Player Welfare: The menstrual cycle - performance & training

Player Welfare: The menstrual cycle - performance & training

Now you know the basics, it’s time to learn more about how your period may be impacting your performance and training. As part of our Player Welfare campaign we’ve teamed up with the brilliant Kelly McNulty to bring you everything you need to know about your period. Kelly is a PhD student at Northumbria University studying the effects of the menstrual cycle and hormonal contraceptive use on athletic performance, adaptation and recovery. With both a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in Sport and Exercise Science and a Master of Science (MSc) degree in Strength & Conditioning, it’s safe to say Kelly knows her stuff. She’s also doing some exciting bits with her soon-to-be launched podcast The Period of the Period so stay tuned! Kelly will be leading a webinar on all things periods, hormones and how to harness your menstrual cycle as your rugby superpower! Join us from 10.30am – 11.30am on Sunday 28th February and come armed with all your burning questions. In the meantime, here’s the second of three blog posts from Kelly – ‘The Menstrual Cycle –Performance & Training’.
The menstrual cycle - performance & training Throughout the menstrual cycle, some women note changes in their performance and training when it comes to sport and exercise. These changes might be down to the ebb and flow in our sex hormones that occur across the menstrual cycle (see Blog Post 1). For example, whilst the main role of these hormones is to support reproduction, because these hormones can travel all around our bodies (i.e., to our muscles, to our brain etc.) they can affect other physiological systems – such as our cardiovascular system, our respiratory system, and our muscular system – which could translate into performance and training effects. These effects are not necessarily negative, and by understanding them, alongside tracking our cycles, you might gain a better understanding of where you are in your menstrual cycle and how to adjust your performance and training accordingly. So, how might our hormones influence our performance and training? The menstrual phase What’s happening hormonally? Levels of oestrogen and progesterone are low. Additionally, because you are menstruating you might be experiencing some of the associated side effects, such as pain, cramps, breast tenderness, low mood etc. What might this mean for performance and training? Chances are if you’re experiencing these symptoms you might not feel like taking part in any training or competition. But this does not mean you need to avoid exercise during your period altogether because, generally speaking, exercising at this time might be beneficial to you. For example, there is some evidence to suggest that moderate intensity exercise, as well as activities like yoga can help ease the symptoms associated with menstruation and even improve your mood. The key message though is that there is no right, or wrong way to exercise on your period, so listen to your body and adapt your activities if you feel it’s necessary. The (late) follicular phase What’s happening hormonally? Levels of oestrogen begin to rise and reach their peak just before ovulation (progesterone levels are low). What might this mean for performance and training? When it comes to training in this phase research highlights that focusing on resistance and strength training in this phase is better than regular or luteal phase-based resistance training for developing strength and muscle mass. Additionally, your mood might be improved, and you might find yourself with increased energy and motivation to train. When it comes to recovery, it’s thought that you might recover faster following training in this phase also. Therefore, this might be a good time to really push your training and go for extra sets and heavier loads, if it feels good, and as long as you’re factoring some all-important rest and recovery days you might be more pre-disposed to build lean muscle and make bigger adaptation gains during this phase. When we get close to ovulation this might not actually be the best time to tear up the field as ligament laxity and ACL injury might be greater in this part of the cycle, however the research in this area is inconclusive. Therefore, it certainly doesn’t mean you need to stop your training during this phase, but if you’re going to be doing exercises which require a rapid change of direction or impact this might mean you need to make sure you are adequately warmed up and prepared before starting your exercise. The luteal phase What’s happening hormonally? Levels of oestrogen and progesterone are high. What might this mean for performance and training? During exercise, carbohydrates and fat are the main energy sources used by the muscles. Which is the preferred source depends on a few things, mainly exercise intensity and duration, but also other factors - including sex. Oestrogen has been shown to reduce the amount of carbohydrate that is used during exercise, which saves your glycogen stores whilst increasing fat utilisation for energy. This is beneficial as it might mean your muscles can work for longer without getting tired. However, you might notice yourself getting hotter during exercise quicker in this phase – thanks to progesterone’s heating effects on body temperature – so cooling strategies might be more essential in this half of your cycle as well as staying adequately hydrated. Finally, you might also find that recovery takes longer as the effects of oestrogen are offset by progesterone, so focusing on your recovery strategies, such as optimising your nutrition and sleep and potentially adding more rest days into your program might be beneficial for some women. The pre-menstrual phase What’s happening hormonally? Levels of oestrogen and progesterone begin to decline ready to start a new cycle. What might this mean for performance and training? During this part of your cycle premenstrual symptoms, such as bloating, breast tenderness, anxiety and irritability (in fact there are over 150 symptoms you might experience here!) might appear which could reduce motivation to perform and willingness to train, as well as make our perception of effort during exercise greater. But, if you’re feeling up to it, exercise might actually help with these symptoms. Additionally, your sleep might also be disrupted during this time also which could affect your concentration and alertness and might make us prone to accidents, so this might not be the best time to try learn a new skill and instead might be a good time to look at reducing stress and training volume.
Giant caveat Please be aware that research in this area is lacking and highly conflicting. Whilst some studies have found changes in performance and training across the menstrual cycle, many have shown absolutely no effect at all. A recent review concluded that performance might be reduced by a very small amount during the early follicular phase of the menstrual cycle when compared with other phases. However, due to the poor quality of research and the large differences between the studies, the current evidence doesn’t allow us to draw clear conclusions and make generalised recommendations. Instead, we should focus on an individualised approach. That said, although the science is currently conflicting, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and only you know how your body is feeling. Key takeaway: collect your own data and look for patterns (more on this coming in next post) and make adjustments, if necessary, according to you.
For more information on the menstrual cycle and how it might affect performance and training you can follow The Period of the Period on Instagram (@periodoftheperiod), Twitter (@periodofperiod), Facebook (@periodoftheperiod) or visit our website

Join Kelly on Sunday 28th February for a Zoom webinar all about the menstrual cycle and how it impacts on training and performance.



Back to blog