Hormonal fluctuations during menstrual cycle can cause some adverse symptoms in women. The symptoms experienced are different for different women and can change from one cycle to the other. However, most of these physical and emotional symptoms tend to occur in a predictable pattern in every cycle. For example, women typically feel high on energy during the middle of the cycle, anxious and depressed just before periods and low on energy during their periods. Once this pattern is understood, women can manage or even overcome these symptoms through appropriate interventions like nutrition and physical exercises. Hence tracking menstrual cycle and its impact is crucial in managing and enhancing sports performance of women. It may take three to four months or even more for women to understand this pattern.
Tracking Menstruation Cycle
Chelsea Football Club was the first football club in the world to start tailoring its players’ training to their menstrual cycles. English Institute of Sport (EIS) also rolled out regular saliva testing to track the rise and fall of the hormones estrogen and progesterone that are key to menstrual health. As per them, even if the cycles are regular, there could be hormonal imbalances that could create havoc on a woman athletes emotional and physical well-being which would in turn affect her performance. Apart from using this data to plan training schedules, they also aim to correct hormonal imbalances through nutrition or other interventions.
The U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) won its fourth World Cup in 2019. Before the world cup, the players were tracking not only their diets and workouts but also their period cycles. Dawn Scott, high performance coach for USWNT, credited the use of period tracking as one of the strategies the team deployed that helped them win.
Figure 2:The U.S. Women’s National team celebrates winning the Women’s World Cup, July 7, 2019 in Lyon, France.
With increased awareness about the impact of different phases on the performance of women athletes, many athletes have started using specialized apps to track the menstrual cycle to enhance performance and to reduce the risk of injuries. For example, there are apps through which athletes can enter the details of their last cycle, its duration and the symptoms and emotional state during each phase. The app can then provide personalised training and nutritional suggestions. By consistently inputting this data into the app, players can gain a better understanding of how their training can differ at various times in their cycles and adjust accordingly. They might find that some days are better for strength training as energy levels are higher, whereas on others, when energy levels are lower, stretching and light exercise might be better options.
Figure 3:Emelia Górecka
British middle and long distance runner Emelia Górecka says the app she used helped log her symptoms and adapt her training regime. “After a few months I began to notice patterns and could relate my symptoms to different aspects of training. The app would then supply tips and information around the four phases of my cycle. For example, disrupted sleep in phase four of my cycle is very prominent for me, so this is something I try to keep on top of – particularly in hard training blocks and around races. This includes eating foods that are rich in melatonin before bed, such as bananas.”
Role of Good Nutrition
Maintaining a healthy diet can go a long way in preventing menstrual discomfort. A 2016 study of 250 women found significant improvement in period pain in women who maintained a nutritious diet, exercise regularly, and reduced stress.
Figure 4:Image credit: ICMR-National Institute of Nutrition
During menstruation, it’s a good idea to avoid foods that cause bloating and water retention. Some of the foods that are notorious for causing severe period pain and discomfort are:
- Fatty foods
- Carbonated beverages
- Salty foods
Reducing or cutting out these foods can help alleviate pain due to menstrual cramps. In addition, it is also important to include the below food categories to maintain good menstrual health.
- Fruits and Vegetables rich in different vitamins, minerals, and fibre.
- Nuts (Walnuts, almonds), and Seeds (Flax seeds, pumpkin seeds) are rich in manganese, which eases cramps. They also contain antioxidant properties, which reduce swelling and inflammation.
- Green leafy vegetables are iron rich and are very essential for menstruating women to avoid anaemia.
- Calcium rich foods (dairy, green leafy vegetables and almonds)
- Foods rich in Vitamin E (like broccoli, peanuts, almonds, spinach)
- Whole grains containing fibre and carbohydrates
- Legumes, sprouts, milk, eggs, lean meat, and fish are good sources of protein
- It is also very important to keep oneself hydrated. Drinking water prevents the body from retaining water and helps to avoid bloating during menstruation
Apart from the above-mentioned general guidelines, eating according to the hormone levels can also be beneficial in tackling menstrual symptoms. Some important diet recommendations for each phase are given in Table 1
Table 1 Diet Recommendation in each menstrual phase
Planning Physical Training
Follicular phase : The first half of the menstrual cycle is dominated by a rise in estrogen, which blunts hunger. The resting metabolic rate is lower than average, and body temperature is normal. The body uses glucose as easy energy because of higher estrogen levels. Estrogen also promotes muscle building over muscle breakdown and hydration needs are lower than average. Hence this phase is good for sprinting and power workouts. According to Dr. Georgie Bruinvels, a U.K.-based research scientist, the body’s ability to adapt and respond is better in this half, so it is a good time to do high-intensity workout. However, during this time there is less comfort in long runs and using glycogen. So, if an athlete must go for long runs and high endurance activity, she needs to load up on carbohydrates during this time.
Luteal Phase: The second half of the cycle is dominated by a significant increase in progesterone and a smaller increase in estrogen. Resting metabolic rate is increased by 6-8%. Fat usage as an energy source is increased in this phase and glycogen storage and use are also increased. This is a good time for long endurance workouts and races. Muscle building is not as easy and in fact, muscle breakdown is a risk. Hydration needs are increased, as sweating begins at lower than normal temperatures. Hence, the body may need more electrolytes during workouts to avoid hyponatremia.
Exercises To Alleviate Menstrual Cramps
Many women have severe cramps or pain when they have their periods. This cramping is usually experienced in the abdomen, hip area, lower back, and upper legs. The pain is usually worst on the day before the period and on the first day of the period. Some amount of stretching and moderate intensity exercises can help reduce the pain. For example, yoga and breathing exercises can be a good way to help reduce the pain caused by cramping and to reduce stress and anxiety. Some of the yoga stretches are supposed to be good for reducing pain due to cramps.
Figure 5: Stretches To Relieve Menstrual Cramps
Tracking a woman athlete’s menstrual cycle and monitoring the impact of each phase on her mental and physical performance can go a long way in helping her perform consistently throughout the menstrual cycle. Hence it is important for athletes to keep a track of their cycles and the associated symptoms. The athlete’s support system (coaches, managers and physios) should encourage proper tracking so that necessary actions based on scientific studies can be taken to help improve athlete’s performance. The right nutrition and appropriate physical training can even help enhance the performance and confidence of women athletes during important competitive events.