A blog by Sophie Fitt
Sophie has a passion for women’s health and sharing the message of healthy menstruation, having experienced amenorrhoea first hand, as well as working with many athletes in and out of clinic, who have also experienced the negative effects of poor menstrual health.
With all this in mind, this article was reviewed by an experienced Melbourne based Obstetrician/Gynaecologist before being shared.
A woman’s menstrual cycle is an incredibly useful tool for providing insight into her overall health and wellbeing.
The length, duration, flow, colour, consistency & associated symptoms all help to tell a story about the health status of not only the reproductive system, but many aspects of the body including the endocrine and immune systems and the health of the gut.
It is perfectly safe, healthy, and in fact recommended, to participate in regular physical activity during each phase of the menstrual cycle.
A distance running program can be structured around a woman’s menstrual cycle to not only optimise training in each phase, but also benefit her overall health and wellbeing.
Firstly, let’s discuss the phases of the menstrual cycle. There are two main “events” in each monthly cycle, and for the sake of this discussion, let us use an average cycle length of 28 days.
** Please carefully note, this discussion is centred around a natural menstrual cycle and does not take into account the affects of the oral contraceptive pill, an intrauterine device (IUD,) or any other synthetic hormone intervention.
The first and main event is called Ovulation.
This is where a mature follicle from one of the ovaries, releases an egg.
The 5 days leading up to, the day of, and approximately one day after ovulation, is a woman’s fertile window, i.e. the one and only time of the cycle, where she can fall pregnant.
Outside of this fertile window, it is impossible to fall pregnant, simply because there is no egg available for fertilisation. Ovulation occurs two weeks before the first day of the menstrual cycle.
Therefore, whilst it is the main event, it occurs in the middle of the cycle.
The second event of the cycle is called Menstruation.
This is the process by which the lining of a woman’s uterus (womb,) known as the endometrium, is shed, or passed through the vagina.
The first day of bleeding is considered Day 1 of the menstrual cycle.
Typically a woman will bleed for between 4 and 8 days, with the heaviest day of bleeding being the first and/or second day, getting less as each day passes.
All women would be aware of the menstruation phase of their cycle, i.e. their period, however unless actively trying- or trying not- to conceive, may not really take much notice of ovulation!
The impact of training will be felt more around the time of menstruation, since this is when a woman is most likely to be aware of, and experience the common symptoms and side effects of this hormonal phase.
Typically, in the pre-menstrual phase (2-4 days before the bleed begins,) a woman may feel:
Experience mild to moderate lower abdominal pain or cramping
Changes to bowel movements
These symptoms can all extend into the menstrual phase, sometimes becoming worse once the bleeding has begun. For that reason, training at this time of the cycle, for a goal 5km, 10km, half marathon or marathon can be very tricky and not always fun!
It is important to remember, that some movement- any movement- or physical activity, can be highly beneficial and can have a positive impact on any painful symptoms and mental health, mood and emotions.
Exercise has been repeatedly shown to be beneficial for women who experience severe period pain. So, even if you don’t feel like lacing up and getting out the door, it could be the best medicine for those undesirable menstrual symptoms.
Training around menstruation
Since the body is performing a very energy demanding process (menstruation is energy demanding,) we must think about and focus on activity or training that “serves and supports” our menstrual bleed, rather than depletes us.
The best kind of training for the couple of days leading up to menstruation and the first 1-2 days of the cycle are:
- Easy running
- A modified work-out or session, without high intensity
- A reduced long run
- Yoga class
- Spin class or cycle (with reduced intensity)
It is critical that good, clean nutrition, rest, and plenty of water are part of every day life, at any stage of the menstrual cycle, but particularly during menstruation.
Setting the alarm for 30 minutes later and reducing the length of a run in favour of more sleep, may be just what you need to get on top of menstrual symptoms. Likewise, finishing a run early to ensure plenty of time for a nourishing meal before charging on with the rest of a busy day!
Every woman is different, and will experience menstrual symptoms in her own individual way.
That is why it is important to openly communicate with your coach about:
The length of your cycle
Your most common pre menstrual symptoms
Your most common menstrual symptoms
How you generally feel when having a period
How much running you like/want to do when having a period
Your preferred training or activity to do during menstruation
The kind of training that does not serve you, or may exacerbate your symptoms
For some women, their training will hardly need to change around the time of their period, and that is fine and healthy too.
