Article 2: working with our phases (It's time to train like women, not smaller versions of men)
Article 1 highlighted how and why as women in endurance sports, many of us have been training like smaller versions of men. We argued that in gaining a deeper understanding of the female physiology and our menstrual cycles is the key to training more effectively.
In this article, the authors give their own experiences of training against, and now with, period cycles. We then offer more insight into how working with your own cycles can help you to maximise training benefits
I discovered triathlon in my early 20s as a way of managing my depression. Not only did I receive regular endorphin hits, get out in the fresh air and sunlight, I was able to boost my confidence and self-esteem. Triathlon makes me feel good about what I can achieve with this mind and body that I was given, not the one I may have chosen. In my 20s however, my relationship with my training became pretty unhealthy. I trained to distract myself, to feel good about myself when I really didn’t, and to top it all off, my periods could be so debilitating that I would train extra hard around my 5-days because I knew I wouldn’t be able to train during them.
Periods were a complete pain in the backside. They ruined my mojo, they brought on anxiety, feelings of anger, sleeplessness and complete fatigue. Not to mention the pain and bloatedness. They were, as far as I was concerned, a triathlete’s nightmare. Triathletes, I believed, were calm, mellow, consistent, strong, able to endure, and super fit; they weren’t up-and-down-like-a-yoyo, Jekyll-and-Hyde types who some days felt like they could ride their bike to the moon and back but on others, felt like they were towing a Rhino - a really angry one at that.
It took many years of denial, injury and frustration to realise that I couldn’t train like everyone else; like what I’d read in books, magazines, and what my athlete friends, who were mostly guys, were doing. I had to learn to accept that I was different. Not only did Depression mean that there were times, bad times, I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, but I am also a woman; who has a womb, who has very active hormones that need to make eggs, transport them around, and then shed them down the toilet each month. All of these factors affected my ability to be the consistent triathlete, and human being, that I craved.
It took even longer to stop seeing my periods as a weakness; the thing that meant I will never be as good as a man in my sport, or even in my workplace. I may have accepted I was different and understood I had to train smarter, but the fact remained that all of that felt really unfair. Men seemed to have it so much easier.
As the years moved on and I became more involved with coaching other women, I realised this was actually a bigger issue than I allowed myself to believe. Granted, not all of the women I was training sunk into a black hole of depression and anxiety once a month, but almost all of them saw a drop-off in performance, confidence and motivation coinciding with their periods. Why then, was I still writing coaching plans for women that included a recovery week at a time when actually they felt really, really great? Why was I dishing out nutrition advice that I knew worked for men but I wasn’t convinced it worked for women?
It turns out my business partner was experiencing her own moment of enlightenment too…
My ‘Ohhhh!’ moment was when I was sat on my bike, pedalling like fury, halfway through a long turbo training session in my greenhouse / makeshift exercise studio. I was listening to a podcast by ‘Endurance Ladies’ - a show dedicated to women in endurance sports. In this episode the hosts were interviewing Dr. Stacy Sims, an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist, and founder of OSMO Nutrition. I was only half listening to it when I heard her say ‘women are not small men, why are we training like them?’
That really grabbed my attention, as I’d never contemplated that before. As I listened more intently to the rest of the podcast I had several more moments of enlightenment and revelation. It made total sense! Why WAS I training in a way that totally ignored my physiology as a woman?
I’ve been triathlon training and racing now for about 6 years, and now I’m coaching others too. I’ve always been sporty, growing up surfing and then getting into cycling, which then led to triathlon. People ask me what is it about triathlon that makes me love it so much. It’s only recently that I’ve come to realise that it gives me a sense of identity, and it gives me a confidence that I don’t have outside of tri. It makes me feel powerful and strong, and I love the sense of achievement which comes with training and racing. I like the drive of trying to be better at something and seeing what my body can do.
My relationship with periods was probably similar to many women’s - a monthly event that was expensive and inconvenient. I spent no time thinking about what was actually happening to my body, especially during the times either side of my period. In my mind it was was quite simply 3 weeks with no period and then a week with a period, and that was that.
As far as training was concerned I believed that a period was not an excuse to not train hard, and to use it as an excuse would be a sign of weakness to others. My brain thought: ‘I mustn't let it get in the way of what I want to do, that would be letting the female species down!’ Ridiculous.
