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The Female Athlete - Menstruation & Training

As more and more women participate in competition and intense physical exercise programmes, having an understanding of the menstrual cycle can be essential to optimal performance.

When talking about the menstrual cycle, it is key not just to think about those few days around menstruation – it is about the whole cycle.

This is because the primary female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, rise and fall throughout the entire menstrual cycle.

As these hormones travel in the blood, they can affect everything from how athletes respond to training to how they recover and even to how their bodies metabolise or breakdown food for energy.

There may be certain points in the menstrual cycle where the risk of soft tissue injuries can be increased, due to the effects of hormone fluctuations on ligaments, muscles and tendons.

For example, the time most associated with an increase in risk of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, the key stabilising ligament in the knee, is when oestrogen levels peak, just prior to ovulation.

This is because high oestrogen levels are linked with increases in joint laxity and changes in neuromuscular control. This means that the stability of the knee may alter and the muscles surrounding them may activate differently.

Hormones are also thought to be a contributing factor to injury by their effect on neuromuscular changes, which can affect joint alignment, therefore predisposing an athlete to injury.

It does not mean that an athlete should stop training at certain stages during their cycle, but, instead, by tracking and monitoring their cycle, women can adapt their preparation, training and nutrition in advance, to lower the risk of ligament, and other injuries, during this window.

Estrogen, which rises in the first half of the cycle, can have a positive effect on mood, energy, and strength so women are more likely to feel good and experience improved physical strength during this phase.

Women are more likely to get the most benefit from a strength or high-intensity training session as the repair of muscle tissue is thought to be better at this time, and energy and strength levels rise to a peak.

In the second part of the cycle, progesterone rises significantly. Body temperature is also higher during this phase — body temp shoots up by at least 0.4 degrees celsius after ovulation and stays high until menstruation.

As a result, women may find that they don't have as much endurance during the luteal phase - may not be able to hit max lifts, and may feel more lethargic in training compared to the first part of the cycle.

Decreased performance is a perfectly normal experience in the luteal phase of the cycle.

Some women find it may be beneficial to schedule rest days during the luteal phase.

That doesn't mean to entirely skip training in this phase, as there will still be improvements from strength training in the luteal phase. However, some athletes and coaches opt to alter training in this phase, by reducing overall load, using moderate weights, and shift towards mixed style training, like metabolic conditioning or circuit-style training.

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