Everything you need to know about sport and your cycle
Do you remember people sitting out during physical education classes because of their periods in high school? Well, it seems that the impacts of the menstrual cycle extend far beyond just this time in life, with it now being recognised as a key consideration in women’s sports. And even if you aren’t an athlete, if you exercise and have a uterus, this conversation applies to you too. Let’s get into what you need to know about periods and sports.
First things first, your menstrual cycle is powerful.
Should I be exercising during my period? Does where I am in my menstrual cycle impact my performance? How can I optimise my training around this? Questions like these and many more plague those of us who menstruate. After all, we barely discuss periods, let alone how they might impact sports performance and participation. But it seems that things are slowly changing. This year, Dina Asher-Smith, the fastest female British sprinter, made headlines when she spoke out about how her period impacted her racing. These sentiments are now being echoed by other female athletes worldwide, with several speaking publicly about how their menstrual cycle impacts their athletic performance. And thank goodness for that - we think that it is finally time that the world wakes up to just how impactful the menstrual cycle, a hormonally driven set of processes that occur each month in preparation for a potential pregnancy, can be.
Should I be exercising during my period?
It is a myth that you shouldn’t exercise during your period and that you should avoid certain yoga poses and exercises. So, forget these untrue notions and let's focus on the science. When you're menstruating (having a period), your body has lower levels of estrogen and progesterone and high inflammation. As a result, you might notice that your energy levels are lower. So, while it is great to move your body, you might not feel up to doing that big marathon run or high-intensity workout –totally okay, show your body some kindness and compassion during this time.
A few reasons why your period might impact athletic performance:
- Decreased energy levels due to low hormones
- Experiences of PMS or PMDD
- Fear of your period leaking – a 2021 Adidas survey showed that 1 in 4 girls who dropped out of sport in adolescence named fear of period leakage as a key reason
Thankfully, you don’t need to let your period get in the way of moving your body altogether. Instead, consider doing a body scan and checking in with how you are feeling. If you find that your energy levels are low, try low-intensity forms of exercise such as walking, yoga and light strength training. You just need to find what works for you during this period – so tune in and proactively work with your body instead of against it. Exercising during your period can not only boost your mood but also helps to reduce symptoms of PMS (1). Who wouldn’t be jumping for joy at that?
Will my menstrual cycle impact my performance? How can I work around this?
While no experience is universal, generally speaking, our period (as well as the other phases of the menstrual cycle) can absolutely impact sports performance. When you think about how the menstrual cycle works, this makes a lot of sense. Each of the four phases of the menstrual cycle involves hormone fluctuations that can significantly impact how you feel in your body and your energy levels. A method called cycle syncing exists that involves optimising your life to the menstrual cycle phases. Take Chelsea the women’s football team as a prime example, where players’ training programs have become tailored to their individual menstrual cycles. Read on to learn more about how you can do the same.
What about the follicular and ovulation phases?
During the follicular phase, you are growing an egg and estrogen levels start rising before they eventually peak during ovulation when the mature egg is released from the follicle (a fluid-filled structure) (2). During these two phases, estrogen is high, and you might start to feel really good and notice an increase in energy levels. Fantastic! This is a great time to increase the intensity of your workouts. Studies have even found that people who do weight training in the follicular and ovulation phases are able to build more muscle than they would in the luteal phase (3, 4). If that isn’t a good incentive to move your body during this time (extra gains without having to work harder), I don’t know what is.
The luteal phase occurs right after ovulation, and this is when the body starts making progesterone. In the luteal phase, your body is preparing for a potential pregnancy. During this time your energy is going to be less, and you also might start to notice symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Similarly, to the menstrual phase, this might be a great opportunity to focus more on low-intensity workouts and give your body the rest it needs.
Main point: what we are trying to get across here is that you should always listen to your body. Throughout the menstrual cycle, the body goes through a series of hormone-driven changes and there will be times when you feel that your energy levels are high and others when they are low. Lean into this and provide your body with what it needs.
How can I tell where I am in my cycle?
We have been talking all about the different phases of the menstrual cycle, but how do you know which one you are in and when? Easy…track, track, track! We highly suggest that you track your cycle, whether that be on a period tracking app or more old school with a diary or piece of paper – whatever works for you. Tracking can help you to understand what phase of the menstrual cycle you are in, which can be used as critical information in guiding your exercise.
What if I am on hormonal contraception?
If you are on hormonal contraception, optimising exercise in accordance with your cycle is far less relevant. This is because you aren’t going through the same four phases that you would naturally. For example, if you use the combined-oral contraceptive pill, this will provide you with steady doses of estrogen and progesterone each day until you don’t take it or take the placebos (sugar pills) which is when these hormone levels then drop. Meaning you really only have two phases, and your physical symptoms and energy levels should be far more consistent throughout the entire month.
Our top tips for optimising sport with your cycle:
- Listen to your body. Too many of us ignore what our bodies are trying to communicate. If you need a rest day, more sleep, or some TLC, do that! Lean into your body’s needs.
- Cycle tracking. the key to optimising your performance is working with your body, not against it. That means learning about where you are in your individual cycle and tailoring your exercise routine.
- Know what period problems to look out for. Athletes are more likely to experience period abnormalities (5). If you are experiencing irregular, absent, heavy periods or bleeding between periods (spotting), don’t ignore it - speak with your healthcare provider. Remember that your menstrual cycle is a vital sign, just like other measures like heart rate and breathing (6), it is an important indicator of health.
- Be prepared. We were surprised to learn just how impactful fear of period leaks could be on sports participation. While leaks do happen from time to time (and there is absolutely no shame in that), it can provide some piece of mind to always have some emergency menstrual products on hand and a spare change of underwear and pants.
Zoe Sever is Unfabled's Clinical Lead. Zoe brings a wealth of knowledge from her broad spanning background, having started her career in Nursing and transitioning to Sexology and Research. She holds a Master’s in Sexual and Reproductive Health and is currently pursuing a PhD in Women’s and Reproductive Health at Oxford University. On a mission to empower individuals with cycles to better understand their bodies, Zoe is helping us to banish shame, stigma and demystify reproductive health.
- Samadi Z, Taghian F, Valiani M. The effects of 8 weeks of regular aerobic exercise on the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome in non-athlete girls. Iran J Nurs Midwifery Res. 2013;18(1):14-9.
- Hawkins SM, Matzuk MM. The menstrual cycle: basic biology. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008;1135:10-8.
- Sung E, Han A, Hinrichs T, Vorgerd M, Manchado C, Platen P. Effects of follicular versus luteal phase-based strength training in young women. Springerplus. 2014;3:668.
- Wikström-Frisén L, Boraxbekk CJ, Henriksson-Larsén K. Effects on power, strength and lean body mass of menstrual/oral contraceptive cycle based resistance training. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2017;57(1-2):43-52.
- Fitness AAoPCoSMa. Medical concerns in the female athlete. Pediatrics. 2000;106(3):610-3.
- Care ACoAH. ACOG Committee Opinion No. 349, November 2006: Menstruation in girls and adolescents: using the menstrual cycle as a vital sign. Obstet Gynecol. 2006;108(5):1323-8.