20 October 2020
There are a lot of myths out there about our periods. While some of them are too silly to take seriously—such as a tampon being capable of taking our virginity—others are cloaked in enough reality that they can easily be assumed as true. One of those myths is that your athletic abilities take a nose dive when you get your period. Psshhh 🙄.
We’re not going to sit here and tell you that your period has no impact on your athletic performance. With the way in which your hormones fluctuate throughout the various phases of your menstrual cycle, it’d be impossible for your body not to be affected. What we will say is that how your menstrual cycle affects your athletic performance is in no way obvious and certainly is not the same for everyone. So what one person may take as a disadvantage, another (with knowledge and strategic thinking) can use to their advantage.
🏆 A Champion’s Approach
Let’s take the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) as an example. The first thing that comes to mind is how they absolutely killed it in the 2019 World Cup. What may be less obvious are some of the strategies they took to get there, including tracking their menstrual cycles and symptoms.
"For a few players, I always noticed that just before they started their cycle, their recovery fatigue was increased and their sleep was less."
This is what Dawn Scott, high performance coach for both the USWNT and the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) told Good Morning America. She went on to add: "I was noticing it for three or four players and thought, 'We're six months out from the World Cup, how we can help that?'"
Before we get into how Scott addressed this challenge with the USWNT, let’s take a quick look at the menstrual cycle and the hormone shifts that happen within them:
The Menstrual Cycle. Illustration: Nicole Chui
You know this one. Here your levels of estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest.
The Follicular Phase
Between the first day of your period and ovulation, estrogen is on the rise.
The Proliferative Phase
This one happens alongside the follicular phase to rebuild your uterine lining. Estradiol is on the rise.
When your ovary releases an egg! Estrogen is at its peak right before and drops back down shortly after.
The Luteal Phase
Between ovulation and before menstruation the body prepares for a possible pregnancy. Progesterone will peak and then drop.
The Secretory Phase
This phase occurs due to a drop in progesterone and estrogen. The uterus produces prostaglandins to cause the uterine to contract.
❌👯 Periods Aren’t Created Equal
While the phases of the menstrual cycle give us some overarching insights into what is happening in the body during this time, no one person’s cycle will look the same. In the same respect, no two people will have the same exact symptoms. Since everyone’s cycle and symptoms are different, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to strategically using this information to your advantage. A personalized approach should really be applied. In the case of the USWNT, players would receive personalized suggestions and tips for how to counteract and alleviate what was happening specifically for them at any given time leading up to a match.
"We could see what [menstrual cycle] phase a player was in and what some of their symptoms were," Scott told GMA. "I would just text or say to a player, 'Hey you're in phase three and we know you get disrupted sleep, so make sure you do x, y and z.'"
With sports and menstrual cycles being far from new occurrences, it’s hard to imagine that this syncing of the two for positive reasons is a new concept. Put simply by Paula Radcliffe, the multi-marathon champion:
"I would argue it's a lack of learning," Radcliffe told BBC Sport. "Too often in sport, doctors are men and they don't understand."
Radcliffe wins a marathon while on her period. Photo: Chicago Tribune
And this wasn’t Radcliffe’s first or last thoughts on the matter. She also revealed that she broke the record in Chicago in 2002 while suffering from period cramps in the last third of the race. Because while the myth is that your period is a hindrance, the truth is you’re likely to perform better since your estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest.
📈 Getting Your Own Recommendations
You don’t have to be a professional soccer player or marathoner to benefit from this type of knowledge either. Maybe you have a half marathon you’ve signed up for, or you have that final volleyball tournament with your friends coming up. No matter the activity, you have a right to want the optimal physical performance from yourself when the time comes.
To get to these personalized recommendations, you’ll want to start by tracking your cycle and your symptoms. Make sure to use an app like Aavia (yes, we’re biased 😉) that not only tracks your cycle and symptoms, but also offers recommendations based on those inputs.
Download Aavia to start tracking and sign up for our email list to up your knowledge on your period, your body, and everything in between.