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How to Train with Your Menstrual Cycle

As women, sometimes the hard work we put into training does not result in the improvements we want to see on the bike. Why? Blame it on your Period!

Changing hormone levels due to our menstrual cycle can leave us feeling any number of ways – from fatigued to powerful – regardless of our training. But the good news is, you can work WITH your cycle to make gains in your cycling training.

Menstrual Cycle Phases and Characteristics

(Resources: Stacy Sims, ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life; Stevie Lyn Smith, MS, RDN, CSSD, CDN: Optimizing Training Around Your Menstrual Cycle, https://blog.insidetracker.com/training-around-menstrual-cycle)

4 Tips for Optimizing Training to Your Menstrual Cycle

1. Keep a journal.

Given the variety in how women respond to the various phases of their cycles, it’s important to keep track of how you feel and perform throughout the month. You can leave comments in your TrainingPeaks files to describe how your workouts went. Looking back over your journal can help you make connections about what is or is not working. The wearable Whoop has a menstrual cycle coaching feature that enables you to track where you are within your cycle and to pay attention to how you feel during different phases. Apps like FitrWoman also help you keep track of your cycle and provide advice on things to prioritize during each phase.

2. Be aware of possible differences in dietary needs around your cycle.

  • Period:
    • Menstruation is inflammatory so prioritizing sleep, hydration, and nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables can help with recovery.
    • I always make sure to increase my dietary iron intake as well given the blood loss during my period.
  • Follicular Phase:
    • Because hormones are lower, specific nutrition modifications are not usually necessary.
    • Aiming for .35 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per hour during training is advisable.
  • Luteal Phase:
    • As metabolism increases and the body prefers fat over carbohydrate as fuel, it’s important to get plenty of healthy fat during this phase from things like nuts, seeds, fatty fish, avocados, etc.
    • Increasing protein intake is also key to counteract the increased metabolism of amino acids, and to support strength gains during this phase. Given that hunger and cravings are common, protein can also help with satiety. Be sure to ingest 20-25 grams of protein within a half hour of finishing a training session.
    • Taking BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) may be effective in lessening the negative effects on mood, emotions, and energy.
    • Because your body prefers fat over carbohydrates for fuel during this phase, supplemental carbohydrates are crucial to training and recovery. Including complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc.) and avoiding high-sugar carbohydrates foods (pastries, candy, sweets, etc.)  can meet this need while keeping blood sugar levels stable and helping diminish cravings. You’ll also want to aim for .45 grams carbohydrates per pound of body weight  per hour during training in this phase.
    • High hormones during this phase also mean that you need to up your hydration.
    • In general, your energy needs are higher during this phase as your metabolism may increase by 5-10%. In practical terms, that means needing an additional 100-200 calories a day.

3. Modifying training to your cycle.

  • You may benefit from emphasizing strength training during your follicular phase and taking your rest weeks in the gym during your luteal phase. Likewise, you may plan your more intense cycling workouts and skill-heavy sessions for the first three weeks of your cycle. Liv athlete Rae Morrison explains: “I think the biggest thing for me that stopped myself overtraining or digging myself into a hole is having an easier week leading into my period when all the hormones are high and my body doesn’t bounce back as well. Instead, for that week I’ll focus on skills, mobility, and lower intensity rides and gym sessions. Then weeks 1-3 I can give it my all.” As you plan your A races, you may want to prioritize races that fall during your follicular phase.
  • If you suffer from GI distress and cramping, Stacy Simms recommends taking 250mg magnesium, 45 mg zinc, 1 gm omega-3 fatty acids, and 80mg aspirin 5-7 days prior to your period. 5-7 grams of BCAAs prior to training can also decrease central nervous system fatigue.
  • Moderate-intensity exercise has been shown to help reduce symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

4. Keep communicating with other women and reading the developing research!

The research on how to adjust training around your menstrual cycle is still developing. There are a lot of observations–such as decreased plasma volume during the luteal phase–but not a lot on if or how we can mitigate this. All of us women athletes are allies in this regard. By sharing what has or has not worked for us and propagating any new research that we discover on the topic we can help each other train smarter with our menstrual cycles.

(Resources: Hazel Wallace, Sports Nutrition for Women & How the Menstrual Cycle Impacts It, https://www.whoop.com/thelocker/sports-nutrition-menstrual-cycle/; Stacy Sims, ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life)

Meet Crystal!

I am an endurance mountain bike and gravel athlete as well as a professional cycling coach. Learning how women’s menstrual cycles affect our training and nutrition needs has benefited me as an athlete and enabled me to better help my clients. Tracking my recovery has shown me that without fail, my readiness to train is highest from the day after I get my period for the next two weeks. Knowing this, I can plan my big training blocks accordingly and also give myself some grace during the other weeks of my cycle and focus on less intense forms of preparation. In the past, I had shown up to some major races feeling very prepared, only to experience dead legs and unexpected poor performance. Now, for sure many factors can affect having an off day. However, tracking my cycle and readiness has helped me anticipate what to expect at different times, and to realize some of the sensations have to do with hormonal fluctuations not my training or preparation.

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