Runners have to deal with a lot of factors that go into their training and race performances – weather, dehydration, fueling, humidity, sleep patterns, recovery. There’s a lot of reasons why one run might feel like you’re running on the moon and another feels like you’re running through quicksand. However, women have yet another factor to consider which most of us probably don’t even think about – our menstrual cycle.
I’m 30 and honestly, a lot of my friends are trying or having babies! Because of that, I’ve heard plenty lately about the different phases of the menstrual cycle. With all this talk, I wondered how these phases may also affect training. While doing P90X I had read that women on birth control get different results from strength training than women not on it and I remembered reading about how your period can affect your energy levels. I figured this also probably affected running and I was right. Running and important race at the wrong time of the month can make the difference between a PR and disappointment.
The Phases of the Menstrual Cycle
The two most important hormones that affect our bodies and our training during our menstrual cycle are progesterone and estrogen. High estrogen levels are associated with better athletic, specifically endurance, performances and higher progesterone levels are associated with worse performances.
The two main phases of the menstrual cycle are the Follicular Phase and the Luteal Phase. The Follicular Phase begins at menstruation (Day 1) and ends at ovulation (varies from woman to women and can be anywhere between day 11 to 21). The Luteal Phase begins after ovulation and lasts until menstruation. The entire cycle typically lasts 24-32 days, depending on the woman.
Luteal Phase – Tread Lightly
Let’s get the bad news out of the way. The second half of your cycle is the hardest time to train or race, especially the week leading up to menstruation. Progesterone is at its height during the week before your period and then will drop off when menstruation begins.
Due to high progesterone levels, your natural body temperature is higher during this phase. This rise in temperature makes it harder for your body to cool yourself off, which means that racing in hot weather or humidity will be especially taxing. Another fun side effect of high progesterone levels are a lack of energy and bloating caused by imbalanced electrolyte levels. Oh yeah, and all the other symptoms of PMS that we love.
Although it might seem worse, your body actually operates better during menstruation than it would during the week before your period due to the drop in progesterone that takes you out of the luteal phase into the follicular phase.
Follicular Phase – HECK YES
The follicular phase is your best friend for racing and training. During the days post menstruation but before ovulation, your estrogen levels are highest. And high estrogen levels are associated with using FAT for fuel instead of carbohydrates. As we all know, the key to success in a marathon or other endurance event is not using up all of your glycogen so that you avoid hitting the wall and continue to have energy throughout. Being in the follicular phase during a race or hard workout will allow you to run harder for longer periods of time.
Estrogen peaks just before ovulation and annoying progesterone is at its lowest – this is the time you will probably have the best workouts. You will enjoy a lower heart rate, fresher legs and a better attitude. And we all know that these self-confidence boosting workouts are the key to racing success.
I was reading up on all this around the time of my last two races. The Hot Buttered Run 10k – which I ran 10 miles just a couple hours before the race – was a great race for me. I felt amazing and had a great race despite no taper and a 10 mile warm-up. Later, I realized I was at the tail end of the follicular phase during this race (estrogen the highest). A week later, I ran the San Diego Holiday Half Marathon. Although I ended up with a pretty good time, my energy levels weren’t great during this race. It felt much harder and mentally it was tougher. Because I track my cycle, I know I was in the luteal phase during this race. Although I don’t have a lot of experience so far, these two races seemed in line with my research.
So what do we do with this information? Ideally, you can plan your workouts and even better, your key races, around your cycle. Of course, that’s easier said than done since ovulation and cycle duration vary from woman to woman. It’s hard to know exactly when you’ll be in your “I am woman hear me roar” phase and clearly when you sign up for a race 4-5 months in advance you can’t time it perfectly. But, armed with this information you might be able to cut yourself some slack when you’re having one of those heavy-legged, low energy runs or bring an extra Gu when you know you’ll be blasting through carbs.
If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, here are the 3 articles I used to write this blog:
Have you ever noticed differences depending on the time of the month? Have you ever heard anything about how menstrual cycle affects training?