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Menstruation and Athletes: The Science Behind Your Period and Athletic Performance

As a female athlete, do you ever think that you’re going to perform poorly heading into a competition because you’re on your period? If so, you’re not alone.
Six Star Pro Staff
Six Star Pro Staff
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A female athlete throwing a softball

As a female athlete, do you ever think that you’re going to perform poorly heading into a competition because you’re on your period? If so, you’re not alone. 

A recent study revealed that more than half of elite female athletes reported that hormonal fluctuations during their menstrual cycle negatively affected their exercise training and performance capacity. Another study that tracked the experiences and perceptions of elite female rugby players found that 67% of athletes who had ‘perceived heavy menstrual bleeding’ reported that menstrual cycle-related symptoms impaired their performances, as well. 

However, there are also reports that elite female athletes have won gold medals and major competitions during all menstrual-cycle phases. In fact, one elite athlete learned that racing during a menstrual cycle is actually ideal because a woman’s estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest, making their physiological impact minor. And one of the best women’s soccer teams on the planet made headlines when they credited tracking their period cycles as a reason why they were able to win gold in a major soccer competition. 

This begs the question: does a woman’s menstrual cycle affect her athletic performance or not? To find out, let’s take a closer look at the science behind an athlete’s period and the impact that it has on her athletic performance. 

What Is The Menstrual Cycle? 

The menstrual cycle is a series of hormone-driven events that occur each month within a woman’s body (during the years between puberty and menopause) as it prepares for the possibility of pregnancy. 

A menstrual cycle is counted from the first day of a woman’s period up until the first day of her next period. The average cycle is 28 days long, but each woman is different. While some women can predict the day and time that their period will start, others can only predict the start of their period within a few days. That said, periods are still considered ‘regular’ as long as they come every 24 to 38 days. 

Menstrual Cycle Phases And How They May Affect Athletic Performance

A study indicated that approximately 75% of athletes experience negative side effects due to menses, with the most common side effects being cramps, back pain, headaches, and bloating. Research has also found fluctuations in strength, metabolism, inflammation, body temperature, fluid balance, and injury risk that are associated with hormonal fluctuations throughout the cycle.

A woman’s menstrual cycle has four unique phases with each phase featuring different physical and emotional strengths. The four phases are the menstrual phase, follicular phase, ovulation phase, and luteal phase.

Phase One: Menstrual Phase

The menstrual phase is the first stage of the menstrual cycle and also when a woman gets her period. This phase begins when an egg from the previous cycle isn’t fertilized. And since pregnancy hasn’t taken place, hormone levels of estrogen and progesterone drop, which causes the uterine lining to shed. Typically, women are in the menstrual phase of their cycle for three to seven days. That said, some women do have longer periods than others. 

Symptoms During The Menstrual Phase: During the menstrual phase, women’s energy levels will be the lowest in their cycle and they’ll also likely feel tired and withdrawn. Other symptoms that women may experience are cramps, tender breasts, bloating, mood swings, irritability, headaches, and low back pain. 

What These Menstrual Phase Symptoms Mean For Athletes: During the menstrual phase, athletes may want to restmore than they normally do, or even take a day off. It’s important for athletes to listen to their bodies during this phase and do what feels right to them. Athletes should also prioritize eating fibrous carbohydrates like whole grains during this phase, and avoid foods that are high in saturated fat, as well as foods that are inflammatory. 

Phase Two: Follicular Phase

The follicular phase starts on the first day of a woman’s period and ends when a woman ovulates. During the follicular phase, the pituitary gland releases a hormone called Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH), which stimulates the folliclesin a woman’s ovaries to mature. The maturing follicle sets off a surge in estrogen that thickens the lining of a woman’s uterus, creating a nutrient-rich environment for an embryo to grow. 

Symptoms During The Follicular Phase: Since estrogen and testosterone levels start to rise during this phase, athletes may experience a boost of energy and an improved mood. Testosterone stimulates a woman’s libido, while estrogen may make women feel more extroverted and also suppress their appetite. 

What These Follicular Phase Symptoms Mean For Athletes: During the follicular phase, the female body is primed for high-intensity workouts due to a higher pain tolerance and higher perceived energy levels, especially during the early follicular phase. In the late follicular phase, strength training might be more effective since estrogen levels are higher. It’s also easier to build and maintain muscle during this phase, making the follicular phase an excellent time to emphasize muscle-building exercises. 

Evidence also suggests that women may have a higher risk of tissue injuries, especially tears of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee at certain points in the menstrual cycle. Researchers have found that women tend to be more likely to experience ACL injuries in the first half of their menstrual cycle, especially as they approach ovulation. 

In terms of nutrition, athletes in this phase should focus on maintaining a healthy, balanced diet. There aren’t really any foods that athletes need to avoid during the follicular phase. Just keep in mind that the rise in estrogen during the late follicular phase might hamper pre-exercise carbohydrate storage. So, female endurance athletes may choose to carb load the day before and during exercise in the late follicular phase in order to be able to exercise at high intensities. 

