As a female athlete, have you ever wondered how you smash a track session this week but just a few weeks ago felt flat in the same session, given nutrition, sleep, and recovery remain the same? Or do you have days when you can’t keep your hands out of the cookie jar and others when a sugary snack doesn’t cross your mind? Or why men lose weight so much faster than women following the same diet? The good news is you aren’t going crazy; these scenarios occur, and the menstrual cycle’s fluctuation of hormones triggers it all.
Females are physiologically different from their male counterparts, starting at the onset of puberty. We begin to store more body fat, hips widen, and experience the onset of menstruation. This hormonally driven roller coaster can send a female athlete into a downward spiral, negatively affecting fitness and performance. However, it’s not as bleak as it sounds. The trick is understanding and learning how to master training and nutrition throughout your cycle.
Hormones, Training and Performance
The menstrual cycle consists of three phases: the follicular, ovulation, and luteal phases. The fluctuation of hormones trigger it all. Estrogen is a hormone that is responsible for the development and maintenance of both the reproductive system and physical female characteristics. Progesterone plays an important role in the menstrual cycle and in maintaining the early stages of pregnancy.
The follicular phase is the low hormone phase, begins with day 1, the first day of the period, lasting for approximately two weeks. Estrogen and progesterone are LOW.
- During this time a female’s exercise physiology is most similar to a male’s than at any other time in the cycle.
- The body is primed to hit top-end efforts, store and utilize carbs for fuel.
- You’ll feel stronger and have an increased ability to make strength gains.
- You’ll feel less pain or experience a lower rate of perceived exertion.
- You recover faster.
- Your hydration status is optimal.
- Despite popular belief, the onset of menstruation is actually a performance enhancer since hormones drop, leaving you with energy at your disposal for exertion/output.
- Training: best time to seek fitness gains via high intensity, strength and HIIT sessions.
- Nutrition/Fueling: Aim for 30-40g carbs per hour of training ideally from glucose and sucrose sugar substrate, and if session is longer than 75-90 min.
- Prioritize recovery snack within 30-45 min of workout consisting of 20+g protein and easy to digest carbohydrates.
Approximately day 14. Estrogen and testosterone levels are HIGH; progesterone levels are LOW. Libido is high during this short phase.
Training Tips: Energy level is high and support HIIT, high impact cycling and running sessions.
Day 14-24 to 35+ depending on cycle length. From ovulation to menses. Estrogen and progesterone levels are HIGH, especially in the last week before the onset of menstruation.
During this last week (5-7 days) before the onset of menses:
- Carbohydrate (carb) burning, and glycogen storage ability is reduced.
- Metabolism increases 5-10% (100-200 calories), thus explaining increased cravings.
- It’s more difficult to reach high-end efforts/intensity since carbs are harder to utilize.
- The rate of perceived exertion is higher even at moderate efforts.
- It’s harder to build muscle.
- Increased bloating due to water retention; blood is thicker and hydration status is sub-optimal. You are in a dehydrated state due to a cascade of events with estrogen that causes water retention and constriction of blood vessels, while progesterone lowers aldosterone, responsible for retaining sodium – ultimately leading to reduction in blood volume, cardiac output and blood pressure.
- Heart rate will be higher even at moderate efforts compared to the low hormone phase.
- Less tolerant to heat, fatigue is higher, and recovery is hindered.
- Training: Lower stress, aerobic efforts and technique-focused sessions are most effective during this phase. However, if you have a race/event during this phase, refer to the fueling guidelines outlined below.
- Nutrition/Fueling: during sessions lasting longer than 90 min or high-intensity workouts, increase fueling to 40-50 grams carbs per hour,
- Prioritize recovery fuel of 20+g protein and easy to digest carbohydrates within 30-45 min of workout.
- General nutrition: be mindful of eating well with adequate protein, fruit and veggies and add salt to foods to support optimal hydration during this phase. Avoid fructose and maltodextrin as fuel sources in sports fueling as these contribute to GI distress. Best choices are glucose and sucrose. Avoid protein in sports fueling products.
Sports Hydration and Fueling
No matter which phase, hydration is critical to performance. However, during the luteal phase the body’s baseline hydration is subpar so be extra vigilant with your hydration in the days before your cycle begins.
Ideal hydration solution per 8oz to optimize hydration, provide energy and offset GI distress for the female athlete:
- 3-4% carbohydrate solution (7-9.4g carb per 8oz)
- Sugar substrate from glucose and sucrose
- Sodium 180-225 mg
- Potassium 60-75mg (co-transporter of sodium)
Headaches: Just before the start of menstrual flow, hormones drop, causing a change in blood pressure due to the dilation and constriction of blood vessels. The best way to mitigate these hormone-induced headaches is to stay adequately hydrated and eat foods rich in nitric oxides such as beets, pomegranate, watermelon, and spinach in the days leading up to your period.
Cramping: 5-7 days before your period, you can reduce the effect of cramping by taking magnesium, omega three fatty acids, and a low dose (80mg) baby aspirin. NOT ibuprofen or Advil® .Make sure it is aspirin, which suppresses the production of prostaglandins where NSAIDS do not.
250 mg magnesium (glycinate or citrate form)
45 mg of zinc
80mg aspirin (baby aspirin)
1g or 1000mg Omega 3 fatty acid (combo of DHA and EPA)
Taken each night for seven days before your period starts to reduce pre-menstrual side efforts and optimize performance.
Tracking Your Menstrual Cycle
Most females don’t track the menstrual cycle phases but loosely track cycle duration and period length. Thanks to technology, FitrWoman is an app that provides personalized training and nutritional tips tailored throughout each phase. All you need to get started is to plug in the first day of your last period, estimated period length and cycle duration.
Peri-Menopause and Menopause
It would be unconscionable to omit a substantial group of female athletes because they no longer have menstrual periods. This diverse physical and psychological period in a woman’s life is not reduced to a moment in time but is a series of changes over years, sometimes a decade, impacting everything. In a later blog, we will take a deeper dive into training, nutritional and lifestyle adaptations necessary to make these years the best yet!
Final Word on Training and Fueling for Women
Historically, discussing the female menstrual cycle has been off-limits and never considered to hinder or enhance performance. Thankfully we are in a new era, females are being recognized not as much by how they look but by what they say, how they perform and their valuable contribution to society. Women are taking their rightful place at the training table, standing proudly on center stage with their equal male counterparts. Treating female athletes with the same sports fueling and training plan as male athletes is a massive injustice. It’s time to acknowledge, treat, train and fuel women according to their unique physiology.