Exercising While Menstruating - Curse or Just an Excuse

Hey, Chicas! :)

Most of us know about it from personal experience. Bloating, lower back pain, nervousness, sweets cravings and moodiness - these are pre–menstrual symptoms or PMS. After, it’s weakness, fatigue and irritability during menses. We all know it!

I heard excuses of not being able to exercise while having these symptoms so many times. Also I heard from my coaches (especially from yoga ones) that you should take easier during yoga practice on “those days” and also that you shouldn’t do any inversion poses.

Coming from gymnastics background, I always thought there is no gain without pain, so all these precessions and excuses always seemed to me too girly and weak.

I recently found an interesting article in the Women’s Health magazine (May 2012) called “Lifting the curse” which talks about making your training schedule based on your monthly cycle. I found it is very interesting and decided to dig a bit deeper and find more information on that topic.

The idea behind the picture is: because of your monthly hormonal fluctuations which are related to your period, you might feel in some weeks stronger and more willing to exercise and during others weaker and even more prone to injury.

It became very interesting to me to find out, is it really true? Do women really have such a big disadvantage compared to men?

The basics

Because our cycle consists of several phases, I would like to first remind you in short about menstruation physiology. A typical menstrual cycle lasts about 28 days (sometimes ranges from 20 to 45 days) in healthy women.  The menstrual cycle is a complicated phenomenon and intricate co-work of hypothalamus, anterior pituitary and the ovaries.

The phases of the menstrual cycle are characterized by changing levels of the two primary steroid hormones: estrogen and progesterone.These hormones in turn are regulated in a complex feedback system by luteinizing (LH) and follicular stimulating hormones (FSH) secreted by the pituitary gland.

The phase from Day 1 to Ovulation, which is normally Day 15, is called the follicular phase. The luteal phase is from Ovulation until the day before menses, normally about Day 28. And so the cycle continues from t]he beginning of the first menses until menopause.

Lost in Data

There are many different studies have been done on this topic, but unfortunately most data is conflicting and confusing. Some studies say, that menstruation does not affect athletic performance. On the other hand some of them find that performance is better during the follicular phase, while others report it is enhanced during the flow phase.

Some studies show that metabolic and cardiovascular responses during exercise are not systemically affected during different phases of the menstrual cycle. Study, which concentrated on fat and carbohydrate utilization reported that there is no changes throughout the menstrual cycle. Another study showed, that women perform better in the follicular than in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. Yet another research demonstrated that carbohydrate utilization after exercise was greater during the luteal phase than the follicular phase.

Additionally, several studies demonstrate reduced reaction time, neuromuscular coordination and manual skills during the pre-menstruation and menstrual phases. Also, during the mid-luteal phase (days 15-22), there is a .3 to .5 degrees Celsius increase in core body temperature of the woman (because of increased levels of estrogen and progesterone) which makes it less tolerable when exercising in hot conditions. On a more positive side, it has been suggested by some researchers that women perform better in endurance activities in their luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, since they are able to increase fat mobilization and breakdown, and inhibit the use of glycogen (eg, Jurkowski-Hall et al, 1981). Less lactate builds up in the muscle and, as a consequence, women are able to sustain a relatively high intensity of exercise for longer. Some endurance athletes also report that they feel the exercise to be easier at this time (Hackney et al, 1991).

Risk of injury

study by scientists at the University of Melbourne in Australia found that when women’s estrogen levels were at their highest(around the time of ovulation) they landed subtly differently while hopping than at other times of the month. Their feet splayed, the arch collapsing just a little bit more than it did when their estrogen levels were lower. The women also seemed, to a small degree, wobblier. At the end of the cycle (just before menses) levels of another hormone, relaxin, rise. This is to allow the cervix to open so that menstruation can occur, but it also means the ligaments in general are softened. The researchers report an increase in musculoskeletal and joint injuries during these stages of the menstrual cycle.

Testosteron

While women secrete considerably less androgens (the primary and most well-known androgen is testosterone) than men, they still play a role in women’s physiologic during training. Androgens are important for increased red cell production, bone density, increasing muscle synthesis, and alleviating fatigue. Plasma testosterone in women normally fluctuates throughout the menstrual cycle with peak levels around ovulation. Some female athletes report increased strength during this time, but this has not been substantiated in studies.

PMS

The most consistent reports are effects of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) on exercise performance. Nearly all of us are familiar with symptoms of bloating, headaches, fatigue, and cramping during the late luteal phase. Many studies relate an increase in exertion during premenstrual and early menstruation days.As well, several authors reported that effects of PMS could alter performance as the tasks increased in difficulty and complexity. Others notice impairments in exercise performance arise from breast tenderness, abdominal constriction, and fatigue.

Listen to yourself

While studies vary widely regarding physiological responses of the menstrual cycle on women during exercise. Some say it helps, while others say it harms. Still others say it’s easier to get injured.Additionally, several studies demonstrate reduced reaction time, neuromuscular co-ordination and manual dexterity during the pre-menstrual and menstrual phases. There is also evidence that blood-sugar levels, breathing rates and thermoregulation vary, which may well account for the slight decreases in aerobic capacity and strength which some women have observed.

Obviously a woman’s performance is likely to be influenced to some extent if she is experiencing any or all of symptoms mentioned above, but it is worth remembering that personality, state of mind and attitude can minimize or exaggerate this effect.

Some women say they feel stronger in the immediate post-menstrual days, whilst a minority report improvements during menstruation. The truth is that there’s only one real rule for training during your period: Listen to yourself. We all are different and as we can see from researches there is no remedy for everybody.

If you’re cramping in a major way, listen to your body and take the day off or just go for a walk or maybe choose slightly easier yoga postures. One day off every month really isn’t a bad thing. Then again, if you leave your fitness routine from the first hint of PMS to the last day of your period, you’ll be sitting on the couch for nearly two weeks every month without exercise - and that’s too long!

Listen to your body and keep exercising! :)

References:
Volk, Elzi.  Planet Estrogen Part III: The Menstrual Cycle and Athletic Performance
How Does My Hormonal Cycle Work?
Athletic Performance and the Monthly Cycle
“Cycle Your Workouts” picture from Women’s Health magazine (May 2012)

Christopher Brisley