What’s something all of us gals have in common? Our periods. We all get them, but very rarely do we talk about how it makes us feel – especially when we’re training, or playing rugby.
As part of our Player Welfare campaign we’re on a mission to get girls, coaches, managers, parents, partners and mates talking about periods and how they impact our sport. Lucky for us we have some pretty brainy people on hand to help us out, including the lovely Kelly McNulty. 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.
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In the meantime, Kelly has been kind enough to jot down some really valuable insights so you can get reading. Here’s the first of three – ‘The Menstrual Cycle – Basics’.
The menstrual cycle – basics
If you fall into the ‘I’m in need of a menstrual cycle refresher’ group, you are not alone. A study by Larsen et al. (2020) highlights that menstrual cycle knowledge is poor in female athletes.
A ‘normal’ menstrual cycle
Cycle length can be counted from the day your period starts until your next period arrives. A text-book menstrual cycle length is 28 days – but we aren’t all textbooks and only 13% of women have a textbook menstrual cycle, and instead anything between 21 and 35 days is considered ‘normal’, and in teens, anywhere up to 40 days is also considered ‘normal’. Your cycle length can also vary month to month by as many as +/- 8 days.
Having a healthy period each cycle is a big thumbs up for your general health and wellbeing. Typically, your period lasts somewhere between 2 and 8 days, with the average being 5 days. During a healthy period, we can lose anywhere between 5 to 80ml of blood – that’s about 3 to 16 fully soaked regular-absorbency tampons or pads per cycle. The first couple of days will probably be the heaviest flow, which becomes progressively lighter as your period goes on. Although having a period is the part of the cycle that we can see, the menstrual cycle is more than just your period – it’s a whole cycle of hormonal fluctuations which, when healthy, will happen fairly predictably, each month.
There are two important hormones – oestrogen and progesterone – which ebb and flow across your cycle, sending your body important messages.
- Oestrogen: produced by the ovaries – helps the release of an egg and the development of the endometrial lining.
- Progesterone: produced by the ovaries (corpus luteum) – prepares the uterus for possible implantation of a fertilised egg and is the pro-pregnancy hormone.
What is *actually* happening?
As mentioned earlier a healthy or ‘normal’ menstrual cycle follows a fairly predictable pattern and can be broken down into key phases:
Phase 1: The menstrual phase
Your lining from your uterus – which has built up over your previous cycle – sheds and leaves your body via the vagina – this is typically referred to as your period (or also known as ‘the bleed,’ ‘time of the month’, ‘menstruation’ and the ‘early follicular phase’). During your period you might experience a whole range of symptoms including period pain and menstrual cramps – largely thanks to prostaglandins. These help to shed the lining of the uterus by causing it to contract to ‘shimmy’ the blood out, so we need them to have a healthy period. But too many of them can cause severe contractions causing you to experience pain. At this point in your cycle your levels of hormones – oestrogen and progesterone – are at their lowest.
*please note: a healthy period should be regular, with mild and manageable symptoms. If you’re suffering in silence during your period, then please seek help from your doctor/ GP.
Phase 2: The follicular phase
The first half of the cycle is called the follicular phase, where your body prepares an egg to be released from the ovary and builds the lining of your uterus to prepare for pregnancy. During this phase oestrogen starts to rise (usually around day 5 of your cycle) because of growing eggs in your ovaries and continues to increase until it reaches a peak before ovulation before rapidly declining (progesterone is low at this point). Ovulation is the release of the egg from the ovary and happens roughly at the midpoint of the cycle. But it’s hard to predict exactly when ovulation occurs.
Phase 3: The luteal phase
The second half of the cycle is called the luteal phase and prepares the uterus to receive a fertilised egg. After ovulation, oestrogen which dipped after ovulation start to increase again and has a secondary peak in the middle of this phase. Also, at this point progesterone (which starts to increase slowly after ovulation) reaches its peak.
Phase 4: The premenstrual phase (or the late luteal phase)
This is the final phase of your cycle and usually occurs between a day and a week before your period starts. At this point, if pregnancy has not occurred, both oestrogen and progesterone levels rapidly decline. As a result, your endometrium lining is no longer supported resulting in menstruation, and your cycle begins again. You might also notice you experience symptoms during this phase – known as premenstrual syndrome (PMS). There are around 150 reported symptoms of PMS, with the most common ones being sore boobs, mood swings, fatigue, anxiety, and bloating.
Wow! Pretty impressive and this all happens from the moment you start your periods, cycle after cycle, until you reach menopause, only stopping if you are pregnant or choose to use hormonal contraception. It’s also normal for your cycle to change throughout your cycle years. For example, cycle symptoms are often more severe during your early cycle years (teens), around pregnancy, and during perimenopause (the time before you reach menopause). And don’t forget, your cycle can also be influenced by your lifestyle, for instance nutrition, stress, sleep and exercise.
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In our next blog post we will cover how your menstrual cycle might impact your performance and training.
For more information on the menstrual cycle you can follow The Period of the Period on Instagram (@periodoftheperiod), Twitter (@periodofperiod), Facebook (@periodoftheperiod) or visit our website www.periodoftheperiod.com