If you’re one of the 4 men who read my blog, feel free to skip this one. 🙂
If you don’t already know, I’m OBSESSED with the female body. Part of this is obviously because I am a woman myself, and the other part is that it’s just freaking incredible. Think about this – we GROW humans inside of us and when they’re ready to enter the world, we push them out through our cervix and vagina. And then we naturally produce the most perfect food for these tiny little humans and feed them straight from our breast. It’s all just so miraculous.
Anyway, I promised a post last week about hormones and running, so let’s get this menstrual party started!
If you’re looking for a starting place on this topic, I highly recommend the book ROAR by Stacy Sims, PhD (or the interview with Stacy on Endurance Planet). It’s all about fitness and female physiology and it’s completely fascinating. It will give you a ton of insight into how all of this plays into your training and how you can achieve peak performance.
Here is a watered down version of what a cycle typically looks like. I’m leaving out a great deal of details (including testosterone) so consider it a snapshot.
The 28 Day Cycle
Days 1-14: Follicular Phase – the “low hormone” phase
- Day 1: Period begins, estrogen levels at rock bottom
- Days 5-6: Estrogen levels raise slightly
- Days 8-14: Estrogen levels surge until they peak & ovulation occurs
Days 15-28: Luteal Phase – the “high hormone” phase
- Days 15-22: Progesterone levels increase
- Days 23- 25: Highest level of both progesterone and estrogen
- Days 24-28: PMS symptoms may occur (GI issues, headaches, bloating)
To most of us, this information isn’t super helpful on its own. Without getting into the nitty gritty about progesterone and estrogen, just know that our hormones affect everything from our metabolism to our plasma volume to our ability to regulate heat — all of which play a huge a role in performance.
Hormones & Running
So, when are we our best running selves? Great question.
The “low hormone” phase is the most favorable time for running. This means having your period on race day is a GOOD thing, not something to stress about or avoid. Running may feel easier and you will likely crush your workouts or race. This is the phase of your cycle when you’re actually most like a man.
The “high hormone” phase can utterly suck for running. You will likely fatigue more quickly, feel out of breath more easily, be extra hungry and crave carbs more than ever. It’s not in your head, it’s your physiology. It will be physically harder to hit higher intensities and to recover.
Let’s use me as an example and take a look at last week’s training. It perfectly demonstrates the high and low hormone phases and their effect on training.
Monday (day 24): Ran 6 miles on trails. It was an easy run and I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.
Tuesday (day 25): Ran 8 miles with 8 x 800 meter repeats. In previous weeks, this was completely doable. This time around, it felt nearly impossible. My breathing was heavier than normal and fatigue set in around the 4th repeat.
Wednesday (day 26): Ran 6 miles and it felt terribly hard. I had to make two bathroom stops because I was having GI issues. It was awful.
Thursday (day 27): Went to Pilates class, had to take multiple breaks. Felt weak.
Friday (day 28): 5 mile trail run. Legs felt a bit heavy. Run was slow.
Saturday (day 1): Ran 20 miles – felt AMAZING! Threw in 5 x 1 mile pick-ups & they got progressively faster (7:41, 7:37, 7:31, 7:23, 7:12). I finished the run at 7:45 pace and was energized.
Sunday (day 2): 5 easy trail miles with Gunner (my pup). Legs felt fresh despite running 20 miles the day before. I was eager to run.
As you can see, while I was in the high hormone phase, running was difficult and I was fatigued. A workout I had just done a few weeks prior suddenly felt impossible. I had GI issues on the run and I was overall just weak.
As soon as my estrogen levels hit rock bottom and I got my period, my running was at an all time high. My energy, endurance, strength and stamina returned. My mojo was back!
You’re probably thinking, crap! What do I do if my race falls within the worst phase of my cycle?
Don’t lose hope! Stacy Sims has a protocol for this.
Optimizing Running During Suboptimal Times
Take the following every night for the 7 days leading up to your period (the last week of your cycle):
- 250mg of magnesium
- 45mg of zinc
- 80mg of aspirin
- 1g of omega-3 fatty acids
Before a long run or hard workout:
- 5-7g of BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids)
During a long run:
- .45g of carbohydrates per pound of body weight each hour
After a long run or high intensity workout:
- 20-25g of protein within 30 minutes of run
If you want to understand the “why” behind these supplements, check out the book. I’d get into it, but that would be a whole other blog post.
If you’re bored out of your mind, don’t worry, my next post will be full of pretty pictures and a recap on our trip to Cabo. 😉
How do you feel when running on your period?
Any insights on hormonal birth control and running?