Menstruation and endurance performance

Seeing the title of this article you might ask, ‘what about menstruation and endurance performance?’; or ‘what does one have to do with the other?’. Well, friends, menstruation has a lot to do with a female athlete’s performance in a race. Especially during the preparation period, of course. 

So, do keep reading, to find out how menstruation affects athletic performance, and how the training program should be structured, during the different phases of the menstrual cycle.

The rise of female athlete participation in races worldwide

In recent years, we’re witnessing — with great pleasure — more and more women entering the field of amateur and professional sports. In fact, in endurance competitions, such as running, cycling, or swimming — but also triathlons — the percentage of women participating is increasing. According to research, in 2018, 50.24% of participants in races worldwide were women 💪!

This increase — together with the fact that women’s physiology is very different from that of men — dictates that the coaching approach for female athletes also needs to be different. That’s because, as it seems, menstruation and endurance performance go hand in hand. 

Understanding the relationship between menstruation and endurance performance

To begin with, the menstrual cycle consists of three different phases:

  • Follicular phase
  • Ovulation
  • Luteal phase

Below, we discuss how menstruation and endurance performance affect female athletes, during training.

The perks of the follicular and ovulation phases

The follicular phase starts on the first day of menstruation, and usually lasts 14 days (until ovulation). In the first week of this phase — also called the ‘early follicular’ or ‘low hormone’ phase — the progesterone hormone is low; whereas, estrogen levels slowly increase. 

During the second week, until day 16 — approximately, in the middle of the ovulation period — estrogens are rising exponentially; in contrast to progesterone, that stays low. All in all, this is the best period for a woman to increase her endurance training load, and give it all!

To elaborate, when estrogens are high, there’s evidence that the metabolism tends to be more efficient in fat oxidation. In simple terms, this means that the stored glycogen can last more. According to Dr. Jason Karp, this explains why the longer the race, the closer female runners are to male runners. 

What’s more, estrogens promote muscle recovery, while keeping the core temperature low. This is a crucial aspect for almost all molecular functions and, naturally, it enhances the endurance performance. 

Luteal is not ideal for high-intensity training

Ovulation is followed by the luteal phase, the high-hormone phase of the menstrual cycle; where both estrogen and progesterone levels increase. Mind you, in this phase, the body is not primed for high-intensity training. Also, the body mass may be higher — due to fluid retention; and that will negatively affect the performance, as well as the economy of movement — or running economy. 

Furthermore, contrary to the late follicular phase, in the luteal phase, the core temperature is higher than normal. For this reason, the athlete’s performance will be significantly affected; as will the feeling of tiredness, during training. 

A take-home message

All things considered, the first 14 days of the menstrual cycle — as well as the very first days of the ovulation phase — are an ideal period for training. Especially during the second week of the cycle, where coaches observe a rise in performance. 

On the other hand, during the luteal phase, there should be a reduction of the training load; mainly in the third week, counting from the beginning of menstruation. Seeing that the increase of progesterone triggers the aforementioned effects in female athletes.

At this point, it’s worth noting that everything we’ve discussed in this article applies to a normal menstrual cycle; at least, as a rule of thumb. Further study and personalization — always in consultation with a professional coach — is, by all means, necessary; especially since every woman is unique and there are several parameters that can affect their menstrual cycle.

Plan around your cycle, today!

Menstruation and endurance performance was last modified: July 27th, 2022 by Aris Myrkos