More than half of elite female athletes reported hormonal fluctuations during their menstrual cycle that negatively affected their exercise training and performance capacity.
The US Female Football team won the 2019 World Cup, having reportedly tracked each player’s menstrual cycle, and adapted individual training loads and diets accordingly.
While this may come as a surprise to some, when you truly understand the complexities (and I am still trying to get my head around it all) of a woman’s cycle it would be no surprise at all in fact, that your training and performance can in fact be affected.
1 out of every 10 women experience menstrual pain so bad that they’re unable to carry out their usual daily activities on one to three days every month. And interestingly, another study showed that more than half of elite female athletes reported hormonal fluctuations during their menstrual cycle that negatively affected their exercise training and performance capacity.
I’m not only delving deep into research and trying to understand all our different hormones, but I track my own cycle to make sure I understand MY body.
Generally, menstrual cycles last around 28 days, however, they can range from 26 to 35 days. Three phases make up the cycle of a woman not using birth control; The Follicular Phase, Ovulatory Phase and the Luteal Phase.
The Follicular Phase is the first half of the menstrual cycle, the Ovulatory Phase is mid-cycle when an egg is released, and the Luteal Phase is the second half of the cycle after ovulation when your body is preparing for possible pregnancy. If sperm doesn’t meet your egg, you shed your endometrium (lining) and your menstrual cycle begins again.
Luteinising hormone (LH), Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), oestrogen, progesterone, and even testosterone are the hormones that we should, but maybe don’t, really understand. While testosterone dominates in males, oestrogen and progesterone dominate in us females. Rises and falls in these hormones orchestrate a cascade of events in our bodies, and are responsible for a ‘normal’ menstrual cycle, overall health, as well as performance.
The first day of our period is the beginning of the cycle. This is the Follicular phase, as oestrogen and progesterone drop because the egg isn’t fertilised and the lining of our uterus sheds. FSH & LH are also low at this stage, but then, the pituitary gland releases FSH and oestrogen rises slowly getting the body ready for ovulation. Testosterone also hits a little peak during this stage! Right in the middle of your cycle there is the spike in oestrogen and LH, and this marks the release of an egg. Following this, in the Luteal Phase, which may also be known as a ‘high hormone’ phase, oestrogen will rise again, as well as progesterone. Somewhere around the 28 days, hormones drop and the cycle begins again.
FSH stimulates the growth of follicles in our ovaries and LH causes an egg to be released. If the pituitary gland is supressed enough (i.e. with birth control pills) these hormones aren’t released, thus preventing ovulation.
The little spike in testosterone (which in men is responsible for increased muscle, bone mass and body hair, is an anabolic hormone) helps us too! It not only keeps our bones strong and our minds mentally alert, but it raises our libido to get us in the ‘mood’. An excess of testosterone may cause symptoms such as oily skin, acne, hair loss or more hair in places we don’t want it.
Oestrogen gives us curves and makes us feel ‘plump’ in all the right places. It actually moves throughout your body, affecting nearly every tissue; including your brain, bones, heart and skin.
Progesterone, helps us use fat for energy. It helps us build and maintain bones, protects us against cancer, and promotes appetite and fat storage. When in balance, it has a more calming effect on us by reducing anxiety; preparing our bodies for pregnancy.
So, how and where do we even begin if we want to track, adapt and apply our cycles to our training goals? How do our hormonal fluctuations help or hinder our performances?
Find out in part 2…