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Let's talk about periods

This post is a personal reflection on some things I’ve noticed recently about my own cycle, and how I’m adapting my training plan to take account of these. It’s not an in-depth analysis of how periods affect training, or how you can match your training to your cycle, as I’m not an expert. There are resources out there on this; I’ll put a few links at the end if this piece prompts you to want to learn more, or start to synchronise your own training. A bit of preamble to start with…


About six months ago I made the decision to stop using the contraceptive hormones I’d taken for around the last ten years. I did this because I wanted my body to have the chance to go through a ‘normal’ hormonal cycle; the contraception I chose was one which completely suppressed my period, so that I bled only very occasionally and erratically. I’m not here to judge anyone else’s contraceptive choices, but for me this felt like the right time to let my body return to its natural cycle.


I knew that this choice would come with consequences, both positive and negative. On the positive side, I’m more in tune with how my body and mind change through the month – I have noticed a monthly change in my weight, my body shape, my mood, and my energy levels. I’m appreciating the chance to attend to what I want or need at each of these different points, and trying to meet my body where it’s at, rather than where I might wish it to be (particularly on the days when I’m feeling heavy and sluggish!).


On the negative side, I don’t enjoy my period at all. One positive is that it’s quite short; I only really bleed for two days, maybe three at a push. Of course, the downside of this is that there is a lot of blood to come out in quite a short space of time. On day two, it feels like my entire uterus is attempting to drop out of my body; I need to use five or six super-heavy tampons over the course of just one day, and my body has to deal with replenishing the lost red blood cells quite quickly. Annoyingly, this happened over the past weekend when I spent two full days out on the hill, so of course ‘loo’ stops had to be planned and supplies carried. I’ll probably cover the art of changing your tampon behind a rock in a future post!


This week, in the days following my period, I’ve noticed a drastic decrease in my energy levels. I feel sluggish, light-headed, and weak – very reminiscent of the months in 2015-16 when I had acute anaemia (which is a story for another time!). My run on Tuesday was laboured and slow, and when I woke up on Wednesday I had to go back to bed and lie down almost immediately. While lying there waiting for the room to stop spinning, I did a bit of data-digging, looking back through my training log and my cycle log. I quickly noticed a pattern: for the past four cycles, I have felt this way in the days immediately after my period, leading to missed or curtailed sessions, and on one quite memorable (and embarrassing) occasion almost fainting in a friend’s kitchen.


I explained all this to my coach, who immediately took this week’s tough session out of my plan and moved it to next week. We looked ahead to the next cycle and predicted when I would next need to have a few days of lighter training. I’ll also be making a note to add steak to the shopping list. I’m very poor at absorbing iron (hence the anaemic episode) so I have to eat quite large amounts of red meat to top myself back up, but there are other options if you’re not fond of cow (poultry, seafood, dark green/leafy veg, and beans are all good options). I’m going to keep an eye on this pattern to see if it continues in future months, and see whether there’s anything I can do to minimise the effects by being proactive with my diet.


It was also interesting to note the effect on my run today, as seen in the picture below. Today's run is on the right, and the same route in May on the left. Today I ran over 30 seconds per kilometre slower, but with my average heart rate three beats per minute higher than the equivalent session just over a month ago. It was hot and sunny today, which will also have contributed to the reduction in pace, but it’s another great argument for training by effort, rather than by output – if I had attempted to match that pace today I would have been doing a really tough tempo workout, not the easy to steady run that was planned.



The next step for me in all of this will be trying to track the points in the month when I feel strong and filled with energy; hopefully if I can see a pattern to these times too it will mean that we can put the biggest days of my training plan there so that I can reap the benefit. At times I miss the days of not having to worry about any of this, but I am quite excited to continue learning more about myself and how I can train in a way that maximises my natural state at different times through the month.


Links:



This is quite a balanced article which covers the ideas of ‘cycle syncing’ in all aspects of your life, not just exercise, but it acknowledges that there’s not a massive amount of research evidence to support the ideas suggested.



Not always a fan of Runners’ World (clickbait, anyone?) but this article is helpful, as well as suggesting a couple of further resources which I’ll be adding to my reading list.

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