Having a regular period is a sign of good health, yet so many dread the monthly bleed: ‘the devil’, ‘the curse’, ‘THAT time of the month, ugh’. Because whether it’s Mother Nature’s calling or not, over 1.8 billion people experience this cycle across the world, and yet not much is said about it. Some cultures believe that women with their ‘menses’ are weaker, leading to assumptions of rest, unable to run or exercise. Yet others can feel the hormonal rise (and PMS release) that comes with a monthly bleed, where running can feel free, and even ease some associated symptoms.
So what is the truth then? Because if you have booked a race, and you realise it’s a day you’re likely to have the ‘Red Devil of fertility’ coming along with you, should you cancel? Is it safe to run for hours with certain types of sanitary products? There are so many questions… Let’s get into it, shall we?
Science vs you
Week by week, women’s hormones fluctuate, it’s completely natural and healthy, but depending on which hormone is top dog, dictates how your body responds to exercise, copes with particular intensities and even impacts recovery. Running with your menstrual cycle instead of against it, can truly open your eyes to what is actually happening within your body – and ultimately, answer the question why we can’t perform the same week by week, Per-se.
A 2020 evaluation of research concludes while reduced exercise throughout the earlier part of the follicular phase (from day one of your period) of the menstrual cycle is warranted across studies, it is an inherently personalised approach. Because guess what? Each experience with the ‘the curse’ is also different.
That being said, there are hormonal ‘guidelines’ (this is what is happening to your body, do this would be the best fit) such as:
- The bleeding phase of the menstrual cycle, early follicular, cramps or low back pain, nausea even, can impact your recovery, especially by interrupting your sleep – so ensuring you’re getting enough sleep is paramount. If, like me, symptoms are not usually so intense; exercise like running, cycling or yoga can help soothe your mood, burn energy and help should any muscular tension arise (let alone be a perfect time for active recovery sessions)?
- When Oestrogen levels are rising again after your period, that optimises muscle repair – so it is seen as optimal to work harder and build muscle because your body is naturally better equipped to recover, clever no?
- At ovulation, around day 14 roughly, testosterone is higher, so pushing for personal bests either through running or gym or whatever your sport, this is the time to push, again you’re body is naturally built to push harder.
- Following ovulation is the luteal phase. Body temperature rises, progesterone hormone peaks and impacts the body’s ability to keep up, so slower, longer, more patient runs or workouts are best here.
However, just because I find long runs better whilst menstruating, doesn’t mean you will. Also, at ovulation, I get chronic headaches and struggle to work out, let alone set a PB. So, you must understand what is happening within your body, but learn to listen and react to what YOU need.
What to do if your period arrives on race day.
You’ve done the calendar math, perhaps it’s happened before; the buildup to race day has been stressful and delayed your monthly bleed until VOILA-race day, brilliant. What should you do? How can you prepare for it? Try the following:
- Each iron-rich foods.
- Hydrate hydrate hydrate!
- Apply heat.
- Sanitary products.
- Carbs glorious carbs.
This has been a game-changer for me. Losing blood is a loss of iron and that needs to be replenished otherwise your muscles are going to take a hit – not ideal! Iron-rich foods such as beans, lentils, dry fruit, seafood, quinoa, and spinach.
Any fluid loss from your body is a de-hydrant. So make sure you are replacing that liquid. Take on more than you usually would, especially pre-race, but it wouldn’t hurt to make an extra stop at the water station on your race route.
Some find adhesive heat patches work (especially if you suffer from lower back tension period symptoms) otherwise a hot water bottle will do just fine. The heat helps to relax any muscular tension and cramping you’re experiencing whilst also increasing circulation and the production of endorphins that help naturally ease your pain.
If you suffer from intense period pains, seek a medical professional before going ahead with your race. If you are on any specific medication, make sure you take it, and bring extras on route with you, should you need an extra pain-relief boost. Over the counter pain killers could also help take the edge off the pain and get you through your run.
We always say ‘never race in new kit or anything you haven’t trained in before’ and it is for good reason, right? Shoes could leave a monster blister, you want to be fully prepared. And same goes for your period sanitary products. If you always use tampons but opt for a pad on race day… make sure you have run more than once, with a pad. You risk painful blistering or rubbing of the wings with your skin, which nobody wants -believe me! Likewise, if you’re heading into a multi-stage run event or ultras, take spare products along with you along with nappy bags or doggy bags to carry and dispose of the used ones when you can. Menstrual cups last longer – up to 12 hours before needing refreshing, so that might be a consideration for longer stints. But always, ALWAYS train with your chosen product before racing.
Within the initial follicular phase, the body is readily using its glycogen and blood glucose stores, whereas, in the luteal phase, it is actively storing it for later use. So you might want to consider taking extra carbs in all forms. From sweets to jelly sandwiches or glucose tabs and gels to help replenish the glycogen stores you’re using up.
Understanding what is happening phase by phase, week by week, even day by day of your menstrual cycle can completely change your running experience. I have altered my running workouts completely to accommodate what my body needs and when – it has even eased my mental state; I used to get deflated with fluctuating running performances week to week, now I fully understand and take the pressure off. I know this week that my body temperature is high, and I will have a more enjoyable run if I took the foot off the pedal slightly… it works and I’ve completely fallen back in love with running – it was touch a go for a while.