Can menstrual cycle monitoring help improve athletic performance?
Updated: May 19, 2020
Although I was nowhere near having the athletic abilities to compete in the Olympics, I was an athlete in high school. From what I can remember, I had good and bad days in terms of my performance on the volleyball court and on the softball mound. Did my fluctuating hormones and the timing of my menstrual cycle contribute to this? Based on the research, it seems that it might have. I remember getting my period for the first time about an hour before a volleyball game. It’s a good thing our uniform bottoms were black, but the feelings of insecurity caused by the surprise and the discomfort from wearing a bulky pad were a distraction. Even if physiological changes due to hormones had not affected my performance, my psychological state definitely had a strong influence on how well I played.
When monitoring the menstrual cycle for exercise and sports performance, the menstrual cycle can be looked at based on ovarian function, and differentiated based on levels of estrogen and progesterone. There are 3 phases, which include:
1. Follicular phase (both estrogen and progesterone are low), which goes from day 1 of menses to around the 9thday of the cycle. During this phase, estrogen is secreted and the egg or ovum is developing.
2. Ovulatory phase (progesterone is low, estrogen is high), which lasts for 5 days starting around day 9 of the menstrual cycle. During this phase, estrogen levels increase and the egg is released.
3. Luteal phase (both estrogen and progesterone are high), which starts at ovulation and lasts about 14 days until menstruation begins. The corpus luteum, which remains after releasing the egg secretes progesterone. When the corpus luteum stops secreting progesterone, the menstrual bleeding starts.
Hormonal fluctuations throughout the menstrual cycle result in various psychological, physiological, anatomical and biochemical changes, which may influence sports performance in positive or negative ways. Times when you have back pain, abdominal pain, nervousness or fatigue may not be the best time for a major event. Knowing when you will have bothersome menstrual bleeding or menstrual cycle related sleep troubles, may allow you to better plan ahead.
Some other potential benefits of monitoring your menstrual cycle, and possible helpful adaptations to training include:
Follicular phase (first 1-2 weeks):
- Energy levels and pain tolerance may be higher, so this may be a good time to optimize higher intensity workouts. This may also be when you’re most motivated and likely to exercise or start a new fitness regimen.
- Leg resistance training at this time may result in greater lean body mass gains.
Ovulatory phase (around mid-cycle):
- Achievement of your personal best for quadricep strength may be most likely to occur during ovulation.
- More anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries occur, which could be due to an increased laxity of the ACL.
- It may be helpful to carbohydrate load for high intensity exercise as estrogen may hamper pre-exercise carbohydrate storage.
- Estrogen changes the availability of neurotransmitters like serotonin in the brain, which may influence mood, alertness, and cognition.
Luteal phase (last ~14 days):
- Fewer than expected ACL injuries occur.
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) occurs 7-10 days before menstruation, and may interfere with exercise.
- Fluid retention may occur resulting in weight gain.
- Onset of sweating is delayed due to an elevated basal body temperature, which could make exercise in heat more difficult.
- In up to 40% of women with asthma, asthma is aggravated before and around the time of menstruation.
Understanding how the menstrual cycle impacts your psychological, emotional and physiological well being may help with optimizing fitness training, sports performance and injury prevention. More research is needed in this area of women’s health, but available evidence does suggest that monitoring various parameters throughout the month may be helpful when building a training regimen or fitness plan. The needs and goals of every sport and body are different, so an individualized approach is necessary.
Janse de Jonge X, Han A, and Thompson B. Oral contraception and the menstrual cycle in exercise science and sports medicine research – Should it be considered?: A review of menstrual cycle verification methods used in research investigating exercise performance over the menstrual cycle. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. December 2015, 19: e29-d30.
Wikstrom-Frisen L, Boraxbekk CJ, and Jenriksson-Larsen K. Effects on power, strength and lean body mass of menstrual/oral contraceptive cycle based resistance training. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.2017, 57(1-2): 43-52.