Guest Blog: The Menstrual Cycle – Improve your body literacy, improve your performance

If you are a woman or work with women then you really must read this outstanding blog from Dr. Emma Ross (PhD).  She is a scientist through and through yet despite her years of research and studying she is more and more convinced that it’s not about the evidence base.

We are all different and the science is the start point from which we add in our own content – but this only happens if we understand our bodies.

I really do not need to say any more – read her blog below, and if you like what you read come and see her in action at our Menstrual Cycle Workshop in November.

Another tweet on my feed about all the research in sports science being done on men.  Another reminder that there’s just not enough information for women who do exercise or sport about how to maximise their performance and thrive whilst doing so.  But whilst we wait for the research to be done, I think there’s so much we can do now, as exercising females, and as those who work to support our performance (coaches, trainers, sports therapists).   I am passionate about improving body literacy in women – that is, their understanding of how their physiology works, and how that influences their body, behaviour and emotion.  This physiology – and in particular, our hormones, can present powers and pitfalls for us as we participate or compete in exercise and sport, or just hurtle through our hectic lives!

I read a research paper the other day that showed there was no change in things like muscle strength, blood lactate, heart rate and breathing rate during exercise across the menstrual cycle. When you read that you might assume that female athletes, competing in strength and high intensity sport do not need to adjust for menstrual cycle phase to maximise performance.  But I don’t think it’s as simple as that.  We have way more evidence than these experiments, on small groups of women, in sports science laboratories.  For all time women have been having periods and living with their menstrual cycle. We have bountiful evidence from these generations of billions of women that tells us for one person, there may be a time in their cycle where they feel stronger, more energetic and more motivated to do exercise, and another woman who will say that at that same time in her cycle her legs feel leaden and she can barely muster the energy to crawl out of bed.  It’s these individual experiences of the menstrual cycle that should inform how we might adjust training or recovery or nutrition to maximise performance.

On my journey to understanding and working with female athletes and in particular, how their menstrual cycle might influence their training, recovery and performance (for better and worse), I have become more and more confident in telling athletes, coaches and sports scientists to get past their need for evidence and start building an intuition, based on a really good understanding of female physiology and psychology, and a really good understanding about their/their athletes lived experience of the menstrual cycle, in the context of their own body and their own life. Then you have the exciting opportunity to subtly tweak and adjust things to capitalise or cope with where you are in your cycle.  It’s not that we don’t need or want evidence, but whilst there’s a massive gender gap in the sports science literature we should feel empowered to be able to consider and work with female physiology with what knowledge and understanding we do have.

I love the quote from Einstein that says “intuition does not come to an unprepared mind” and I think that certainly applies here.  If you are a coach or support practitioner of female athletes, or a female athlete yourself, you need all the information you can get on the effects your hormones can have on your physiology and psychology (that’s the science bit) – prepare your mind. Then you have to look at your own individual experience of the menstrual cycle and use that knowledge and understanding to intuitively decide what bits of the science apply to you, and which don’t and then you can start to figure out what you are going to do about it (if anything!).  If you are a gymnast who notices your coordination is affected in the second half of your cycle – maybe around day 21 and 22 (that’s progesterone having an effect on your brain by the way) – then you might choose to schedule your practise of that complicated vault for another day and work on some fitness conditioning and flexibility on those couple of days- no drama.  If you are a rower who notices that your energy levels and motivation to train go through the roof mid cycle (that could be elevated oestrogen or a spike in testosterone around ovulation) then maybe you make a conscious effort to add more reps or weight during your gym session or use that knowledge to motivate more power during your ergo workout.  But what if you are a rugby player who released that the big cup final match lands on the days of your cycle when you know your back gets sore and your hamstrings are tight – your knowledge of how your hormones are affecting your joints combined with your intuition about your own cycle help you know that you might need a different warm up routine before that match and some preventative strapping from the physio to give you confidence that your legs will hold up.

When I deliver workshops about the menstrual cycle to athletes or coaches, they ask for an answer. A single template that says do this, then, and you’ll be grand.  Excitingly (or is that frustratingly?) it’s not as easy as that, and you have to begin with a big dose of body literacy – that is understanding how you experience the menstrual cycle – what your body does and what symptoms you experience. That means starting to monitor your cycle. But do so in a way that works for you. Some people will use a calendar and mark days of bleeding, and then a few notes to describe symptoms, emotions or behaviours on days throughout your cycle.  Some may use a spreadsheet. Some might prefer an app.  As with any technology based on ‘big data’, remember that the information the apps give you about how you may feel / perform related to which part of the cycle you are in, is often very generic. Given what I’ve said about the truly unique nature of how everyone experiences their menstrual cycle it can be at best frustrating, and at worst anxiety inducing if you aren’t conforming to what the app says you should be feeling!   And then, if you are working with a coach, or you are a coach or support practitioner, you need to ensure you have created a space where it feel safe and comfortable for athletes to talk about their menstrual cycle when they think it is appropriate to share – that is, when it effects them enough to impact training or performance.  To create that space there must be no secrecy, no silence and no judgement around periods and the menstrual cycle.  I love the work of Brene Brown, who says that silence, secrecy and judgement are the things that help shame and discomfort flourish.  Remove them – truly remove them – and you’ll likely be able to have some really impactful and insightful discussions that help athletes thrive and empower coaches and practitioners to be fully engaged in their athlete’s wellbeing and performance.