“I can’t do it, I am on my period.”
For so many women* around the world, this is a sentence that has been uttered time and time again. When it comes to physical exercise, athletic training or doing sports, it is important that we understand that the fluctuating hormones of the menstrual cycle can have a real impact on how willing and effectively people who menstruate can engage in such activity.
Consider this: by the age of 14, girls are twice more likely than their male counterparts to have dropped out of sport (with periods being one of the contributing factors). It’s time we have an honest conversation about why understanding our cycles can be a truly valuable tool to promote women’s health, wellness and performance.
The role of hormones in physical performance
There is a generational shift going on in how we talk about the link between menstrual health, sport and athletic performance. In May 2022, #3 best golfer in the world from New Zealand Lydia Ko broke the silence when asked about her performance, indicating that it was “that time of the month.”
Lydia is not the first athlete to talk openly about her period and how it has affected her performance. In 2015, British tennis player Heather Watson attributed her defeat to period pain during the Australian Open. In that same year, Czech tennis player Petra Kvitova spoke not only about the physical limitations of having her period during Wimbledon, but also the fear of having to wear white during such an important tennis match. And in 2016, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui mentioned to a reporter during the Summer Olympics that her starting her period while competing in that particular match left her feeling “pretty weak and really tired,” after finishing fourth in the 4x100 medley relay.
Conversations around periods in sports often render male presenters and audience speechless or doubting the veracity of such claims. Is period pain really just an excuse for poor performance? Or are our changing hormones changing the way we perform?
The effect of the menstrual cycle on women’s* physical bodies
Studies are now emerging that provide a better understanding of the menstrual cycle, highlighting how exercise and nutrition can be altered to advance female athletic performance, and reduce injury risk. Research is finally revealing the importance of gender-sensitive training to account for the physical and physiological differences between the sexes, such as hormones, the amount of muscle we naturally carry, and base-level strength
When talking about the menstrual cycle and finding ways to optimize female health, it’s important that we look beyond periods to the whole menstrual cycle. The primary female hormones — estrogen and progesterone — rise and fall throughout the entire cycle. As these hormones travel through the blood, they can affect everything about our emotional and physical health, including how we respond to training, how well we recover, and even how our bodies can metabolize or break down food for energy. The average athlete is likely to experience hormonal shifts over the course of their cycle that can affect any of the following: muscle, bone, endurance, energy level, attention and pain perception. Particular research around the Female Athlete Triad demonstrates that failing to take energy availability, menstrual function and bone health into account can result in serious issues for an athlete.
The menstrual cycle can be a barrier to optimal performance
A global survey (of over 14,000 women) conducted by Orreco, Strava and St Mary’s University Twickenham revealed that 78% of women say that exercise relieves discomfort associated with their menstrual cycle, however 74% also reported that their menstrual cycle negatively affected their performance.
70% of women surveyed also reported receiving no education about the relationship between their period and exercise.
Tracking one’s menstrual cycle can be a useful tool to not only optimize performance but lower injury risk. There is research to suggest that at certain points in the menstrual cycle, women are more prone to soft tissue injuries due to the effects of hormone fluctuations on ligaments, muscles and tendons.
This is in part due to the fact that estrogen, the hormone that repairs and thickens the uterus lining during menstruation, can increase the elasticity of joints in the days before ovulation. Therefore, it can increase joint laxity and create changes in neuromuscular control.
The majority of research on the best training schedules for athletes is ultimately based on what works for men… surprise, surprise! Women’s bodies are often viewed as an anomaly, and thus has not been as rigorously studied in terms of sports nutrition or exercise science. As you can imagine, this gender-neutral approach can lead to serious consequences on the health, wellbeing and ultimate performance of female athletes.
The female reproductive system is governed by a powerful and cyclical set of hormones which have serious effects on our bodily system, emotions and mood. However, the severity of negative side effects are often related to key factors such as genetics, stress, nutrition and exercise.
The tide is shifting in connecting the menstrual cycle to sports outcomes
Slowly but surely, we are seeing a shift toward elite athletes actively tracking and utilizing the menstrual cycle as a key tool to optimize athletic performance. In the UK, the British Olympic hockey team uses menstrual cycle tacking to adjust training programmes, while in the US, the women’s national soccer team members have tailored programs where each cycle is tracked. The players most affected by certain symptoms across their monthly cycles are provided adequate support to manage their health.
This is not to suggest that all people who menstruate will suffer negative effects as a result of their cycle, however having a better understanding of hormones could radically change the way one trains or engages in physical exercise.
This is not just important to elite athletes but the wellness of menstruators everywhere! Understanding and being able to use different types of products, nutrition and physical exercise across the cycle can help promote health benefits, reduce menstrual symptoms, and create better training outcomes.
So what can we all be doing to feel more prepared and able to promote menstrual wellness?
Work out smarter, not harder: Tips across the menstrual cycle to think about when engaging in exercise
Menstrual cycle tracking is the first step to better understanding your unique body and needs.
It’s one tool of many that anyone who menstruates — not just professional athletes — can use and benefit from to help promote healthy behavior and optimize performance. Whether one uses an app, calendar, or just paper and pen — it’s great to start tracking your cycle!
The rhythmic, ebb-and-flow pattern of the female hormones throughout the 21–35 day cycle provides a clear roadmap that can help you physically train your body smarter, not harder. By syncing your physical activities with your cycle, you will see that it does not pay to ‘go hard all the time’. Each phase of the menstrual cycle has defining hormonal characteristics that helps you to assess the type of movement and intensity your body is craving. Knowing this can help you plan the best times for each kind of exercise.
