Let’s talk about periods. A topic that is very rarely touched on in the fitness world (or at all to be honest!) and a topic that a hell of a lot of people can relate to. Let’s get the silly awkwardness out of the way. People bleed. It usually happens once a month, for some it might be more, for others less. For some it hurts, for some it doesn’t. Some people bloat, others don’t. Periods are natural. The only time the human body bleeds naturally without violence that I can think of. It’s an important topic and learning about our bodies is super important for everyone, not only those who train.
Yet, the it seems to be the blood people talk about the least. I say it again, periods are natural and they can have a huge impact on peoples lives – not to mention their training.
For anyone out there who has periods, you will probably be able remember that time you used your period as an excuse to miss going swimming. Or that time you were in so much pain you asked to miss PE, only to hear ‘oh, it’s good for the pain’. You’ve probably had to ask a friend to check you from behind and you’ve probably had an unexpected visit from mother nature. From a young age, periods really do impact exercise and training and I wanted to explore this. I want to look at the science and whether training helps or just makes things worse. I’ve been putting out polls and questionnaires I want to share with you guys and, finally, beyond the science I want to address the issues they don’t address. Tight leggings, squats and sanitary towels really aren’t best friends – I’m sure a lot of you don’t need science to tell you that! But mostly I want you to know there is no shame in the natural and it is important to work with your body and learn about yourself and what works for you.
Right, first up The Science.
First things first, let’s talk about the menstrual cycle as a whole and what it can mean for training. (I will put links to studies and articles I have used below if you want to take a look. Some needed my Uni login so you might not all be able to access them so you might have to take my word for it… or pay £9000 a year and read it for yourself. Whatever floats your boat).
Right, so, generally periods can be broken down into two phases which are the follicular phases, during which your oestrogen stimulates follicle growth. The second phase is called the luteal phase. This happens just after you ovulate and happens until it realises you’re not going to be housing a little human this month, then it all starts again. If you wanted to break this down even further, which is important in terms of training, the first five days after the follicular phase are known as the menstrual phases (you know, the naff bit) and then in between the follicular phase and the luteal phase is ovulation. On average it takes about 28 days but this can vary from person to person.
So what does this all mean when it comes to training?
Well you know that awful bit when you’ve got the cravings and the cramps and the last thing you want to do it go to the gym? Well, these hormonal changes that are going on give you boosts in pain tolerance and muscle recovery that can pay off when you’re wanting to make the gains. It can also enhance blood circulation, which can help with period pains. Handy, right? It might not feel like it but actually, in a fancy scientific study done way back in the 90s, people found that there was no significant difference in muscle strength and fatigue during your period.
Basically, without getting too scientific (because I can’t, because it was too confusing…) when you’re at the start of your cycle you’re more insulin-sensitive as the oestrogen is higher, and becomes less insulin-sensitive during the second half of your cycle when progesterone is higher.
When the body is more insulin-sensitive, it means you need less insulin to get fuel into cells. This basically means the body shifts to burning fatty acids for fuel more readily (which, according to science means LISS is the way to go at the start of your cycle) . When your period starts, your oestrogen and progesterone levels drop, which means you can access glycogen a lot easier. Put simply, this hormone shift means you can get access to energy far quicker. This means you should be able to push harder and get more out of HIIT workouts than you would during other times of the month
All this is well and good and basically means you can tailor your training to work in harmony with your body and your hormones. You can work out when you’re going to be hotter or colder. Stronger or better suited for endurance.
You should be careful training in extreme heat and humidity during the later part of the luteal phase because core temperature is higher than normal.
It’s recommended that you eat more fruits during the luteal phase to help with your blood sugar and keep hunger at bay.
You should try and get Vitamin D (pretty tough when you live in the UK but I’ll go with it…)
You should plan your diet around the extra calories being…. Blah, blah, blah you get my gist…
Have I ever done any of this? Quite simply, no. I never really notice to be honest. I know when I am bleeding and I know if it hurts and that’s about it. I don’t want to ignore the science as I find it really interesting and a huge point of this blog post is to encourage others to learn about their bodies, however, I doubt I would find it as interesting when I’m in crippling agony, fearful that if I sneeze too hard we’re going to be in a sticky situation. The reality is, there are two factors that might impact my session when I’m on my period.
- The Pain.
- The Pads.
So, let’s discuss this a little.
When you’re in agony, bloated and feeling rubbish you have got two choices. Sit on the sofa with a hot water bottle or go and smash your gym session. Usually I will drag myself there and get a decent session in but sometimes there is very little point. If I’m in agony and feel rubbish, I’m not going to have a good session. I find that training tends to help a little with the pain but, for me, cardio is a no go. The science says you have to work with your body, not against it, which I entirely agree with but maybe sometimes working with your body might be having a day off.
The pads are another dilemma. I don’t really wear tampons unless I really have to. It’s just personal preference, but it does mean that hitting the gym when I am on my period means Bridget Jones knickers and a pad that means if my leggings rise to much I look like I have a penis. Not exactly something you want when you’re training and want to feel good about your body. I spend a lot of my time when I’m wear a sanitary towel worrying if people can see the towel. What if someone notices? What if I have an accident? The problem here is not the pain, it’s the embarrassment of a natural bodily function I can do nothing about.
In the poll I conducted on Twitter, the results showed 27% of people who took part do not train when they are on their period.
I asked a couple of the ‘No’ voters why they decided not to and, for the most part it was feeling uncomfortable in that environment and fearing having an accident whilst training.
‘I just feel really awkward about the whole thing. I try and keep myself as covered up as possible when I’m on my period and you can’t really do that in the gym so I just don’t go. It’s annoying because it means not training for a week, but I’d rather that than people know I was on my period.’ – anonymous.
A few said it was the pain, however, did think that training sometimes helped with it. I think these results reveal a lot about, not gym culture as such, but simply the way in which periods are perceived. Listening to your body is so important when it comes to training and feeling comfortable and happy is absolutely necessary, however, it is tough when a week out of every month people feel they cannot train because of a natural bodily function.
On the plus side, 53% in the poll still go training and another 27% said it would depend.
‘Depends on how heavy. Super heavy, no chance. Moderate to light then yeah. I used to go to the gym and was always paranoid of a heavy flow overflowing and getting on the gym equipment’ – @thegameermum
People with periods can work with their body and smash workouts all throughout the month but hey, if you want to smash a chocolate bar and have a day off, that works too. There’s no shame in having periods. There is not shame in big pants and the outline of a sanitary towel (it can’t be helped in some legging) and there is no shame in taking a day off because your body needs it. Periods are shit and they hurt but they are natural and allow for one of life’s little pieces of magic so let’s work with our periods. Let’s learn about our bodies and let’s talk about menstruation.