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Harness The Power Of Your Menstrual Cycle | PMS Collection | Röhnisch Sportswear
In the process of designing the PMS collection, we wanted to know more about the different experiences of PMS and PMDD. In doing research, we came in contact with PhD student at Northumbria University, Kelly McNulty. Kelly investigates the effects of the menstrual cycle and hormonal contraceptive use on performance, recovery, and adaptation in sportswomen. Furthermore, Kelly is the founder of The Period of The Period which aims to promote awareness and increase evidence-based education on the topics surrounding women's health in sport and exercise.
What is the menstrual cycle?
For decades, female athletes have hinted that the menstrual cycle has the potential to influence performance and training. These effects are not limited to elite athletes, with research reporting thaton average 50 to 90% of sportswomen believe that their menstrual cycle affects their ability to perform or train.
Despite these statistics, for a long time the menstrual cycle has been treated as a taboo and as something we do not openly discuss as women, especially in sport and exercise. If we cannot talk about our menstrual cycle, we will never know what is normal and not normal. On top of this, education is lacking with 72% of women reporting not receiving any education about their menstrual cycle in relation to how it might affect performance and training.
"With this in mind, does our menstrual cycle affect our performance and training? If so, how? And how can we use this information to work with and not against our physiology?"
These effects might not necessarily be negative, and by understanding these effects, alongside tracking our menstrual cycles, we can gain a better understanding of where we are in our cycle and the physiology at that point, as well as how we might adjust our performance and training accordingly. Let us see how we can do just that. Walk through the phases with us.
Phase 1 The Early Follicular Phase
At the start of the menstrual cycle – the early follicular phase – oestrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest. During this time, your period occurs, and some women might experience associated symptoms, such as period pain, nausea, and low mood. Some of these symptoms can be attributed to not only low concentrations of oestrogen and progesterone but also to prostaglandins, which are hormone like chemicals that help our uterus to contract to shed our endometrial lining.
If you are experiencing these symptoms, you might not be up for heavy workout or sweaty cardio session.
But this does not mean you need to avoid exercise during your period, as exercising at this time might be beneficial to you.
For instance, there is evidence to suggest that the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of moderate intensity exercise, as well as activities like yoga can help ease the symptoms associated with menstruation and can also make you feel better emotionally through the release of endorphins.
"There is no right, or wrong way, to exercise whilst on your period and instead it is important to listen to your own body and adapt exercise if you feel it is necessary."
Phase 2 The Late Follicular Phase
During the late follicular phase, oestrogen begins to rise and reaches its peak just before ovulation, whereas progesterone remains low. Oestrogen can have lots of different physiological effects on the body. It’s known for its anabolic and muscle-building effects, its excitatory effects on neuromuscular signaling and is thought to have a protective function against muscle damage by reducing the likes of muscle soreness and swelling. It’s a feel-good hormone which can influence your motivation to perform and train in a positive way.
Given this information it could be theorised that now might be a good time to switch your focus to strength training and some evidence suggests that follicular phase-based resistance training (i.e., strength training more in your follicular phase than any other phase of your cycle) is better than regular or luteal phase-based training for developing strength and muscle mass.
"It is interesting to think that we could potentially make the most of our physiology at this point in our cycle to gain these types of advantages however, at the moment there are only four studies which have investigated this and there is a difference in findings between these studies, so be cautious when directly applying this research to your own practice."
Phase 3 The Luteal Phase
After ovulation, oestrogen levels (which initially dropped off) start to rise again alongside an increase in progesterone. This means that both hormones are now high and usually at their peak at the mid-point of this phase. Progesterone is thought to inhibit the effects of oestrogen, as well as having its own physiological effects such as, promoting good mood, reducing anxiety as well as improving sleep.
Additionally, progesterone is known to influence your body temperature (which rises by approximately 0.3 C). Although, this rise does not sound like much, it could mean that some women might feel hotter during training which can make them stop, slow down or perceive exercise to be harder in this point in their cycle. As such, some women might benefit from the use of cooling strategies and staying adequately hydrated during this time of their cycle.
Phase 4 The Pre-menstrual Phase
In the final part of the cycle both oestrogen and progesterone begin to decline, and this rapid decline in hormones can cause a lot of the different premenstrual symptoms we experience at this point in our cycle, such as headaches, bloating, breast tenderness, anxiety, and irritability.
Just like during our period these symptoms might reduce motivation to perform and willingness to train, as well as make our perception of effort during exercise greater. Having said that, if you’re feeling up to it, light to moderate intensity exercise might help with premenstrual symptoms and have mood improving affects. But again, there is no guide here, so you do you, and adapt your activities to suit you.
Although the science is currently conflicting, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and only you know how your body is feeling. Therefore, the best advice for now is to take a personalised approach, whereby your individual experiences of the menstrual cycle inform how you might adjust performance or training. It can be nice to know that it is not all in your head and there might be a plausible reason why maybe you cannot lift as much, or you are not achieving your usual 5k times at certain points in your cycle.
* Please note that most of the research in this area is conflicting and largely of low-quality. Therefore, there is a lack of consensus on whether performance and training are affected by menstrual cycle phase, or not. On top of this, every woman’s experience of the menstrual cycle is different, and this can change across her lifespan. So, if we start to add this up, this means there are currently no evidence-based guidelines for active women or elite female athletes around managing their performance and training across their cycle.