Ready to break it down? We have put together a few quick tips and recommendations that can help you think differently about your exercise, health and your cycle.
Phase 1: Menstruation — days 1–5 (ish)
While bleeding, hormone levels are at their lowest, which also translates to energy levels being at their lowest as well. Focusing on mellower exercises — such as stretching, foam rolling, yin yoga or casual walking — may just be the best way to truly let your body flow, during your flow. Periods are not a reason to not be active, but it’s also ok to listen to your body and be gentle.
Whatever your preference exercise-wise, it is important that you find the right product that gives you the comfort and support you need to exercise care-free. Whether you are a swimmer, runner or cyclist, think about the following questions:
- What level of protection do I need?
- How much flexibility do I need from my period product based on my physical movement?
- How frequently will I need to change my product and can I easily find somewhere to change that product when I need to?
Madami staff product / service recommendation: Our colleague Milena is obsessed with the Lily Cup Compact by Intimina.
“My go-to sports are swimming and cycling; I especially love spin classes. I found shifting to menstrual cups from tampons radically changed my comfort level when it came to my exercise regimen. It took me a while to find the “right cup” for me. As you can imagine, I have tried pretty much them all. And they feel radically different based on your cervix, flow and the physical movements you are engaging in. I have found several cups extremely painful when on a bike, particularly those made from harder silicone. When I discovered the LilyCup, I was ecstatic because it’s so soft and flexible; I feel no pressure when on a bike or any other weird position when exercising. I also found that for swimming, I no longer have to worry about a tampon retaining water and the awful feeling of slogginess when removing it. Personally, it was a game-changer!”
Phase 2: Follicular — days 5–13 (ish)
Rising estrogen is causing your energy levels to rise, which means it’s good to take advantage of your natural proclivity to move your body. Target high intensity training in the early follicular phase. Your body is primed for rigorous cardio exercise, testing your fitness limits and trying new things. Pole dancing class, anyone? This can be a great time to think about more intensive exercise such as running, biking, dancing, and hiking. This can also be an important time to think about your nutrition and making sure you are getting the right vitamins and nutrients to fuel your movements.
Madami staff product / app recommendation: Aaptiv
Our own Danielle is a huge fan of Aaptiv, an exercise app, because it offers a range of different workouts, like challenging yoga classes and medication exercises from trainer Jade Alexis. “Aaptiv is an awesome app because it enables you to pick and choose what you want to do based on intensity and your mood. I really love that I can choose the duration of my workout, as well as the trainer. Jade always makes me feel stronger and more grounded after any of her vinyasa courses. Jade always ends with “The light in me honors the light inside of you”. I absolutely love that!
Phase 3: Ovulatory — days 12–18 (ish):
With estrogen and testosterone at the highest levels of the cycle, you have lots of energy to use but when your estrogen levels peak, you are most prone to the risk of soft tissue injuries due to hormone fluctuations on ligaments, muscles and tendons. Tracking and monitoring during this time is key to lower your risk of injuries. Focus on strength development and implement knee stability exercises to reduce the risk of ACL injuries during ovulation phase
Madami staff product / app recommendation: Wild AI
Madami’s Mariana and our pal Alex at the Toilet Board Coalition say you should check out the WildAI, an exercise app that helps you track your cycle and provides personalized training and nutritional suggestions based on your hormones. “For the athletes and sports maniacs in the audience, this app takes menstrual cycle tracking to the next level. It helps you optimize your performance and really understand how to train smart by eating well and planning your activity. I love this app because it changes the way I think about what I put in, and what I can get out of my body when it comes to exercise.”
Similarly, Alex says that “Wild AI is well informed by leading research (and researchers) on female exercise science and it is practical and useful at even the free (basic) level. I’ve been using it (at the free level) for about a year and have recently decided to upgrade to the Pro version because I’m finding it so helpful and transformative. I firmly believe that with greater understanding of our bodies we can harness the power of our cycle and unlock even greater potential whether in sport, personal or professional settings.”
Phase 4: Luteal — days 18–30 (ish):
In the first 5 days or so of your luteal phase, you’re still enjoying the focus and energy of your ovulation due to estrogen and testosterone. Until progesterone really starts to kick in, it’s nice to use this energy to build muscle via strength training, weight lifting or challenging yoga poses. During the second half of this phase — especially when progesterone levels peak, your body’s calling on you to chill and perhaps focus on flexibility and balance, so exercises like pilates and gentler yoga could be great options for you. Vitamin E and magnesium could also be great to supplement during the later luteal phase (days 25 onwards), as they help relieve pre-menstrual cramps.
Madami staff product / app recommendation: The Period Repair Manual by Lara Briden
This is a great guide to improving periods. It explains how to use natural treatments such as diet, nutritional supplements, herbal medicine, and bioidentical hormones and provides advice and tips for every age and situation. Topics include:
- What your period should be like
- Things that can go wrong
- How to talk to your doctor
- Treatment protocols for all common period problems including PCOS and endometriosis
- Special topics such as Histamine Intolerance and How to Choose a Probiotic
- Suggested brands for supplements.
Make the most of your own cycle
Remember, everybody and every cycle is a bit different, and what we’ve given here are merely tips and guidance, but is by no means intended to be prescriptive. It’s important to honor your body in a way that supports your cycle.
Just like the day turns into night, we as cyclical beings also need to ensure that rest and recharging are an essential part of our fitness routines. When you give yourself permission to truly listen to your body, track your energy levels, and from there do what feels best, you might find more ease in working out and staying active.
When you know your cycle you can respond to it. Whether that be pushing harder during your follicular and ovulatory phases or scaling back during the luteal and menstrual phases.