Your menstrual cycle is more than just a period. It affects almost every aspect of your running training and athletic performance.
During each stage of the menstrual cycle, your body releases different amounts of hormones, which in turn impact your athletic performance in different ways.
Here, we will break down how your athletic performance is affected at each of the five stages of your cycle.
We will look at how your menstrual cycle affects;
- your training state,
- your recovery,
- your supplement needs,
- your mental state,
- and your nutrition needs.
Much of the information in this article has been pulled from the work of female athlete health and performance specialist, Dr Stacy T Sims, PhD, her book ROAR, podcasts in which she features, and talks which she has given.
Your Menstrual Cycle- An Overview
- The average menstrual cycle lasts for 28 days, but of course, this number varies. Anywhere from 21 to 40 days is considered to be a normal range.
- Your menstrual cycle can be divided into 5 phases:
- The Early Follicular Phase
- The Mid Follicular Phase
- The Ovulatory Phase
- The Mid Luteal Phase
- The Late Luteal Phase
- Day 1 of your menstrual cycle is the first day of your period- when you bleed.
Phase 1: Early Follicular Phase
Your early follicular phase marks day one of your period, and day one of your menstrual cycle.
During this phase, the lining of your uterus is shed.
Training State- Early Follicular Phase
The amount and intensity of training you can manage during the early follicular phase depend on the severity of your period symptoms. For many, period cramps during this phase make hard training too much of an ask.
However, if your period symptoms allow, moderate to high-intensity endurance-based or strength-based training is encouraged.
- Related: Guide To Running While Pregnant
Recovery- Early Follicular Phase
If you are in a lot of pain during this time, your running recovery might be affected.
Make sure you get enough sleep!
Sleep is key to running recovery and it is common to have poorer sleep quality during the early follicular phase. Use heavy flow period products and consider pain management meds to help you stay comfortable and get a full night’s rest.
You may experience more muscle soreness in this phase. Post-run, make sure to consume a good amount of high-quality protein along with a carb source, as muscle recovery post-exercise may be lower.
Supplement Need- Early Follicular Phase
Taking an iron supplement during this phase can reduce symptoms of fatigue.
Taking an aspirin can help to ease pain symptoms.
Taking an Omega-3 supplement around the days of your period can also help to ease period cramps.
Mental State- Early Follicular Phase
PMS symptoms can creep into the first few days of this phase.
But generally, low hormone levels during this time result in a low impact on mental symptoms. This means that your motivation to get out the door for a run won’t be negatively affected!
Nutrition Needs- Early Follicular Phase
Phase 2: Mid Follicular Phase
During your mid follicular phase, the egg matures in the ovary.
Training State- Mid Follicular Phase
Moderate to high-intensity endurance-based or strength-based training is encouraged.
During this phase, your injury risk is high- so make sure to warm up and cool down properly.
Recovery- Mid Follicular Phase
Your recovery is not majorly affected during the mid follicular phase, so just use standard recovery protocol based on the amount of training that you are doing.
Supplement Need- Mid Follicular Phase
You may experience hormone headaches during this time which might affect your motivation to get out and run.
If this is the case, consider taking a magnesium supplement to ease hormone headache symptoms.
Mental State- Mid Follicular Phase
During this phase, you may experience greater levels of motivation due to a rise in estrogen levels- enjoy it!
Nutrition Needs- Mid Follicular Phase
A standard level of carbohydrates, protein, and fluids.
Phase 3: Ovulatory Phase
In this phase, the egg is released into the fallopian tube.
Training State- Ovulatory Phase
You can go hard on training in this phase. Maximal strength and power-based training in your cross-training days is a good idea.
During this phase, you have a greater risk of joint injury, so make sure that you warm up and cool down properly. Also be sure to focus on proper running form, so that you reduce your risk of injury.
Recovery- Ovulatory Phase
Recover as you would normally. During this phase, do not restrict your calorie intake, as doing so may affect your sleep prior to ovulation.
