Women, Menstruation and Sport 

There has been a lot of media interest in women’s’ sport lately. Katie McCabe Irish women’s’ world cup, golfer Leona Maguire from Cavan, Rachel Blackmore Jockey and grand national winner and of course Katie Taylor. All fantastic role models for our young girls, young passionate women who have paved the way in the world of sport and shown us all how it is done. What a welcome alternative to the photoshopped picture perfect selfie designed to initiate the ‘compare and despair’ cycle which undermines the confidence of our beautiful teenage daughters.

There have been some long overdue, wonderful innovations in the world of sport, such as using black shorts for team sports, and allowing their use for the first time in Wimbledon.  My own view is that every woman playing tennis/sport should wear black shorts so that it becomes the norm and doesn’t single out the athlete who is having a period! Coaches training young girls have noticed much less anxiety around the possibility of stains or leaks. To say nothing about the laundry drudgery of keeping whites, white!


Men and Sport

Traditionally sport and exercise has been male dominated and to adapt a hackneyed phrase, “men are different”!  Men have a stable hormone profile 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Pubertal boys are adjusting to hormonal changes as well, with peaks in testosterone production usually at age 18-20 but are not subject to the cyclical changes of their hormones in the same way as females. So once the pattern is set it doesn’t change much, a fact which is reflected in many men. Most find a routine which works for them and stick to it. After all, once something is working for them, why change it up?

Women on the other hand have significant hormone changes throughout a 21–40-day cycle which impacts significantly on energy levels, mood, joint laxity, and basal metabolic rate to name a few.  This explains why sometimes you may be lifting heavy weights and acing your training targets with no effort, and at other times you may feel like staying on the couch watching Netflix!


Cycle Syncing and Sport

This is a relatively new concept which has been gaining traction especially in the US.  In 2019 the US women’s soccer team won the world cup. In the weeks leading up to the tournament, the team’s players were tracking their menstrual cycles, and adjusting workouts, and diets according to the stages of their menstrual cycle.

Dawn Scott, one of their coaches, credited the breakthrough use of period tracking as one of the strategies the team used to help them win.

Period tracking has mainly been used in women trying to achieve (or avoid) a pregnancy, not as a tool for improving our everyday life. Once we get to know our cycle, we can begin to understand our energy levels, our moods, and the best way to adapt our lifestyles accordingly. This is a game changer (pun intended!) in terms of our physical activity, our sociability, relationships, and our home, school and work lives.

The scientific evidence around cycle syncing and exercise is in its infancy for many reasons. Periods were not openly discussed, there were few women in high level sport, and most importantly women’s physiology is challenging in its variability and is difficult to study scientifically.


Menstrual Cycle Physiology (See diagram below)

So, let’s recap on what is happening during the menstrual cycle, remembering that the period is just one part of the whole sequence of events. (Some women will say they are on their cycle when they are having their period.) And remember the length of the cycle can vary from woman to woman, especially in adolescence, and varies from month to month for many women. Less than 28% of women have a regular 28-day cycle and multiple life events such as exam or work stress, travel, or starting anything new can cause cycle changes. We women are very responsive to our environment!


The Period or menstruation – (Winter):

The first day of the period is day 1 of the cycle. Periods usually last 3-5 days rarely more than 7 days. It is a time when our female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, are low which means our energy levels are low. Our metabolic rate is lower than usual, we are losing iron in the menstrual blood, and many experience pain or discomfort.  We should not be hitting the gym or the training pitch and aiming for our best effort at this time. Taking time for nurturing, warmth, rest, and relaxation during this phase of the cycle allows our bodies recuperate and be ready for the burst of energy which comes later in the cycle.

However, we should not go into total hibernation even though we may feel like the bear in winter! Some gentle movement such as walking, swimming, restorative yoga are all recommended to ease pain and improve energy. Heat packs and abdominal massage can help keep blood flow moving as there is a lot of stagnation in the pelvic area during the period. Ayurveda and now, modern medicine, advise against strenuous exercise at this time due to an increased risk of injury and depletion of the system.

Follicular Phase – (Spring):

Following on the dormant phase of menstruation our follicular phase arises. This phase varies in duration according to the length of the cycle. In a typical 28-day cycle the follicular phase lasts 14 days, in a 38-day cycle it lasts 24 days! Rising blood levels of oestrogen throughout this part of the cycle increase our energy levels. This is a time of optimism, confidence and with increasing strength is the time to train hard aiming towards our peak exercise goals. If we can sync our max exercise regime with this phase of the cycle, we can achieve more than we would have thought possible. Like the lambs in springtime our energy levels are boundless.

