Let's face it, periods are a crappy part of being a lady. There shouldn't be a taboo or any embarrassment talking about it either, it's natural for women and that's that. Like pooping, everybody poops! We know that we have a monthly cycle where our hormones break out in a civil war, and our emotions and weird food cravings are just collateral damage. So let's look at it from the exercise perspective and see how these hormones and mood changes effects our monthly cycling.
Day 1 - Day 7
Let's take day 1 as being the first bleed of the month. For this week, your body sees an increase in Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) which is responsible for helping the ovaries prepare an egg to release later in the month. This tends to be the time when you feel the least amount of motivation to get up and do anything. The only thing you want to do during this first week is to cocoon yourself in blankets, comfort eat the cramps away and kidnap the cat and make him love you. However, this is actually a great time to get out on the bike and exercise because your oestrogen levels are fairly low and for this reason, your body uses carbohydrates as fuel rather than fat.
Hard training is advised with an increase of water intake to compensate for fluid loss. Exercising can help stretch and relax the pelvic muscles responsible for cramps as well.
Day 7 - Day 14
Now the bleeding has stopped (phew!), around day 14 your ovaries will release a hopeful egg which only lasts for a couple of days. Your oestrogen levels are on the rise and this has been linked to an increase in "bendiness" of your Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL). This is the ligament that runs through the knee and for a peculiar reason, it's at a higher risk of tearing during this time. Be careful with those knees if you plan long uphill climbs!
With the rise in oestrogen, there is also a rise in testosterone which is great for sculpting muscle mass and building connective tissue between bones and muscle. Because of this, women tend to gain more strength and muscle during the first half of their cycle, rather than the second half.
Day 15 - Day 21 - Day 28
This is the second half of your cycle now, also known as the Luteal Phase.
During this time, your oestrogen levels plummet, along with our energy. Progesterone rises which primary function is to help facilitate pregnancy. You start to feel sluggish again due to fluid retention which makes you feel bloated, and a decreased in serotonin production occurs. Your body temperature can rise up to a whole degree Celsius which makes you feel more sweaty during exercise and uncomfortable. The body switches to fat fuel, rather than carb fuels. And what better way to help alleviate these feelings,.. yep, EXERCISE! Push through it and get the blood pumping for the happy-chemical high with endorphins, dopamine and BDNF!
*A regular cycle is approximately 28 days, but it's not uncommon for it to last up to 35! We can calculate our cycle length from day 1 = first bleed, and the final day being the one before the next bleed.
How to help relieve menstrual cramps and the overall unpleasantness
There are plenty of things out there which can help alleviate menstrual pains, and some of us have our own ways of dealing with it. Here are a few methods to help with the symptoms of menstruation. First and foremost, maintaining a healthy balanced diet...
Keep up fluid levels with water and water-based foods! Warm beverages increase the blood flow to the skin which can help relieve cramp pains. Water-based foods such as celery, watermelon and lettuce also help maintain fluids in the body.
Calcium has been linked to helping with menstrual cramps too so there are the obvious dairy products that will help, but I wouldn't advise drinking milk on the trails. Calcium-rich foods are things like sesame seeds and almonds which are great to snack on whilst riding.
Ginger has been known to help with the common cold and allergies but also helps with period pains too. A suggestion would be to grate a small amount of raw ginger and mix it with hot water to help soothe aches.
Exercise releases BDNF and Endorphins which are the happy chemicals that act as natural pain relief and mood lifters.
Applying heat to the abdomen with a hot water bottle, heat pads or a reluctant cat will also help soothe cramps.
Foods to avoid during menstruation are, sadly, the BEST foods, and the ones we crave the most: alcohol, fatty foods and fizzy drinks. These all make us retain water and bloats us out which is uncomfortable and makes us feel a little bit sloth-like. Unfortunately, for tea addicts like me, caffeine should also be reduced during this time as it can increase tension in the body.
And there we have it! A bite-size look into the mysteries of the menstrual cycle and its effect on exercise, and the ways in which we can make it easier on ourselves.
It's tricky when we start to consider the plethora of contraceptives out there as well as a whole variety of things that can alter your menstrual cycle. If you have questions about your cycle, contraceptives and the like, it's a good idea to speak with a healthcare professional about individual impacts.