You know you can finally call yourself an athlete when you get used to talking about puking, peeing, pooing and chafing in embarrassing places! But the one thing we don’t often talk about are periods!
When I was at university several of the fitness instructors regularly said that you shouldn’t exercise during your period and I’m sure there are lots of other myths still out there.
Because it’s not talked about or written about very much many women forget to think about how it effects their training and how it might affect them during a long endurance event.
And it’s totally possible it’s totally possible to train as normal and even race well during your period.
Here are a few of things I’ve learned along the way.
If you suffer regularly with stomach cramps or other uncomfortable physical symptoms then make sure to track your periods and plan in advance (Garmin Connect has a menstrual tracker). Try to pro-actively manage the symptoms before you end up doubled over in pain in the foetal position and not able to sleep for 2 days.
If you suffer with stomach cramps then do consider that swimming in cold water might have an impact on due to the cold making muscles contract and how the abdominals work while swimming. Check out the experiences of ocean swimmer Beth French here.
If your period affects energy levels or sleep then modify training accordingly. The time when I’m most prone to injury myself is when my body’s energy is diverted dealing with something other than moving well.
The release of hormones affect digestion and can give diarrhoea and IBS type symptoms. This will therefore will affect your nutrition and how you cope with your nutrition during long training sessions and events.
Your menstrual cycle affects body temperature. During the latter half or your cycle and during menstruation your body temperature can be raised. You may or may not feel this but it’s worth making sure you take this into consideration when training or racing in hot weather.
If you’re an outdoor swimmer it’s also worth considering how it will affect your ability to tolerate the cold as well as the heat. I know several women who say they get considerably colder during their period.
There’s research that shows that as result of an increase in body temperature and change in hormones, heart rate and breathing may also increase so exercises feels harder than normal. Make sure to use rate of perceived exertion and modify effort accordingly.
It’s common for women to experience water retention during their period due to high oestrogen levels which trigger your liver to make hormones that affect your kidneys and cause fluid retention. This will affect hydration, frequency of going to the toilet, electrolyte balance and body mass. Again make sure you consider your hydration strategy during long training sessions and events.
Several studies have found that co-ordination, balance and proprioception making you more prone to trips, accidents and injuries. In addition increased levels of oestrogen can increase the elasticity of joints which can lead to an increased risk of injuries especially in the knee or ankle.
It can be inconvenient and uncomfortable wearing sanitary items while training so I tend to plan shorter sessions or organise training in loops so that it’s easy for me to visit a toilet to make a change if I need to.
Most triathlon events have toilets in transition and at aid stations and sanitary items can be added to transition bags and special needs bags. Just make sure they’re kept in a waterproof bag!
If you’re training with other people then I usually make it known at the start of the session that I’ll likely need a comfort break with a “real” toilet (rather than a bush) at some point. Most people (male and female) understand.
If you’re training for a race or event make sure you’ve practiced using sanitary products in training so you know how it feels and if there are any problems. If you’re training for a long distance event like a marathon swim or Ironman consider what it feels like to be wearing sanitary items for 5, 10 or 15hours. Sanitary items might feel fine for day to day activities but feel completely different while training especially during long sessions.
After all of this you may decide that you do not want to have a period during a long endurance event and this is definitely worth discussing with your doctor. There are many contraceptive methods such as the pill or the coil that can be easily be used to help. You can also be prescribed Norethistorone which is a simple pill (not a contraceptive) which can be used to delay your period. Whichever method you use be sure to try it out a few times in advance of your race because there can definitely be side effects. This means that you need to be planning several months ahead to figure out if it works for you.
Try not to be embarrassed! The more we talk about it the more we can learn from each other and the more it can become normal. Useful Resources include the SmartHER campaign and the book Roar by Stacy Sims.
Do get in touch to let me know your own experiences.