The attention on women’s running (and sport in general) seems to be a relatively recent thing, but women have actually been running since the time of ancient Greece. Possibly the first female runner of note was Atalanta, the swift-footed Greek huntress and devoted human follower of the goddess Artemis, who would marry only a suitor who could beat her in a race and kill any man who failed to outrun her. It wasn’t until Atalanta was distracted by the apples her suitor Hippomenes rolled onto the racecourse that she lost a race and married.
Certainly, Atalanta was not aware of how to train and the impact of her menstrual cycle and its effects on her running back then.
Fast forward to thousands of years later, we know much more about women’s physiology. Yet, research has found that most female athletes don’t consider their menstrual cycle when planning their training, even though they acknowledge it affects their performance.
All you have to do is Google “10km race training plan or couch to 5km” and thousands of options come up, but you would be hard-pressed to find one that is written specifically for a woman that takes into account her menstrual cycle. Why? Because nearly all studies, when it comes to fitness or performance, are based on a sample size that is 100% male or heavily male-dominated. And even then, the studies and focus groups are based on high-performing male athletes. So, knowing this, what chance does a recreational female runner based in the suburbs, who is just trying to keep fit and maybe aiming to do her first marathon, have of finding information that is relevant and helpful to her? Basically, not a high one.
The menstrual cycle is still one of the most under-discussed subjects, given it impacts half of the world’s population, and is the second most important biological rhythm, after our 24-hour circadian rhythms. Knowing this, why don’t we take it into account when we train? We spend money on shoes, the latest gear, coaches, nutrition, and supplements, yet this single cycle can impact performance more than anything else. Ladies, it’s time to get on board and take control!
Menstrual cycle-based variations in your running performance are largely a consequence of changes to your levels of hormones, mainly estrogen and progesterone, throughout the month. So, what should you look out for?
My tip #1
In the first half of your cycle, estrogen alters carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism, impacting your energy levels when running. So, a great approach is to take it easy in week 1 and push hard in week 2. Then, in the second half of your cycle, progesterone influences body temperature, breathing, and protein breakdown like a rolling hill over those 2 weeks, so the focus should be to maintain/reduce your average training load, maintain the load, then maintain/reduce again.
My tip #2
When it comes to strength training, this isn’t impacted by our cycles as much as endurance is, so a consistent approach is always a winner, with the most gains being made in the first half of your cycle, so go for it then if you are feeling good.
My tip #3
Fueling is always a hot topic, and women rely more on fat for energy compared to males, who rely heavily on carbohydrates. But when you are hitting that hard week 2, it’s time to increase those carbs to support your bigger training load and to replace low glycogen levels that week – yes, you can honestly eat more and blame your hormones!
To optimize your training and run like a woman, your plan should be fluid, working with, rather than against or neglecting, your physiology. The rhythm of your training should match the rhythm of your menstrual cycle. Your training must always be open to change, moving workouts around based on the menstrual cycle’s hormonal fluctuations and how you feel.
Knowing when to push hard, when to focus on strength, when to run less or even what to eat are all easy to plan when you better understand your cycle and what your body does in its specific phases. Your gains will be greater, your recovery will be better, and the whole training experience will be much more enjoyable.
So what can you do now?
1. Track your cycle (if you aren’t already)
2. Understand your body better - and not just the days of your period, but record how you are feeling every day of the month.
3. Read the book so you have a guide on what to do when
4. Talk to your coach so you can adjust your plan. If you don’t have a coach, adjust your own exercise schedule based on what you have learnt, or use the training plans included in the book
5. Go and train smarter!
By Natalie Dau
Co-author of “Run Like a Woman”
Available on Amazon