Supplement Need- Ovulatory Phase
You may experience hormone headaches. If so, consider taking magnesium.
Also recommended is supplementing zinc and glutamine in order to support your immune system at this time.
Mental State- Ovulatory Phase
In the time around ovulation, high levels of estrogen can make your brain’s serotonin receptors more sensitive. This can cause fluctuations in both your motivation and mood.
Nutrition Needs- Ovulatory Phase
During the ovulatory phase, increase your intake of pre-run carbs and make sure to bring a low percentage glucose sports drink with you on your long runs.
Phase 4: Mid Luteal Phase
In this phase, your uterus prepares itself for a possible egg to be implanted.
Training State- Mid Luteal Phase
In this phase high endurance activity is encouraged, so you can really crank up your long runs.
As for cross-training, dial down the power-based training, and focus on lower intensity training such as yoga and pilates.
Recovery- Mid Luteal Phase
During this time your estrogen levels are elevated and your core temperature is raised. Both of these factors may impact your sleep quality, so be sure to allow yourself a proper 8+ hours sleep, and don’t compromise on that!
In the mid luteal phase, you might experience delayed recovery from muscle soreness post-run. So, if you’re brave enough, cold water immersion is a great way to speed up recovery, along with consuming leucine-rich foods such as salmon, chickpeas and brown rice.
Supplement Need- Mid Luteal Phase
To reduce the onset of PMS symptoms, increase your intake of high-quality protein-rich foods, and foods high in vitamin D and vitamin B6.
Mental State- Mid Luteal Phase
High levels of sex hormones may have an overall negative effect on your mood. During the Mid luteal phase, it is a good idea to practice self-care: yoga, mindfulness, and meditation.
Nutrition Needs- Mid Luteal Phase
During the mid luteal phase, increase your intake of pre-run carbs and make sure to bring a low percentage glucose sports drink with you on your long runs.
Phase 5: Late Luteal Phase
Your uterine lining gets ready to shed.
Training State- Late Luteal Phase
It is a good idea to deload training-wise. Instead, focus on technical elements of running, such as joint stability exercises and shorter runs with a focus on running form.
Recovery- Late Luteal Phase
Your sleep quality might be poorly affected in this period, so don’t restrict your calories, as calorie restriction can also negatively impact your sleep.
Supplement Need- Late Luteal Phase
Omega-3, Zinc, and magnesium can help to reduce period symptoms such as headaches, mood swings, muscle aches, cramps, and breast tenderness.
Mental State- Late Luteal Phase
Generally, the late luteal phase is a rough time for your mental state.
Lower motivation, mood swings, and higher levels of anxiety may be caused by a drop in hormones.
As with the mid luteal phase, practising mindfulness, meditation, and yoga can be good ways of managing your mental state.
Nutrition Needs- Late Luteal Phase
Increase your pre-run protein intake, and increase your protein and carb intake post-run.
The Benefits of Tracking Your Period as a Runner
All of the information outlined above may seem like a lot to take in.
It can be very useful, as a runner, to track your menstrual cycle.
As you track your cycle, you will begin to better understand your own physiology, meaning that you can make better decisions about your own health and running training.
When you track your period, instead of fighting your physiology, you’ll be able to work with it.
No longer will you feel guilty for wanting to take it easy on your running training during your late luteal phase, you’ll be able to understand why.
And maybe next time you get a surge of energy and motivation mid-way through your period, you’ll be able to direct it towards your training.
How to track your menstrual cycle?
The easiest way to track your menstrual cycle is via an app, and there are many out there.
For an athlete-specific app, try WILD.AI. This app not only tells you where you are in your cycle, but it also gives you specific training, nutrition, supplement, and recovery advice based on your time of the month and your current training load.
For more information on your menstrual cycle as an athlete, check out this thought-provoking TED talk by Dr Stacy Sims, PhD: