Programming for Women – Are You Tracking?
By Stephanie Humphrey, Run Coach at InnerFight-Endurance.
Something that has recently piqued my interest is how the world has become more open, honest and data driven around female athletes and the menstrual cycle. Previously a relatively taboo topic has now started to become a phenomena in new analysis, research and tracking, helping female athletes attain marginal gains on competitors.
Admittedly, this is also an area I have somewhat neglected over the years, I don’t think that I am alone there. Simply just passing through the motions each month, and managing the best I could day to day. However, I recently discovered Dr. Stacy Sims who started her book, Roar, with the sentence “You are not a small man, stop eating and training like one.” A mind-blowing statement really, and something that so many women in sport likely do. Women and men are built differently, there is so much more than the obvious physical differences, but perhaps more importantly we differ so greatly in our hormones. Whilst male hormones are relatively consistent day in, day out, female hormones fluctuate greatly depending on the phase of their cycle.
Whilst school science lessons might seem like a distance memory, we actually learnt some important facts back then, and we should continue to build on this knowledge throughout our adulthood. Naturally, all women differ (or suffer) throughout their cycles, but getting to know your own symptoms and how best to manage them can be a game changer in your sport performance. There is very little evidence that suggests or recommends that we should tamper with our cycles to plan around events/races, as this can have negative side effects, and potentially cause more harm than good; instead we can look at how best to perform and train at any given point throughout our cycle.
The menstrual cycles typically lasts 28 days (but can be 21-35 days), with day 1 being the start of your period. The first half is called the follicular phase, and the second half the luteal phase, with ovulation occurring right in the middle (approx. day 14). During these times we see rises and falls of progesterone and oestrogen hormones, where progesterone is at its highest during the 2nd half of your cycle, and oestrogen is at its highest just before ovulation. Interestingly, this technically means that your performance ability is at its highest once your period starts, this is because you are in a low hormone phase. A nice positive if you happen to get your period on race day!
So, how does all this impact your performance? I won’t go into every single day and symptom, like Stacy Sims has in Roar, but there are certainly some interesting and key takeouts. The good news for endurance athletes is that research shows VO2 max and lactate threshold remain constant throughout your cycle. However, reaction times and neuromuscular coordination are reduced during the premenstrual and menstrual time, and blood sugar levels, breathing rates, and thermoregulations are also negatively impacted. On the flip side, strength performance is considered to be greater during this low hormone phase, and you are likely to recover from training faster. When progesterone is higher (during luteal phase) you are likely to feel hotter, as you core temperate has been elevated, and the lower blood volume during high-hormone days means that you will find it harder to sweat, and thus it’s harder to lose heat/cool yourself. With aspects like this, its super important that you hydrate before exercising, especially if you are out in the Dubai heat.
It’s all very well knowing the science, but I truly believe that the best thing you can do for yourself is track your cycle and record your symptoms. If this is not something you are already doing, it will likely become hugely beneficial for you; allowing you to plan for each given circumstance. Whether you suffer from bloating, mood swings, cramping, headaches, hot flushes etc. you will start to notice that these land at difference points within your cycle. Once identified, it will be easier to plan your nutrition and training around what is best for you. We track so many things already in our lives, sleep, nutrition, steps, distances, but the menstrual cycle is seemingly something that has been forgotten over the years, and is something that has the power to be so vital.
Unfortunately, and perhaps frustratingly, the most common answer we tend to hear in the fitness industry is “it depends”. From “what shoes should I buy?” to “what should I eat during a race?” to “what GPS device is best for me?”, the answer is different for every single person. That’s the beauty right, no two individuals are the same. We might have similarities, preferences, and opinions, but the fact is, what works for one individual does not necessarily work for the next.
At InnerFight, we pretty much pride ourselves on this ethos, providing personalised training programs for clients, to best equip them to hit their goals, whilst following a plan that fits their lifestyle. Naturally, the majority of my clients are female, after all, I lead the IFE Ladies Running Club, and like most coaches, I often find myself talking to clients about all things life, in order to best analyse their performance, strength, fatigue and stress. Needless to say, performance in running is not just about the actual running.
Having grown up as a sporty kid, I saw first hand the drop-off rate in young females playing sports as I moved through my teens. To be honest, back then, I didn’t think too much of it, I was happy playing tennis, netball, rounders, or going for a run, so it didn’t really bother me if that was not what all my friends wanted to do. Perhaps if as a generation we were given the tools on how best to equip the female body throughout the 4 stages of our cycle, there might not have been so many dropouts, and the overall topic might not be as taboo. Either way, it’s the present day, so if this is all new to you now, you are not alone, start tracking so that you can manage and optimise your performance.
If you want to discuss further, I am more than happy to chat:@Steph.running, SH@innerfight.com
I also recommend:
Book: ROAR by Stacy T. Sims, PHD
Podcast: Female Athlete Pod
Stephanie Humphrey is a run coach at InnerFight-Endurance and ‘runs’ their ladies running club.
You can find Stephanie’s and other Innerfight Endurance coaches profiles on Sported’s Coaches Listing: https://www.sported.ae/coaches/innerfight-endurance/