With Wimbledon comes the news that last year’s #AddressTheDressCode petition has resulted in female tennis players being allowed to wear dark coloured shorts underneath their tennis whites. Hoorah! But fear of leaks aside, there’s so much more going on within the body during the menstrual cycle, and most of us know only too well just how much hormones can affect us during our period. So how does the menstrual cycle affect sports performance, and how exactly do athletes manage their period?
We put these questions, and more, to WUKA expert Dr Sarah Cadwallader, a specialist in integrative women’s health and bioidentical hormone balancing for the Marion Gluck Clinic.
How does the menstrual cycle impact sports performance?
We all know how our period can make us feel- tired, lethargic, achey and full of cramps. But if your career depends on you getting out there and playing your best game, the struggles can be a lot more intense.
Dr. Cadwallader told us,
“The menstrual cycle has an impact on sports performance, not only for elite athletes but for all women who enjoy sport. It’s important that women understand how the menstrual cycle effects sports performance in order to tailor their exercise or training regime to get the most benefit and enjoyment from their workout.
Carmichael et al. in a narrative found that female athletes consistently reported reduced perceived performance in the early follicular ( days 1-5) and late luteal phase ( days 24-28) of their cycle. However, there was no consistent effects found on objective testing. There certainly needs to be more research done in this area.
Menstrual symptoms such as abdominal pain and fatigue can negatively impact athletes’ ability to train. Oestrogen and progesterone appear to have opposite effects leading to lower strength in the luteal phase when progesterone is high.
There are also many factors that can affect how women feel about exercising on a particular day and how their cycle is affected, including external stressors such as diet, stress, sleep patterns that are involved. “
So it seems that while hormones certainly play a role in how we feel during our cycle, they can have an affect on sports performance too.
Can female athletes take medication/ supplements to improve sports performance during their period?
Professional tennis player, Heather Watson recently revealed in an interview with Sky Sports: “Last year I went on the pill to stop myself bleeding because I knew we had to wear white under-shorts and I didn’t want to face any embarrassment,”
And it seems that this isn’t all that uncommon amongst athletes either, despite a lack of research into the affects that hormonal birth control pills may have on sports performance. But according to this article from Global Sports Matters, things are beginning to improve, as increased efforts are being made to track and understand more about the menstrual cycle and it’s affect on sports performance- and the effects of taking the pill too.
With this in mind, we wanted to know whether there are any supplements that can help female athletes to manage their period during training and competitions.
Dr. Cadwallader told us,
“For all athletes it is important to have a balanced diet and good nutrition to support exercise regimes. As the saying goes- you can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet. Eating unprocessed, nutrient rich foods which support gut health will have a positive impact on health and sports performance.
Certain supplements can also support sports performance. These can either be found in foods or taken as supplements. Some of the most valuable ones are:
- Calcium and vitamin D. These help reduce the symptoms of premenstrual tension and are also good for bone health.
- Magnesium – this is an antioxidant and helps with energy production and muscle recovery. It is found in green vegetables such as spinach as well as nuts and seeds.
- B vitamins – these help support energy metabolism, nerve function and cardiovascular health. In the diet these are found in fortified cereals, nuts, pulses, eggs and milk.
- Iron – this is needed for energy production and immune function. Iron can be found in red meat, beans, nuts and fortified cereals Iron absorption from food can be increased by adding a source of vitamin C. Tea and coffee block the absorption of iron so avoiding these around mealtimes can be helpful. There are plenty of iron rich foods, and in the absence of diagnosed anaemia it is not necessary to take iron supplements.
During which phase is it best to do muscle building exercises, and which is it best to do cardio exercises?
Understanding the menstrual cycle and what happens during a period is crucial for monitoring sports performance, and not just for athletes- knowing what’s going on with your hormones can help us all to maximise our time in the gym. So which phases of the cycle are best suited for which specific types of training?
Dr. Cadwallader explained,
“In the late (day 6-12) follicular phase there is an increase in oestrogen and energy levels, so this is the best time to do strength and muscle training. However, intense cardio and heavy weight training may add extra stress so is best avoided if menstrual flow continues into this phase and is heavy.
As the period tails off, most women will find that their energy levels increase – due to increasing oestrogen levels- and they start to feel more like doing exercise. This is the time to engage in strength and muscle training, along with cardio exercise. This can be continued through ovulation and often into the first few days of the luteal phase.
The advice in the second half of the cycle, especially in the week before the period is to scale back training and focus on recovery. This is the time to concentrate on activities such as yoga and swimming.
The important message is for women to listen to their bodies, understand their own menstrual cycle, and plan their workout accordingly. It may be beneficial to use a period tracking app and plan a workout regime based on cycle length rather than using a 7-day workout plan.”
Training with WUKA
Cycle tracking is an excellent way to get to know your body and your unique menstrual cycle, and can be really useful if you’re training with a specific goal in mind. And if you know that your period is on the way, that doesn’t have to mean you need to skip the gym, either.
First and foremost, being comfortable on your period should be a priority, so if you do choose to train through your period then a good pair of period pants is a great idea. Our Perform period pants are made from recycled nylon, with a soft and breathable cotton gusset to keep you dry and comfy. They’re seamless, so you can hit the gym with absolutely no VPL at all.
And if you suffer with bloating during your period, our Stretch collection might be just what you need. Each pair stretches to accommodate up to 6 sizes, gently hugging your body without digging in- and again with no VPL. Available for medium and heavy flows, and in both midi brief style and high waist style– our Stretch period pants are engineered to last, made from super soft micro-fibre for maximum comfort and leak-free protection.
We also have period leggings too- the perfect workout partner, with a pair of Perform period pants stitched right in there! These beauties will absorb up to 3 tampons worth of blood, and they’re made from eco-friendly recycled nylon, which is a really lightweight fabric, with a hi-tech moisture barrier to keep you dry and comfortable as you work out.
Also in our Perform range: period shorts. Yes, shorts that you can bleed into, so you never need to skip the training if your usual period protection isn’t quite up to the job. These shorts also have a pair of period pants stitched into them, with a highly absorbent moisture barrier that makes them completely leak proof. They’ll hold up to 3 tampons worth of blood too- impressive!
How do athletes train during periods?
Some female athletes may use hormonal contraceptives to stop their period, but there is conflicting evidence as to whether or not it’s safe to do this. Lots of athletes also find that cycle tracking is a great way to manage their training, so that they can work with their body and not against it.
Do professional athletes lose their period?
Over training can result in amenorrhea, which is where your period is absent for a period of time. Hormone disruptions are to blame, along with the stress and weight loss that often comes hand in hand with too much exercise. Some professional athletes may lose their period if they over train, so its important to work with a coach who understands the menstrual cycle and is able to work with it.
Do some athletes perform better on their period?
Lots of people perform better athletically during the first phase of the menstrual cycle, when the bleeding occurs. However, we’re all different, so this might not be the case for every athlete.
Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Feb; 18(4): 1667.
Published online 2021 Feb 9.
The Impact of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Athletes’ Performance: A Narrative Review
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