Females participating in aesthetic sports often talk about, or are impacted by, menstrual cycles. For example, within dance and gymnastics, females often experience their first period (menarche) later than ‘normal’, or have irregular cycles as they develop through adolescence. This was historically referred to as part of the Female Athlete Triad. Now, this is better known as a common symptom of ‘overtraining’ and ‘relative energy deficiency syndrome’.
Athletes and coaches outside of aesthetic sports have started to talk more about periods and cycles over the past decade. Losing a period is often (inaccurately) spoken of as a sign of fitness. Many female athletes are deemed to be at their ‘fittest’ when their cycle becomes irregular. What’s really happening (at the basic level), is that their training demands are greater than their energy reserves. So yes, these athletes may be clocking in their highest training volumes, but physiologically this is not a healthy or maintainable state. Adopting a holistic view: is this really a sign of being ‘fit’? Female athletes who have altered menstrual cycles and are inputting high volumes of training are at a greater risk of injury. Stress fractures are one of the most commonly reported injuries.
My cycle is irregular. What do I do?
- Monitor your cycle to develop your own personal history. Running apps, like Garmin, have menstrual cycle calendars embedded within them. Other cycle tracking apps like ‘Flo’ are useful as well. While these apps may be handy, at the end of the day all you need to track your cycle is a pen and paper.
- Advocate for yourself! Reach out to additional resources. Ask for testing if you have been monitoring your cycle and something is off. The disconnect between the sport and medical worlds is one of the main barriers here (after access to care). Many females lean towards contacting their family physician. For some, this may be a great plan of action. For others, a physician’s lack of sport knowledge may hinder this process. Sport medicine physicians and registered dieticians may be useful resources when trying to navigate menstrual cycles. Regardless of who you have access to/reach out to for help – advocate for yourself. Blood tests and ultrasounds can help you to figure out the underlying mechanisms at play here.
- Dial it back. Decreasing your training and focusing on your nutrition can help to regulate your cycle. Every athlete is different, so work with your support network to create a plan of action.
If your cycle is regular, work to educate yourself on how your period may impact your training.
- You might not be at your speediest the week before your period. Workouts can be structured around this, but this is also a helpful note for your mental health. Don’t be too hard on yourself, as your body’s abilities fluctuate over the course of your cycle.
- Conversely, easy runs can help with period symptoms like bloating and cramping.
- Your temperature may be elevated during the luteal phase (days 15-28 of your cycle). Increase your hydration if you are running outside in hotter weather during this phase.
At the end of the day: structure your training around your cycle! The best way to do this is to educate yourself AND if you have a coach – communicate. Periods are stigmatized and talking to coaches about them is often avoided. Let your coach know what phase of your cycle you’re in so they can structure your training appropriately. Keep your coach in the loop if your cycle becomes irregular.
Thoughts for this journal entry were prompted by Brittany Moran’s period story shared on Instagram, and my work with OneAthlete.