Truth is, I suffer pretty badly with fatigue, cramps and low energy levels at certain times of the month, and not necessarily during my actual period. Most of the time I was so busy I’d lose track of where I was in my menstrual cycle and the only tell tale sign that I was about to get my period was slight cramping in my stomach a few days before. At this time I’d think, ‘oh here we go again!’. I had no concept of the hormone changes through the month and paid little attention to any patterns of when training wasn’t going so well, I just thought it was me being a bit useless. I think I could safely say I was totally ignorant.
With a little more research and reading around the subject I now have the knowledge to train with my physiology and to respect the needs of my body at certain times of the month and go for it in others. I have an app to track my cycle - simple but so effective! In the few days leading up to my period I no longer beat myself up because training feels hard or I’m not meeting the pace or times I want. I still train because it makes me feel good, physically and mentally, and can relieve some of the associated symptoms but I know when to go easy and give myself time to recover and rest. I’m kinder to myself and it feels good to be empowered by this new knowledge. And, importantly, I now know that by about day 3 of my cycle I can go out and smash it again!
Even more valuable is that I can now work more closely with other women to help them train to their own physiologies. I coach a handful of amazing female runners and triathletes on the Island and offer them the opportunity to train specifically using their monthly cycles. This then becomes the foundation of what I plan and schedule for them.
So far so good. All of the athletes that do follow this approach experience positive outcomes from their training; they get to recovery when their body needs it most and train hard when their body is really up for it. Most importantly is that they are all learning about their own bodies and no longer seeing their periods as something to fight through; they are training like women, not small men.
Working with your phases for maximum benefit
Through experience, which really means getting it wrong on a number of occasions, we’ve learned to work with our hormone cycles in order to give our bodies what they need so that they in turn can give us what we need; fitness, performance and overall wellness.
Some women and top female athletes have tried to delay the onset of their period in preparation for a big race or competition. Synthetic progesterone among other things can be taken to delay periods while others take oral contraceptives to try to synchronise their periods with their training. Generally, these methods can come with a heap of side effects and unless you are an expert, tinkering with hormone levels is not advised. Instead, we think developing a better understanding of how to reduce the effects of the symptoms and how and when to train at the best times for you is far safer and more effective. Paula Radcliffe demonstrates this beautifully: under the guidance of her coach she regularly used the drug ‘norethisterone’ to delay the onset of her period. Her experience of this drug was only negative and her performances suffered as a consequence. She then stopped taking the drugs and went on to smash the world marathon record, on the first day of her period!
We now understand that during high hormone phases, especially those days leading up to our period, we need to make sure that we reduce the intensity of our training and exercise. High hormone phases are responsible for fluid retention (where fluid moves into your cells) and feeling bloated, causing a reduction in blood plasma volume (think thicker blood). Progesterone also increases total body sodium loss and the risk of hyponatremia (a dangerous condition that occurs when the level of sodium in your blood is abnormally low). We therefore need to pay close attention to hydration at this time. In addition to this our core temperature is also elevated, thanks to progesterone. The onset of sweating is delayed and our heat tolerance is reduced, possibly leading to earlier fatigue.
During the high hormone phase we need to give our bodies a bit more protein because lots of progesterone limits our muscles ability to grow; progesterone actually causes muscle to breakdown, making exercise feel really hard. We also know that high levels of oestrogen reduce our ability to burn carbs (because our bodies want to save the glycogen stored in case of pregnancy) but increases fat burning and fatty acid availability, which means low intensity, endurance activities are ideal e.g. long, easy runs. If you are doing high levels of exercise during this phase it is a good idea to take supplemental carbohydrates but it also means resisting the cravings for high sugar, high starchy foods like chocolate, crisps and all the things that are typically bad for us.
And of course, let’s not forget period pain and cramping. These can have a severe impact on our ability to play sport, race, attend a class etc, but if we dose up on magnesium, omega 3 rich foods such as oily fish or taking Omega-3 Fatty Acid supplements as well as low dose Aspirin, not Ibuprofen, 5 to 7 days before periods start, can help to reduce the pain. These tactics can also help to fend off other period symptoms such as headaches, diarrhoea and nausea - all caused by your body producing more of the prostaglandins that cause the uterus to contract and shed its lining than you actually need.
The final article in this series offers our top tips for women who train for endurance sports. In the meantime, if you're interested in finding out more on the subject, we highly recommend the following:
‘Women are not small men’, interview with Dr Stacy Sims on Fitter Radio
If you want to know more about how Try A Tri Guernsey coaches can work with you, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org