Ovulation – (Summer):

There is a big surge of oestrogen and to a lesser extent, progesterone at this time causing the maximum burst of energy during the cycle. This makes sense from a biological viewpoint as, at this fertile time, a woman feels at her most attractive and outgoing. Confidence and energy are high and workout goals are achieved with ease. Think lioness with her drive, energy and ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude and you are talking about an ovulating woman!! Unfortunately, our menstrual summer is quite short and the peak in energy begins to decline in 2-4 days.

Luteal Phase – (Autumn):

This is the progesterone dominated part of the cycle and unlike the follicular phase is constant lasting 14 days from ovulation to menstruation. As progesterone increases during this phase our systems slow down. This is a time when our bowels may become sluggish, our joint laxity increases, breasts may become tender, mood is more reflective and intuitive. Energy levels fluctuate, from high to low, think of the turtle who comes out to play for short periods and then retreats to recover.  The best form of exercise at this stage is endurance training such as cross training, low to moderate intensity strength training lower weights, higher reps, yoga, Pilates.

So, awareness of the menstrual cycle with its varying hormonal levels informs and directs us towards varied forms of exercise and activity which is a much more physiological way of living our lives and more in tune with our ancestors’ lifestyle when exercise was part of daily living and surviving.


How to get in tune with our menstrual cycles?

You may say ‘that is all well and good. But how do I know what part of the cycle I am in? And what about Period Apps?’

There is no doubt that keeping a record of your cycle is beneficial and period apps can help. However, many of our daughters are in the early stages or just through puberty. And we know that the cycle can vary widely during this time. I have found in my medical practice that using period app at this stage can increase anxiety as many girls don’t fall into the algorithms and they can believe that something is wrong. Indeed, some apps will suggest various gynaecological problems based on cycle duration or variability which may be entirely normal during adolescence!

My preference is for a girl to keep her own record, be it paper based or electronic. This can take a bit of work! Things to note are obviously the dates of the period. Other things your daughter may become aware of may include, how she is feeling, what her energy and confidence levels are like, what type of vaginal discharge is present, is there any breast tenderness, constipation, food cravings or skin breakouts coming up to a period. Realising that these less than welcome changes are not her fault, are due to her hormones and will pass, can be very reassuring.


Vaginal discharge

A quick note on vaginal discharge. Awareness of our discharge is an effective way of getting to know the stages of our menstrual cycle. It is important to let your daughter know to expect vaginal discharge as often she can think she has an infection and that something serious is wrong. I think it’s fascinating how our vaginal discharge is influenced by our hormones.  It’s important to know what a normal discharge is. We have covered this on our Instagram posts.

Following the period, during the follicular phase, there is little or no vaginal discharge. Coming up to ovulation there will be some clear discharge which is maximal at the time of ovulation. The classic description of this fertile discharge is uncooked egg white! There may be copious amounts or just a little, and it may vary from cycle to cycle. And remember we don’t necessarily ovulate every single month so sometimes this discharge may not occur.

After ovulation during the luteal phase (progesterone again!) discharge changes. The colour becomes white, not clear, and may be slightly yellow. It should not itch or smell. Once again check out our previous posts.

So, an awareness of your vaginal discharge is a great way to begin to know what’s going on in your body, how the hormones are changing throughout the cycle and what type of activity is best for you at that particular time.


The sweet spot

It is wonderful to see how exercise and sport are being embraced by girls and women. In this blog I have outlined how our hormones influence our ability and tolerance for exercise throughout the menstrual cycle. I hope that the male approach of ‘pushing through no matter what’ which suits male physiology no longer seems appropriate for us females. Adapting our exercise regime to our menstrual cycle may allow us to achieve greater results in a safe manner.  (US world cup soccer 2019) This poses difficulties, but it can be done.

Conversely, using the menstrual cycle to stop exercise is to be avoided. Remember even during the period we should not behave like bears in hibernation and veg out on the couch. Gentle exercise at this time is good for pain relief and mood.  Developing an exercise regime which is balanced, suitable and enjoyable is a great step towards a happy healthy lifetime.

We cover all of this and so much more in our workshops.

If you would like to organise a talk for your school or Sports Club, just get in touch and we can make it happen.

Also check out our online course for Mum’s and girls to watch together. (All about periods – My Girls Gynae)

Let’s educate and empower our girls – Together we can change the narrative around menstruation!.


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