Last week, in our Period Post, we told you all about the hormonal craziness that happens during your menstrual cycle. Today I’m going to tell you how all this hormonal craziness affects your running.
A quick disclaimer before I get out my hormones and test tubes again, though: I am not a doctor. I am not a scientist. I do not have all of the answers, and none of mine should ever replace those of your own physician or OB/GYN. I double-majored in English and Biology in college, but only completed a degree in English. I’ve learned a ton about the inner workings of the lady-parts through my infertility journey, albeit mostly related to my specific problems.
Nonetheless I am providing you with sound, researched science; some from my past studies, some from textbooks, and some from sources I will cite at the end of today’s post. And finally, I am keeping some really complicated science as simple as I can in the interest of keeping these pieces approachable and useful.
Now, if you thought last week’s installment in our month-long “Salty Confidential” series was challenging, just wait until you see what we have in store next. Today, we’re tackling how the menstrual cycle (hormones) impacts your metabolism, and therefore, your running performance. Here’s a hint: it does.
An even bigger surprise? I’m yanking the cloak off the evil period. The period is the bad guy (girl?) no more – and we’re about to tell you why.
The Follicular Phase: Revisited
Ever have one of those killer runs two or three days into your period? One of those runs that’s so awesome you kind of forget you have it? I’m not talking day one, when you’re still crampy and moody and bloated, but a couple of days in, when the worst of it is over. You know, that run?
Well, you’re not alone. And there’s a reason for it. Science.
To recap last week, the follicular phase actually starts with your first day of bleeding, or “Day 1” of your cycle. You’re probably not going to feel great that day, and why should you? You’ve got cramps and residual bloating, and let’s face it, the whole thing is really a bit of a pain. Scientifically, though, you’re on the upswing. Your levels of both estrogen and progesterone are close to rock bottom, after that whole performance late in the luteal cycle where progesterone suffocated estrogen, bullied the corpus luteum to jump off a cliff, and didn’t realize it had basically designed its own end. Essentially, the hormonal drama is over for a couple of weeks – and the period itself is your body’s way of cleaning up the mess.
Those crappy runs the first couple days of your period? Kind of like a hormonal hangover. The hormones are low, but you’re still feeling like crap from being put through the PMS ringer and your poor little uterus is being wrung out like a washcloth. Metabolically speaking, though – your body is primed to run.
Being metabolically primed to run is what brings me back to that first run I was talking about – the killer run two or three days in. Why does this happen? What kind of cray-cray is your body up to anyway? Here goes:
During the follicular phase, FSH and estradiol (those estrogen hormones) are working on your ovaries to develop a number of follicles that will (eventually) get whittled down to one. Throughout that follicular phase, which lasts an average of 10 to 21 days depending on the woman, those estrogens are in control – and rising. These are the happy days. You feel good, light and fast. You run well – whatever well is for you. In general, the follicular phase, or the first two weeks of your menstrual cycle, are the best training time you’ll get all month.
Why? Estrogen, baby.
Research has shown time and again that estrogen causes better, faster and more efficient metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins – making more energy available faster. This is further augmented by the fact that estrogen (the wonder hormone) also increases the availability and synthesis of glycogen in the muscles. Glycogen!!! That’s our bread and butter, ladies!
So throughout that follicular phase, that estrogen is going up … uP … UP … and it’s quite possible, if you started tracking your cycle alongside your workouts, that you’d see some terrific performances. Until …
Dunh dunh dunh.
Don’t worry, ladies, it’s not game over yet. But it does start to get dicier now. You’ll recall that ovulation is preceded by a surge of LH hormone – which is the result of an estrogen threshold mechanism. Ever heard the phrase “too much of a good thing?” As a fertility patient, I’m here to back it up: too much estrogen is not a good thing at all. It makes you tired. It robs energy and motivation. It makes you … HUNGRY. And it peaks at ovulation.
Keep that training log – see if you don’t have a couple tougher runs right around ovulation. Not only is that estrogen peaking to the threshold point (think Bruce Banner/the Incredible Hulk), but your body’s doing something kind of big, here.
Think ovulation isn’t all that interesting? Well, it is only a 36 to 48 hour process. But if the follicular phase represents all your badass running dreams come to light, hold on tight. The luteal phase is here, to once again, RUIN EVERYTHING.
If you have ever even jokingly thought that women have the periods and babies because men can’t, I present to you the metabolic disaster area that is the luteal phase. It would bring any man but Sheldon Cooper to his knees. And maybe even him.
AWESOME ESTROGEN NO MORE: All that awesome estrogen? Not only is evil (evil!) progesterone hormonally suffocating it, but it also acts as an antagonist to it metabolically. All that yummy glycogen coursing though your veins? Going … going … gone. By the time progesterone peaks between 7 and 10 days after ovulation, your body has transitioned to burning fat as its primary fuel source in order to preserve glycogen. Even better? Low glycogen can equal low blood sugar. You know what low blood sugar can equal? A lowered lactate threshold, especially in your faster workouts. What? You did those Yasso’s two seconds faster last week after staying late at work and eating garbage all day? Yep. You probably did. Thanks, progesterone.
