Women are not small men. When it comes to training, supplementation, and recovery, female athletes have very different needs from their male counterparts. Unfortunately, the majority of sports research has been done on male physiology. There are fewer studies on exercise and menstruation so it can be hard to decode how training should be altered based on where a female athlete is in her monthly hormone cycle.
That’s why in this article, we will be diving into how women can keep up their athletic performance even during menstruation, based on the research of esteemed scientist and author Dr. Stacy Sims.
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What Hormone Cycles Mean for Performance
Many people see exercising while menstruating as an impossibility, but it is definitely possible – as long as you know how to game the system. To do this, let’s first break down the hormone cycle into its component parts, with day 1 being the first day bleeding and day 28 being the last day of the high hormone phase.
Between Day 1 to Day 12 is the follicular phase. During this time, the female body has low levels of estrogen and progesterone. Then, right before ovulation, there is a luteinizing hormone surge that causes a raise in estrogen. On Day 13 comes ovulation, and estrogen begins to lower while progesterone starts to come up. Finally, from Day 18 to Day 28, it’s the high hormone phase, during which estrogen and progesterone are elevated. When they drop off at the end of 28 days, the cycle repeats.
Women’s physical abilities are the closest to men’s during the low hormone phase. The female body’s core temperature is lower; they can access carbohydrates to hit high intensities; and they have better ability to handle fatigue. All in all, they have more mojo to work with.
When estrogen and progesterone start to come up again, though, it affects every system in the body. Progesterone raises core temperature and has catabolic effects that stunt the body’s ability to build muscle or recover. Estrogen hypersensitizes serotonin, resulting in depression and fatigue. It also causes much of the fluid in the body to shift into different spaces, causing a drop in plasma volume (the watery part of the blood). This leaves less blood available for muscle contraction and less fluid available for sweating. In one last, terrible blow, estrogen prevents the body from accessing carbohydrates as easily, making it difficult to hit high intensity.
All of this can make the idea of exercise and menstruation sound like an awful one, but the trick is figuring out what’s going wrong so you can make it go right.
What You Can Do
Here’s where it gets interesting. First, you can eat more protein during your high hormone phase so that the catabolic effects of progesterone aren’t going to thwart your ability to recover as much. Next, if you’re looking to increase the amount of water that’s in your blood, consume something like miso soup the night before you exercise, so you have increased fluid as well as sodium to up the plasma volume of your blood.
Now, the most important step: add more leucine to your diet during the high hormone or luteal phase of your cycle.
Leucine is the fastest amino acid to cross the blood-brain barrier, and it uses the same transport mechanisms as estrogen. So, if you take some branch-chain amino acids or eat protein, you can increase the leucine concentration in your blood, and block the amount of estrogen that crosses the blood-brain barrier. This helps mitigate central nervous system fatigue, allowing you to feel more refreshed during your high hormone phase.
Finally, when you’re worried about estrogen not allowing you to hit high intensity, try to add more carbs to your diet. Whether glucose tablets, dried fruit, or whatever else you can find, a quick hit of glucose is going to raise your blood sugar and give you more available carbohydrates to be able to work harder, faster, and better.
Leucine: How Much Should You Take
When trying to combat central nervous system fatigue, you should be getting about 2 – 2 1/2 grams of leucine. Personally, I stay away from all animal products and get my leucine from plant-based sources. Pumpkins seeds are a natural source. However, you can get it from animal-based sources as well. You can also just take it in supplement form. Finding ways of ingesting leucine in any form is critical to staving off the tiring effects of your hormone cycles. It’s important to note that if you’re in recovery, a higher dose of leucine is recommended – about 3 – 3 1/2 grams of leucine.
Be smart, be informed, and be empowered to overcome the challenges your body is presenting you with.
Recovery for Women
There are two key things that can maximize recovery for women. First, make sure you’re getting the right amount of protein post-exercise. And second, cold immersion.
Although ice baths are not recommended for men, they have been shown to be helpful for women. Post-exercise immersions increase oxygen in the muscles and encourage blood flow from the muscles back to the heart.
Getting Your Rest During Your High Hormone Phase
One of the most essential parts to exercise and menstruation is getting the sleep your body needs to keep going the next day. This can become difficult during your high hormone phase, as it can feel sleep is avoiding you like the plague.
This is due to two separate issues at play. One is that, if you have too much estrogen, you’ll get a hypersensitivity to serotonin, which will counter the melatonin trying to relax you. The second is, due to progesterone, you’ll experience an elevation in core temperature and an increased sympathetic drive. Basically, you’ll feel warmer and more alert, and you’ll find it incredibly difficult to sink into a deep sleep.
While there isn’t much you can do against the raging hormones disrupting your system, the best step you can take in solving this problem is finding ways of dropping your core temperature at night, akin to what would normally happen within your natural sleep cycle.
If you are having issues lowering your core temperature, it is recommended to go in and get your progesterone checked by professionals.
Exercise and menstruation is different for every woman
Everyone is different, and exercise is a field that truly highlights all these differences.
What works for one person might not work for another; similarly, what works for one sex often does not work for the other, at least not in the same way. As the study of sports and all the considerations that go into optimizing athletic performance continues, it can only be hoped that these differences will be embraced and better analyzed so the women of the future can exercise away throughout their menstruation without worry or care.
In the meantime, you can find more intriguing information about female physiology and how you can be your best athlete in Dr. Stacy Sims’ incredible book, ROAR.