In 2002, Paula Radcliffe defied all odds and broke the record at the Chicago marathon while running on the third day of her period. I can sense your disbelief. If you've ever suffered through an intensely painful period, the last thing you want to do is run anywhere other than to the pharmacy to pick up pain medicine and heating pads.
But Radcliffe isn't an outlier. According to Runners World, world-class endurance runner Caroline Herron placed 8th in a world ultra-endurance race (100 miles), despite her period starting mid-race, crippling her with nausea, cramps, and bleeding. It's easy to pass these women off as superhuman women simply doing superhuman things. However, these women are showing us that despite our preconceptions of what a woman can achieve during her period, the opposite may be true.
Women, for a long time now, have noticed that their bodies respond very differently to training programs depending on which stage of their menstrual cycles they are at. By focusing on understanding their unique physiology, more women are learning how to "hack their cycles" to achieve new physical heights rather than battling against their hormones.
Incredibly, women have been traditionally left out of the sports science world. Shifting female reproductive hormones added too much monthly variability, complexity, and individuality to get reproducible results. Most researchers prefer simply studying male physiology and applying it to a woman, under the premise that women are just "little men." In fact, an article posted in the Washington Post said, "A 2014 analysis found that only 3 % of studies on sports performance between 2011 and 2013 even involved women." This drastic oversight is as frustrating as it is mind-numbingly short-sighted, but it's not new. In marketing terms, treating a woman's body like a little man's is referred to as "shrink it and pink it."
However, Dr Stacy Sims, an international exercise physiologist, nutrition scientist, and author of Roar, says that the “shrink it and pink it” attitude does women a huge disservice. "This lack of science-based information often means women are doing the wrong training, eating the wrong food, not reaching their full potential, and/or suffering unnecessary discomfort and pain."
However, the scientific world is waking up, and paying more attention to women's bodies. Despite each woman's cycle being unique to her physiology, we can observe general trends throughout a typical, non-contraceptive-based menstrual cycle. Women can use this information to track their cycles and build a training program that supports and maximises what's happening inside their bodies.
Let's find out the broad strokes of what those changes may be. Though a typical female cycle can be anything between 23-35 days, I have broken down the stages into 28 days for the sake of simplicity.
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MENSTRUAL CYCLE (0-3 DAYS)
While a woman's cycle can last more than three days, the first three days are the most uncomfortable as her body undergoes cramping to shed the uterine lining. The right nutrition is especially important during this phase. According to an article published in Forbes titled What to Eat During Each Stage of Your Menstrual Cycle, foods rich in iron, such as lean beef, turkey, beans, and spinach are good go-to sources of iron and should be consumed during this period.
While I encourage women to rest as much as required during this time, there are some who feel that their PMS symptoms are relieved with light exercise. If you are keen and able to, you can try Pilates, yoga, light jogging, walking, or swimming if it makes your body feel good.
FOLLICULAR PHASE (4-16 DAYS)
The follicular phase is when a woman's body prepares an egg for ovulation, and her estrogen levels steadily increase during this time. For the first few days of her follicular cycle, a woman's energy will slowly return, so she can gradually increase her exercise intensity. The days leading up to just before ovulation are when her energy may peak, so she may have the resources to push a little harder and exercise longer.
It's important to note that during this time, having estrogen pumping through her body may have its drawbacks, and one of those is the potential for injury. Estrogen can create lax ligaments, so it's not advised that she push too far beyond her regular training during this time.
During this time, focusing her diet on high-quality foods that fuel activity appropriately rather than relying on quick convenience and processed food to sate hunger is essential.
OVULATION (14-16 DAYS)
Ovulation is often the peak time for stamina, energy, muscle recovery, and strength, making it a great time to reach new heights in the gym. Women may notice that they are pushing through physical barriers and smashing some personal bests on the gym floor or their cardio. Women may want to add extra strength, cardio circuits, or brief bursts of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) to their program to maximize their energy and stamina during this time.
LUTEAL PHASE (16-28 DAYS)
Ovulation has taken place, and a woman's hormones are beginning to shift to accommodate a potential pregnancy or period. During this time, she may notice that her stamina decreases, and towards the end of her cycle, she may begin to feel one or many of PMS symptoms which may hamper her ability to exercise in the gym.
This can be a difficult mental shift. One minute, a woman can be pumping out personal bests, and the next minute, she's dragging her feet on the treadmill and scrolling through social media between sets. The best action to take is to recognize the shift in her body's priorities, work with the available energy, and switch to a slower-paced program.
It's important to note, according to an article titled Optimising Training Around Your Menstrual Cycle, published by Inside Tracker earlier this year, that during this time, she may experience fluctuations in her fluid levels. Fluid retention, in combination with a higher body temperature and reduced sweating because of elevated progesterone levels, makes it essential to stay hydrated and cool in a place like India. In Dr Stacy Sims' book Roar, she also talks about the importance of "pre-cooling" before a workout session by ingesting icy cold drinks before exercise to help lower the body's temperature.
How you eat during this time is essential because eating healthy, nutritious food is a great way to not only increase your energy reserves but also help manage your moods. Don't allow yourself to skip meals during this time, as that can contribute to mood swings and higher stress levels. Also, during this phase, a woman's protein reserves may be broken down more quickly, so it's essential to focus on getting adequate protein from non-vegetarian or vegetarian sources.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight loss coach