The Female Athlete and The Menstrual Cycle
Emily R Pappas, M.S.
This year has been a GREAT YEAR for “real talk” in the athletic world.
At Relentless Athletics, I LOVE being on the ground floor with our athletes, discussing the unique challenges we face as women.
In Strength Training Myths: Lifting Makes Girls Bulky , we talked not only about how essential weight training is for performance but also how female athletes are under huge expectations to have a certain “look” even as we challenge ourselves to preform.
So, let’s talk about another personal part of a woman’s life.
Ladies, I know we don’t like to talk about “that time” of the month. But here’s the truth:
Your menstrual cycle DOES affect performance…and it’s COMPLETELY NORMAL.
We saw this topic front and center in the media when Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui gave an AMAZINGLY candid response to reporter who innocently asked why she was holding her stomach after the women’s 4x100m medley relay.
“My period came last night and I’m really tired right now!”
The world blew up with praise…it’s just not something we talk about!
But it’s SO IMPORTANT.
A consistent menstrual cycle is the body’s way of indicating it is healthy enough to develop a baby. An irregular or completely missing period is the body’s way of telling you all is not ok.
After training hundreds of female athletes, I’ve noticed a HUGE gap of understanding between how the consistency your period affects your long-term health and performance.
I’ve worked with some women who are relieved when their cycles become less frequent or lighter. They even believe that it’s a sign they are finally training hard enough. A sign they’re a real athlete.
It’s NOT true.
Fu Yuanhui did a great service for us ladies, helping to break the dangerous myth that not having a period as an athlete is healthy.
In this article, we’re going to talk about
- why menstruation is critical for health and long-term performance and
- what you can do if your cycle has changed since you’ve been training
Lets dive in……
Why is Your Period Missing?
Your body is BIG into warning signs.
It tells you when it it needs fuel, when you need a rest day, and how hard you can push without risking an injury. When something isn’t right, it WILL give you a SIGN!
High performing female athletes MUST learn to be in tune with their bodies.
Have you started menstruation but noticed….
Extremely light periods….
Periods greater than 60 days apart…
Feeling chronically fatigued or exhausted…
Struggling to maintain good muscle tone…
Or your periods have STOPPED altogether??
These are HUGE red flags!
But WHY is your period missing?
Your period is regulated by sex hormones. An imbalance of these hormones affects the regulation and occurrence of your period.
Two main factors can impact your body’s ability to maintain proper hormone levels…
#1: You are UNDERFUELED
Female athletes who are not consuming enough food to match their activity level compromise their hormonal balance.
Chronic caloric restriction is a stress on the body. High levels of stress hormones like cortisol inhibit the body’s main sex hormones:
- GnRH:gonadotropin-releasing hormone, which is responsible for the body’s release of other hormones…
- LH:luteinizing hormone, which triggers ovulation….
- estrogen and progesterone: two hormones that are CRITICAL in reproductive development and fertility
When these hormone levels drop, it suppresses ovulation and throws your menstruation cycle off.
Calorie deficit can be great for fat loss but here’s the problem:
Most people who use a chronically low-calorie diet are NOT proving their body with ENOUGH macronutrients their body needs for vital hormone production and regulation. With restriction or eliminated diets, the amount of energy available for the body is limited. Because your body is adept at adapting to its environment, it adapts to the low caloric intake by slowing down metabolic processes not necessary for survival. For females, this can be mean the loss of ovulation.
Even more, diets chronically low in calories are too often also chronically low in dietary fats like cholesterol, as well as chronically low in carbohydrates. Cholesterol is a precursor for sex hormones. Too little cholesterol results in a decrease in raw material for sex hormone production. Too few carbohydrates results in low LH levels, resulting in ovulation inhibition.
If think you are fueling your body adequately but still experiencing a change in your menstrual cycle, here’s another reason your body might be raising the red flag….
#2 Too Much Activity/ Not Enough Recovery
You train hard. And, that’s a good thing. Training hard is the only way to really get BETTER.
But your body NEEDS recovery.
Female athletes who are subject to a lot of intense training without enough recovery time expose their bodies to high stress levels.
And those stress hormones? They make it difficult for your body to regulate ovulation.
Female athletes training double digits in hours per week are exposing their bodies to high amounts of stress and fatigue. To recover from this fatigue, the body needs energy.
Athletes with inadequate sleep and caloric consumption significantly decrease the energy available for recovery.
Female Athletes Need to Prioritize Recovery
What should you do if your periods are off? Your body is telling you it’s time to focus on recovery.
Remember that recovery can be summed up in two parts:
Sleep is when your body reduces fatigue and regulates hormones
The body wants to achieve balance, or homeostasis.
In season, athletes are exposed to much higher levels of fatigue and stress—especially when factoring in school and social life stressors. Fatigue and stress are huge inhibitors of maintaining homeostasis. By adding more hours of sleep per night during the season, your body will be better able to combat this fatigue and promote recovery.
You NEED adequate calories energize recovery.
Maintaining homeostasis requires energy.
By adding more food to your diet in season, you are ensuring your body is provided the extra energy it needs to repair and recover from the added stress of your season.
When your recovery increases, stress hormones stabilize allowing your body to return to a more consistent ovulation schedule.
It’s SUPER important to listen to your body, especially when something irregular is happening to your menstrual cycle.
The absence of your cycle can indicate that you are suffering from Female Athlete Triad, a SERIOUS condition that can cause loss of bone density, put you at high risk for fractures/injury, and saddle you with lifelong health issues. You work too hard for that!
Concerned your menstrual cycle is affecting your performance? After all, even Fu Yuanhui lamented that her team’s bare-miss of placing this last Olympics was due, in part, to her period. We know being on your period changes the way you perform…
…stay tuned for our upcoming article on
- how being on your period changes performance
- what you can do to give yourself a boost during menstruation and
- Our BEST TIPS for both training AND game day on your period
HINT: The answer isn’t using birth control to regulate your cycle!
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