ROCK STAR RUNS FOR THE TRAINING LOG? Not so much. Wonder why you had a great run a few days ago, took a day off to recover, and now feel like trash? I’ve paraphased Jason Karp, PhD, an exercise physiologist, 2011 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and co-author of Human Kinetics “Running for Women” to explain:
Progesterone (evil!) stimulates a higher heart rate, resting pulse and breathing rate independent of the intensity of your run, which can increase your perception of how hard that run is. Breathing levels are greater during the luteal phase, when progesterone concentration is highest, which can lead to women feeling more winded than they did in the same workouts just weeks before. And if you’re using more oxygen just to breathe – there’s less going where you really need it [your legs].
IT’S GETTING HOT IN HERE: Women who have tracked their cycles for any number of reasons know that along with ovulation comes a temperature change. We’re not talking fevers here; in fact, we’re talking such small variations that you need a special thermometer, a basal thermometer, to even pick up on them. But as soon as you pop that egg and get progesterone in the house, you see a little rise in your basal body temperature. And then your basal temperature stays up – or may even go a smidge higher – until the day you get your period, when it drops back down. The long-term problem? I quote Dr. Karp once more:
“A higher body temperature during the luteal phase makes it harder to run in the heat, because you don’t begin sweating to dissipate heat until you have reached a higher body temperature. Women also have a decreased ability to dilate the small blood vessels under the skin, which compromises their ability to release heat to the environment.”
Just another reason to take the Salty Challenge and get that shirt off. Oh, and thanks, progesterone.
TIPPING THE SCALES? You’re not alone – and it’s not just bloating. Follow me here. Progesterone (saboteur!) is antagonizing our estrogen. Estrogen is what helps us burn through all those carbs and sugars lickety-split like the badass runners we are; progesterone is causing us to conserve the carbs/sugar/glycogen and burn fat instead.
Okay, Clove, you’re saying. Don’t we want to burn fat?
Well, not this way. Because what does your body store all those excess carbs and sugars that aren’t getting burned off as?
You got it. Fat.
And when is your weight the highest?
You got it. End of the luteal phase. Not uncommon at all for a healthy woman to drop one to three pounds in the first three days of a new menstrual cycle. You know, as soon as that progesterone’s gone.
So no, Salties, you are not just cranky, crampy and bloated. And you are most definitely not imagining things. You are, quite literally, a hot mess. A bloated, metabolically altered, mildly hypoglycemic, out-of-breath hot mess.
Say it with me.
Which brings us, finally, back to Day 1 and the period. Is it any wonder I don’t see the period as the bad guy in this process?
In the final one to two days of the luteal phase, your progesterone (finally) takes a nosedive, dropping from that peak level of between 8 and 15 ng/ml down to <2 ng/ml. Once it hits your body’s personal threshold below that <2 ng/ml mark, it’s a whole new day. If you’re not trying to get pregnant, your period is not only a sign that your body is functioning properly – but that all that progesterone garbage is OUT of your body. Those light and airy carefree runs are on their way back, and as soon as you get rid of those cramps, you’ve got a two-week reprieve from that little saboteur named “progesterone.”
It almost makes me understand that grating slogan for Always maxi ‘;[pads. So yeah – get out there, girl. And have a happy period.
So what do I do with all this?
You know, ladies, in a way that’s up to you, but I would suggest three things:
- Track your cycle alongside your workouts for three months, and see what personal correlations you find. We are all still an experiment of one, and your findings may be different from mine.
- Be aware of the fluctuations in your cycle, plan for them, and assess your fitness and your “bad runs” with a close eye to the special challenges you face as a woman.
- Read the articles referenced here: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2012/6/prweb9597998.htm and http://www.runnersworld.com/health/how-menstruation-affects-your-running?page=single, and talk with your own OB/GYN to discuss the best ways for YOU to maximize your training throughout your menstrual cycle.
What about the cray-cray?
- Well yes, it’s true. The optimal time for you to race is actually towards the end of your period. Crazy, right?
- Yeah, seriously. Women can have different lactate thresholds at different times of the month. Weird science, I tell you. Weird.
- Can’t figure out how “that girl” ran circles around you at that 10K? No worries. She’s just hopped up on estrogen. You know there’s a reason that male bodybuilders take this stuff, right?
And last but not least, I leave you with two teasers for our upcoming posts. Next week, Salty Confidential will bring you our most candid roundtable ever – period – when the Salties open up about their own cycles and challenges to help demystify the day-to-day (or month-to-month) issues around running with your period. And for our final installment, we’ll find out the facts about hormonal birth control and running. Does it make you slow? Does it make you fat? Is it bad for your running?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the progesterone-based and progesterone only pills aren’t such a good idea. Hint, hint.
How do you feel like your cycle affects your performance, if at all. Do some of those bummer workouts and races make more sense after reading this post?