Where all my female athletes at??
Guys, this one isn’t for or about you, but please feel welcome to continue reading if you wish to do so!
Okay, by athletes I don’t just mean high school or elites. If you are a woman and you participate in any sport on pretty much any level, I’d consider you an athlete, so keep reading.
Did you know that our cycles (yes I’m talking about our menstrual cycle) can affect how we perform? We all know about PMS and those other effects we learned about in FLE, but what else is going on in there? And how does it affect sports performance? And what can we do about it?
Well, you’re about to find out. Let’s first break the cycle down into two phases: the follicular phase (days 1-14), and the luteal phase (days 15-28). Day 1 of your cycle and of the follicular phase is when bleeding starts (cue eye roll and groans). About mid-way through this phase, estrogen levels start to rise, and they surge around day 12. The estrogen combines with a luteinizing hormone, which triggers ovulation.
After ovulation, progesterone increases to prepare the lining of the uterus for the implantation of the egg. This is when the luteal phase begins. The luteal phase is the high hormone phase, as the highest levels of both estrogen and progesterone occur a few days before the period starts again. This is also the time where women often experience those dreaded PMS symptoms. So what does this mean for the female athlete? Well, according to sportsmd.com, the changes in our hormones may have these effects:
Decreased hemoglobin concentrations during menstruation that may lead to increased ventilation (i.e. a faster breathing rate).
Salt and fluid retention as well as dilation of blood vessels that may decrease the blood flow rate through muscle, possibly resulting in sub-optimal muscle function.
Changes in the lungs’ ability to process gas exchange as efficiently around menstruation that may lead to increased oxygen demand and an increased sensation of shortness of breath.
Increase in basal body temperature during the luteal phase that may increase the likelihood of heat-related illness in long endurance events (e.g. marathons) at higher ambient temperatures.
Metabolic changes, particularly during luteal phase, when blood lactate (a product of glucose breakdown in anaerobic activity) may decrease compared to during the follicular phase, leading to increased endurance*.
Some studies have suggested that women are more susceptible to ACL rupture during the ovulatory phase of the cycle as there are estrogen and progesterone receptors in the ACL.
*I wanted to add to that fact that while it may lead to increased endurance (YAY for us long distance runners!), it may make it harder to reach higher levels of intensity, so supplementing carbohydrates during training would be beneficial during this time.
So, what can we do to optimize our training and performance? Work WITH your body! Pay attention to how you feel during different phases of your cycle, and train accordingly, if possible. The best time for performance is during the follicular phase (low hormone levels). Unfortunately this also coincides with menstruation (again, cue those eye rolls), so you may have to take extra measures to make your performance more comfortable.
So what about birth control pills? While they do tend to regulate our hormones and keep things more on an even keel, they also keep us in a perpetually high hormone phase. One study showed a 2-4% oxygen utilization reduction, which would most likely only be noticeable in elite athletes, if at all. Oral contraceptives help regulate our periods and control those god-awful cramps, which, in my opinion, is worth a very slight oxygen utilization reduction that I probably wouldn’t notice anyway! Now, I’m not a doctor, so I’m not telling anyone whether or not to take the Pill, just sayin’.
So, basically our hormones can slightly enhance OR hinder our performance, but let’s not get too focused on the negatives. As women, we have high levels of pain tolerance. We are tough as nails and determined as hell to get the job done, whatever that job may be. The reason I’m telling you ladies this is so that you can learn to work WITH your body and not against it. The more knowledge we have about our own bodies, the better off we will be.
We can’t always control when our games, races, or competitions will be, but we can know going into it whether the odds are for or (slightly) against us, and work accordingly. Since when have we ever let a little setback get in our way??? And, hey, if things don’t go as planned, maybe we can learn to be a little gentler with ourselves, especially when our hormones may be to blame.