Phase Three: Ovulation Phase

The ovulation phase is the only time during a woman’s menstrual cycle when she can get pregnant. Rising estrogen levels during the follicular phase trigger the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone (LH). This is what starts the process of ovulation, which is when a woman’s ovary releases a mature egg. The egg will survive between 12 to 24 hours. Then after a day, the egg will die or dissolve if it isn’t fertilized. 

Ovulation usually happens right in the middle of a woman’s menstrual cycle. So, if a woman has a 28-day cycle, it will occur around day 14. 

Symptoms During The Ovulation Phase: Women can usually tell that they’re ovulating based on symptoms such as a slight rise in basal body temperature or a thicker discharge. Their estrogen and testosterone will rise to peak levels, boosting the effects of the follicular phase. Women may feel more confident and also feel that they look better, as well. Their sex drive will also be at its highest during this phase. However, when progesterone and estrogen levels are high in phase three, some women may feel that their mood can be altered. Some women’s appetites may also increase and they may feel more fatigued, too. 

What These Ovulation Phase Symptoms Mean For Athletes: It has been reported that there’s a significant increase in quadriceps strength during ovulation when compared to the follicular and luteal phases, making it a great time to achieve personal bests in strength. However, as noted above, ACL ruptures are more likely to happen around ovulation. 

In phase three, it’s recommended that athletes eat mini-meals throughout the day rather than just eating three big meals. Athletes should also eat healthy fats such as avocados and nuts, while steering clear of foods that are processed and high in sugar, as well as caffeine. 

Phase Four: Luteal Phase

During the back half of the menstrual cycle, a woman’s body will either be preparing for her next period or for pregnancy, if she happened to conceive during this cycle. If a woman does get pregnant, her body will produce human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which is the hormone that pregnancy tests detect. If a woman doesn’t get pregnant, her estrogen and progesterone levels will decline, which causes the onset of a period. Then the uterine lining will shedduring her period. The average length of the luteal phase is 14 days, but may last between 11 to 17 days. 

Period Symptoms During The Luteal Phase: If a woman doesn’t get pregnant, she may experience symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). It’s estimated that around 85% of menstruating women experience one symptom of PMS as part of their monthly cycle. Some common PMS symptoms are bloating, breast swelling (or tenderness), mood changes, headache, weight gain, changes in sexual desire, food cravings, and trouble sleeping. Due to these symptoms, PMS may interfere with athletic training and performance seven to 10 days before menses

What These Luteal Phase Symptoms Mean For Athletes: First and foremost, athletes should practice good self-care, especially the week before their period as this may help to reduce PMS symptoms

Athletes should also focus on lower-intensity workouts with more recovery time since more hormones (an increase in estrogen and progesterone) will lead to a decrease in anabolic (or muscle-building) capacity. Athletes may benefit from practicing yoga, getting a massage, or prioritizing alone time to rest and recharge since their bodies are not primed for high-intensity training during the luteal phase. 

During this phase, body mass might be higher due to fluid retention. It has also been suggested that increases in body temperature can make it harder to run in the heat, as well. 

Athletes should also focus on eating healthy foods that are rich in nutrients and fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. They should avoid consuming processed meats and fast food, as well. Athletes also need to drink more water during the luteal phase in order to remain properly hydrated since there’s a greater risk of dehydration

By honoring their body’s need for rest and relaxation during this time, athletes will then be able to enhance their abilityto get more out of the active phases of their cycle.  

Tips For Athletes To Better Under Their Cycle And Improve Athletic Performance 

Track Your Period: The way in which the menstrual cycle affects females and their performance is highly individual. Since each woman’s menstrual cycle is different, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work for female athletes. That’s why athletes should track their periods and write down when they start and when they end. Athletes can also record any changes to the amount or number of days that they bleed. Then athletes can overlay this information with their training logs in order to understand how these phases affect their athletic performance. There are also several different period tracking apps that athletes can use, which use research-based evidence to match symptoms and solutions with each phase. Once athletes see that a clear pattern has emerged, then they can then start training, eating, and hydrating according to the phase that they’re in. 

Be Aware Of Potential Warning Signs: Some common signs that there may be a problem with an athlete’s menstrual cycle are if they’ve skipped periods (or their periods have stopped completely), their periods are irregular, they bleed for more than seven days, their periods are less than 21 days or more than 35 days apart, or they bleed between periods (heavier than spotting). The absence of menstruation is also a sign that an athlete isn’t fueling her body properly. So, as an athlete, if you come across any of these warning signs, make sure to talk to your healthcare provider right away.

Have Teammates and Doctors That You Can Talk To About Your Period: While athletes talking about menstruation and how it affects their performance is becoming more common today, especially in North America, there are other places in the world where menstruation is still very much a taboo subject. Having teammates to share worries with who are also affected by the same things can help erode the feeling of taboo. So, talk to teammates that you trust about any concerns that you may have about your period, as well as anything else going on in your life. Chances are that your teammates are probably going through the same thing, too. 

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