However for a woman who does experience noticeable changes to her body around this time, training should reflect these changes and support her body and her health.
Training around the time of Ovulation
Training around ovulation, may be considered quite different to that of Menstruation.
Once the bleed has finished- usually, some time between Day 5 and Day 8 of the menstrual cycle- the body begins preparing for ovulation, with the dominant hormone in this phase being oestrogen.
In terms of training, this is a great time to be doing high intensity work, time trials, a race (if you can get the timing right!) and longer training runs.
The time between menstruation and ovulation is known as the follicular phase- the first half of the cycle- and from a training perspective; it is a great time to “get after it!”
At the time of Ovulation, some women do experience mild symptoms, but typically these wouldn’t be enough to alter her training plans. If that’s not the case, she should consider the activities recommended above that “serve and support” the body.
It should be noted at while we are discussing an average 28 day cycle, only a small percentage of women actually have a 28 day cycle. A cycle length of anywhere between 26 and 34 days is considered healthy.
The variance comes in the first half of the cycle: between menstruation and ovulation.
A woman, who has a longer cycle, will ovulate later, e.g. Day 15, 16 or 17, compared with Day 14 in a 28 day cycle.
However the time between ovulation and menstruation (the luteal phase) is always 2 weeks, i.e. 14 days, and during this time, training can and should be fairly normal and unaffected, right up until a woman begins to experience the pre menstrual symptoms previously discussed.
In summary, the best and most ideal way of managing training and the menstrual cycle is to learn or track your cycle.
This may be done through a cycle tracking app (there are a lot of them available,) a diary, or simply notes on a calendar.
It does not have to be fancy and complicated, but an understanding of the start of the cycle and ovulation, is a good place to begin. That way, you can quickly realise when you may have missed a period.
Learning and tracking the cycle is a very empowering way for a woman to take control of her fertility and indeed conception and contraception in exactly the manner she desires.
In the absence of pregnancy, more than 3 months without a menstrual period is the first and most obvious sign that the body is energy deficient, a condition known as amenorrhoea.
This should be discussed with a GP who has an interest in women’s health, a naturopath or sports doctor or Gynaecologist for further investigation and management.
Communication with your coach is key. It is critical to discuss your cycle with your coach so that they can specifically map your training around your cycle to best support you, and to help you get the most out of your running.
Our bodies are very clever and it should be considered a privilege, to indeed get a monthly “check-in” that can tell us so much about how everything is ticking along on the inside.
About Sophie Fitt - Run2PB Coach.
Contact on Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow on Instagram:@sophieelizabethfitt
Sophie has been embedded in the Australian distance running scene for more than 10 years and has performed at a high level in marathons all over the world. Having broken 2 hours and 50 minutes in all her marathons and has a current personal best of 2 hours and 42 minutes set in the 2018 Valencia Marathon, Sophie is extremely consistent and knows what it takes to hit a great marathon. Sophie has also twice finished 5th in the Melbourne Marathon (2015 & 2017) and gained a huge amount of experience by competing overseas in the illustrious Chicago Marathon and elite women’s Nagoya Marathon in Japan. Over the shorter distances, Sophie's personal bests include 5km: 17.25, 10km: 36.07 & Half Marathon: 1.17. Professionally, Sophie is one of the most respected podiatrists in Australia. In her clinic, Fitzroy Foot and Ankle Clinic, Sophie is well placed to provide high-level advice regarding running technique and managing running related lower limb pathology. Sophie specialises in assisting runners of all abilities to achieve their athletic goals by writing online training programs to allow a smooth transition from injury to competition. Holistically, Sophie motivates and guides people to live a healthy and active life. Through Sophie’s role on the Inside Running Podcast, she has become one of the leading voices of Australian distance running and is highly respected for her commentary in the sport. You can listen to her interview on the Better with Running Podcast here.
Sophie has interviewed expert sports dietitians, naturopaths and elite athletes in which she has gained valuable knowledge. Sophie has a passion in helping runners achieve their goals by staying injury-free and having a clear focus on remaining healthy.
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