It’s time to train like women, not smaller versions of men.
Article 1: what's really going on each month
If you are a woman who likes to train regularly for sport or for the love, it’s likely you will, at some point, have viewed your periods as a right pain in the glutes, and a total inconvenience that sets our fitness levels back each month. They can sap our bodies of energy, leave us doubled-over with cramps and bring out the Jekyll in us.
As athletes, we may look at men and long for their consistent approach to training and exercise. Bar external factors that may cause disruption to their ability to train and exercise e.g work, family, injury, illness, their bodies are able to apply similar levels of energy, force and strength in any given time of the month.
If this story is familiar, we want to change how you view your periods, and rather than see them as a hinderance view them as your superpower. In this series, Try A Tri Guernsey coaches will outline the ways in which most of us, particularly those who are involved with endurance activities, have been training like men, and why it’s time to train with our unique physiologies in mind. We share our own experiences of battling with periods, and provide top tips for training with our physiologies, not against them and reveal that as women, we have natural endurance super-powers.
How we’ve been training like small men
Like many industries, historically the sport and fitness industry was designed for, and by men. Most products - from the shakes we drink to the bikes we buy - are designed with male physiologies and attitudes in mind. Through the years, brands have typically adapted what they produce to make them more relevant for women by simply ‘Shrinking and Pinking’ them, not by taking the time to research female physiologies.
When it comes to nutrition for sport, most women who train are familiar with the importance of macro nutrients and using them to aid big training sessions and encourage muscle recovery. Carbs for energy, protein for recovery. Or maybe you’re familiar with Paleo or Ketogenic diets where carbohydrates are stripped right back and proteins and fats become the main fuel source for your body. In fact, most of the nutrition guidance out there, including research into low carb diets is produced with male physiologies in mind.
Female athletes who follow coaching plans for their endurance sport might be familiar with micro cycles, where training periods are typically broken into 4-week cycles and include 3 weeks of progressive overload i.e. gradually making sessions longer, more frequent or more intense, and 1 week of recovery where you take the volume of training down a little to encourage your body to recover, adapt and get ready for the next cycle of hard work. This 3+1 week micro cycle is great, if you’re a man who’s physiology consists of low and stable hormone levels that don’t alter each month.
With this in mind, is it any wonder that our periods are, for many of us, something we don’t talk about and quite a big barrier to us ever being able to train the way we believe we should be able to.
It’s Time To Get To Know Our Periods
However often or intensively women train or exercise, periods have an effect. For some, ‘time of the month’ can mean days of trauma, either leading up to our periods or during. We’re also still not very good at talking about them and many of us focus on ‘man-ing up’ and not paying attention to what’s really going on within our bodies.
We have our own experiences of training ‘against’ our periods, which we share will share in Article 3 of this series. Now, we want to share what we’ve learned about the female physiology and how it has helped us to train like women, not smaller versions of men.
Menstrual cycles can range from 21 to 35 days with periods lasting from anything between 2 to 7 days. What happens during this cycle is a very sophisticated arrangement of hormonal highs and lows, with many different hormones driving changes within our bodies. The two hormones we are interested here are two primary female sex hormones: oestrogen and progesterone. The ratio between these two flips around halfway through the menstrual cycle creating two distinct hormonal phases, typically occurring from day 1 (the day our period starts) to 14 (ovulation), and day 15 to 28, based on an average 28 day cycle in each month.
Phase one (days 1 to 14) is called the ‘Follicular Phase’, or the ‘low hormone phase’, phase two (days 15-28) is known as the ‘Luteal Phase’ being the ‘high hormone phase’. Ovulation occurs right in the middle of these two phases and hormone levels, as you might expect, vary dramatically either side.
The High Hormone Phase / Luteal Phase
High hormone phases typically occur between days 15 and 28, again based on an average 28 day cycle. This is when the egg has been released and is taking a ride towards the uterus. At this time, the body is preparing itself for possible fertilisation once the egg has embedded itself in the lining of the uterus; this is known as our ’nesting mode’.
It is here that our hormones kick into high gear. Progesterone, the so called ‘pregnancy hormone’, levels rapidly rise and overtake oestrogen levels. In this phase both hormones reach their peak roughly five days before our periods starts. This is when PMS (premenstrual syndrome) symptoms can really take hold; fatigue, bloating, anxiety, low mood etc etc.
Exercise at this time can get really tough. If you play racket, stick and ball sports, performance can be really reduced because our reaction time, neuromuscular coordination and manual dexterity are below par. If you play team sports, spatial awareness is affected which also effects performance and your ability to keep your teammates happy. There is also evidence that things like blood sugar levels, thermoregulation (your body's ability to stabilise your core temperature), sweat rates, metabolism and breathing rates are all impacted at this time too. All of this accounts for what a lot of women experience in the days leading up to their period; a decrease in their aerobic capacity and strength.
Not forgetting that with peak levels of hormones, this phase can, for some, bring a whole heap of heightened emotions and negative thought patterns, which add to the challenge of completing a training session or exercise class to our best, that's if you even make it as far as sticking your trainers on in the first place.
The Low Hormone Phase / Follicular Phase
If our eggs are not fertilised and our bodies realise there’s no chance of getting pregnant this month, progesterone levels subside and we go back to day one of the cycle again. The Low Hormone Phase takes place from day 1 to day 14.
The days immediately following the start of our period is when our bodies relax and make all of those energy systems that have been working on overdrive during the high hormone phase available for exercise. Interestingly, this is when our bodies are most like a man’s, and have low levels of both oestrogen and progesterone.
This phase is when we feel our fittest and strongest, especially the days immediately after our period has started. The low hormone phase is therefore ideal for getting big endurance training sessions done and is a perfect time to hit a race hard!
In addition, research has shown that there may even be a ‘sweet spot’ for training during the low hormone phase, one or two days before ovulation occurs at around day 14. Here, a spike in oestrogen occurs, leading to optimal endurance performance, aka happy training day!
Understanding our cycle means adapting our training and exercise schedules to account for these physiological changes. In Article 2, we explore the ways in which women can work with their cycles for maximum benefit, and offer our top tips for helping women to train like women.
If you're interested in working with our female coaches more closely, drop us a line via email or Facebook