Contrary to whimsically dancing through a spring meadow, having your period sometimes isn’t as glamorous as the ads on TV makes it out to be. To be honest, dancing gayly outdoors is usually not my first impulse when I’m on my period.
In fact, for most of my menstruating life, the most active I’d get during my period was to actively avoid physical activity altogether. Opting for the more convenient blanket sushi roll of comfort with a hot water bottle assistant, I sugar-binged my way through many monthly bleeds.
Then I started cycling in my mid-twenties. I launched my website, Velo Me, which is dedicated to encouraging women to ride bikes. I was hooked. A woman obsessed. With the wind in my hair, there wasn’t anything that could stop me – except for, maybe, my period. Unable to pedal past the lethargic roadblock, I adopted my only known way to deal with Aunt Flow… and that was to not deal with it at all. But this frustrated me. I was angry at myself that for a few days every month I felt useless. Determined to find my, ahem, flow, I embarked on a journey to understand my cycle and find a way to ride with it and not against it.
Understanding the menstrual cycle
The menstrual cycle can be broken down into four phases lasting approximately 28 days in total, with day one being the first day of your period (when you actually start bleeding).
I found the secret to ‘menstrual cycling’ is embedded within the roller coaster fluctuations of hormones that occur during each phase, and more importantly, how to combat them with cycling.
Phase 1 – Menstrual
During this period, for me, it feels like a little shark is gnawing away at my insides. While bleeding and cramping aren’t the biggest motivators to train on my bike, I’ve come to find that exercising actually helps to alleviate my period pains.
So, during days 1 to 5 of my menstrual cycle, I take a slower and more chilled approach to training. Aerobic exercise helps the flow of venous blood which increases prostaglandins and other substances in the body, and it’s these chemicals that have been proven to reduce discomfort in the pelvis and abdomen.
During the menstrual phase, our hormone levels are pretty low, especially oestrogen. This means that our body uses carbohydrates as a fuel, rather than fat, because of the increase in insulin sensitivity; our bodies will try to get the most out of glycogen, or carbs. Knowing this, I try to get more slow release foods into my diet around this time, like oats and pasta so that, when I’m on my bike, I have the drive to keep turning the pedals.
Phase 2 – Follicular
The Follicular phase is the first half of your cycle, starting on the first day of your period and continuing until ovulation. However, after the bleeding stops, oestrogen levels begin to rise from around day 5 to 14 which promotes the growth of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). This hormone is responsible for aiding the development and function of our ovaries by stimulating the growth of the follicle in the ovary which is essential for boosting oestrogen levels even further. However, there is also a rise in testosterone which helps sculpts muscle mass and building connective tissue between bones and muscle.
Because of this, people tend to gain more strength during the first half of their cycle, rather than the second. So for me, I tend to switch my training from Gentle Menstrual to Full-on Follicular. From the end of your period to the middle of your cycle your motivation and energy should only increase – this is the best time to start really pushing it with your workouts.
Phase 3 – Ovulation
The womb and all its magical hormonal mystery have been building up to this moment… our ovaries release an egg ready for fertilisation. This occurs midway through our cycle (day 14 of a 28-day cycle) and signifies the end of the follicular phase and the start of the luteal phase. At this time, our oestrogen levels are elevated, and that can leave you feeling, well, all the things. On the plus side, this is when we usually become our strongest.
During ovulation, our primary fuel source switches from carbohydrates to fats due to the slight rise in our metabolic rate, making endurance the focus of my training with some long intensive rides. It’s time to go from Full-on Follicular to Override Ovulation. Right in the middle of the month is when you’ll have your most energy and are likely to be in the best mood – take advantage of the increased motivation and go nuts on the treadmill/bike/tennis court!
Phase 4 – Luteal
The second half of your cycle is usually the hardest. It certainly is for me, both emotionally and physically.
Post-ovulation, oestrogen levels begin to dramatically decline, while progesterone – the sedating hormone – reaches its peak to carry on maintaining the uterine walls.
As oestrogen levels fall off a cliff, it takes with it serotonin, the ‘happy chemical’, which is why I often feel quite hungry and irritable around this time. (To make matters even worse, I’m prone to suffer from outrageous acne breakouts).
I find the best course of action is light recovery exercise, like yoga, walking, or a chilled bike ride. Training like this offers me a much-needed endorphin boost which really helps get me through this tough sluggish time. But getting outside on my bike takes enormous feats of mental strength during the luteal phase, so I just have to remind myself that I always feel so much better when I come home after!
So did listening to my menstrual cycle help me be a better athlete?
Absolutely. Not only have I learnt a great deal more about my menstrual cycle, but I feel more in tune with my body than I ever have before. By listening to my body, knowing what it’s doing, and how I can use it to my advantage, I feel like a much stronger athlete, both mentally and physically.
So, take it from me and don’t let your hormones get in the way of staying active as much as you can – just take the time to figure out what works best for you at each stage of your menstrual cycle!
Words by @ Jessica Strange, founder of Velo Me
Photo by MART PRODUCTION from Pexels