rise to a peak whilst progesterone remains low
- With these higher oestrogen levels comes an increased release of feel-good hormones so you may feel more positive and alert
- Blood sugar levels are more stable, and you may notice a decrease in appetite and cravings for high sugar/carbohydrate
- Blood pressure can fluctuate slightly across your cycle and maybe at it’s lowest during this phase
- Muscle tissue repair has been found to be better during this phase which will help with recovery after intense sessions. Oestrogen is also associated with increased antioxidant levels which also aids in exercise adaptions and recovery
Training and nutrition
Phase 1 - Early Follicular.
- The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of moderate intensity exercise can help reduce symptoms that come at the time of your period. Notice the word moderate! Perhaps have a chat with your coach about keeping those first 2 – 4 days of your cycle for moderate or easy intensity runs
- Give yourself more time to complete more progressive and thorough warmups before your sessions. This is particularly important if you are doing sessions with sharp direction changes or speed-based sessions
- There have been several studies showing that adaptions to high intensity training and strength training are improved during this the follicular phase of your cycle
- If your sessions are a 1 hour+ think about increasing your carbohydrate intake before your session
- Help to manage some of the symptoms of your period by increasing your intake of anti-inflammatory foods such as strawberries’, blueberries and kiwi fruit and foods rich in Vitamin D,B and fish oils
- Restore or keep on top of iron levels. Take these along side a good vitamin C source to help with the absorption
Phase 2 - Late Follicular.
- As you progress through this phase you may notice that your energy and strength levels rise to a peak at ovulation
- You may be feeling stronger as this phase progresses but always remember to factor in recovery days. It can take up to 48 hours to recover from an intense session
- As your oestrogen levels rise during the follicular phase of your cycle, you should start to feel happier and more energised. When you approach ovulation, your oestrogen level will be at its highest. You should find at this time that your mood is good, and that you have high levels of energy
- Like in phase 1, always fuel longer sessions well with good quality carbohydrate sources before hand and something quick release to fuel the session
Luteal Phase and Progesterone
Phase 3 - Mid Luteal.
- Oestrogen levels begin to drop off as ovulation occurs, then both oestrogen and progesterone start to rise and remain high.
- You may experience ovulation pain, as well as some other symptoms that can come from a drop in oestrogen such as bloating, nausea and headaches.
- Body temperature increases, especially when exercising in the heat. This increase can also cause disruption with your sleep.
- Increase in resting and exercising heart rate can increase with higher progesterone levels.
- Sugar levels are more likely to be unstable during this phase which can cause cravings.
- Higher progesterone levels can increase feelings of emotion and empathy and with this change in hormone levels you may feel more lethargic.
- Immunoprotection increases with the increase in progesterone. An increase in white blood cells and neutrophils can provide more protection against illness.
Phase 4 - Premenstrual
- Oestrogen and progesterone levels decline to their lowest point in your cycle.
- The decrease in hormones triggers an inflammatory response and this is part of the cause of Premenstrual symptoms. As a result, recovery from tough sessions is harder for the body.
- Put a greater focus on recovery and nutrition to offset this. Changes in insulin sensitivity, alter blood sugar levels and you can have an increased appetite and cravings.
- Your ability to fall asleep and waking more frequently can come about from the reduction in hormone levels. You may find that your concentration, alertness and performance in sessions or races is inhibited.
- A change in hormones alters neurobiology which can disrupt our mood. Doing activities and to help reduce stress during this phase is great to help manage PMS symptoms. Programming in some yoga or Pilates or easier runs or aerobic based sessions can be great
Training and nutrition
Phase 3 - Mid Luteal.
- All types of training are beneficial in this phase – Whoohoo!
- This can be a great time to programme mobility and flexibility sessions into your training programme.
- If you are feeling some symptoms of ovulation it can be good to return to more progressive warmups and moderate intensity sessions.
- With progesterone high, it might feel like it takes longer to recover from sessions. Listen to your body and add more recovery where needed.
- When doing those higher intensity sessions consider a quick release carbohydrate source during the session to maintain your energy levels and the quality of the session.
- Muscle breakdown may be greater in this phase so make sure you are taking on enough quality protein both before sessions and afterwards.
- With blood sugar levels beingless stable and resulting in those cravings, choose snacks that contain more complex carbohydrates and protein.
- In preparation for the premenstrual phase include those high antioxidant foods like your berries, beetroot, spinach and pecan nuts to name just a few
Phase 4 – Premenstrual
- Exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect and has antioxidant properties. This has been shown tor educe and help manage premenstrual symptoms.
- Light and moderate intensity sessions have been found to be particularly beneficial and effective.
- Exercise and getting outdoors gives you a natural endorphin boost which can help to alleviate mood and make you feel physically and mentally better.
- It is important during this phase to regularly fuel and focus on your good quality carbohydrates, protein and fibre. If you suffer from some stomach upsets during your period, whether diarrhoea or constipation just monitor that fibre intake.
- Great foods to include to help manage symptoms could include oily fish, eggs, raw nuts and a rainbow of fruit and vegetables. Also keeping on top of vitamin B and D as well as magnesium can help to alleviate PMS.
- Try to reduce your intake of highly processed and foods high in refined sugars. These have an inflammatory effect and can worsen the symptoms of your period.
- Sleep! Sleep can be disrupted during this phase so it is really important to do what you can to promote sleep inducing melatonin. This could be Pistachios, oily fish, oats, bananas and mushrooms.
Tracking your cycle
Tracking your cycle is the first step to understanding your cycle, from beginning to end. Like I said at the beginning of this piece the period is just a part of the bigger picture and by understanding our own personal experience you can get the best out of your training.
Follow the link below for some great tips on how to track your menstrual cycle. It’s important to record the right information at the right time, to help you tune in to your own experience of your cycle. Try and chart it diligently for 3 months to get to know your cycle well.
There are also some great, free Apps that you can use. A couple that I would personally recommend are below.
Read more at The Well HQ.
Written by Maximum Mileage Coach, Faye Johnson. UK Athletics Coach in Running Fitness, Well HQ ambassador and Level 4 PT. Faye has helped many women break through their running plateaus and smash their races! Why not reach out to us and enquire about having her as your coach by hitting that enquiry button