Three ways to use your menstrual cycle to boost performance
- Plan your hard and easy sessions based on your monthly calendar.
- Boost your protein intake.
- Lift heavy weights during strength training
I’m a man. We’ll acknowledge that right away.
So the topic of female cyclists and runners using their menstrual cycle to boost performance is obviously not something I have personal experience with.
What I know about women’s menstrual cycles comes (besides living with my wife and teenage daughter) from research, especially Roar by Dr. Stacy Sims and Selene Yeager, which I’ve read, reread, marked up, and read again.
So we’ll acknowledge that anything I say about menstrual cycles is fraught with peril!
However, I work with several female clients, and using menstrual cycles to boost performance is a real thing.
If you’re not getting a period, something may be wrong
First of all, get Roar. This article is, at best, an overview of how female athletes can use their menstrual cycle to boost performance.
Second, especially if you are a young female athlete and NOT getting a period, I’d suggest you talk with primary health care provider.
Not getting a period, while formerly perhaps a prize for elite athletes, is often just a sign of overtraining.
Maghalie Rochette is a Canadian national cyclocross champion and gravel racer. She regularly placed in the top ten in World Cup cross races in Europe last season.
She talked about how, as an elite athlete, she didn’t have a period for many years.
However, once she started to question that, and then read Roar, she changed her thinking.
… it was shocking to know that not having my period could be due to the fact that my body didn’t have the energy needed to accomplish this natural human function. This led me to question, if it doesn’t have enough energy for this, does it really have all the energy it needs to perform at its best?
Using your menstrual cycle to boost performance
The essential thinking here from Sims is that women can use their menstrual cycle to boost performance.
So the first way to use your menstrual cycle to boost performance is to plan hard and easy days based on your monthly calendar.
The more estrogen/progesterone in the system, the more challenging heavy training will be.
So Sims argues that the days of PMS cycle should essentially be a rest week, and the days of her period should be heavier training days.
Using menstrual cycles to build to Lakefront Marathon
I recently worked with a client to build up to the Lakefront Marathon in Milwaukee using Sims’ work and menstrual cycle to boost performance.
Since my client, who is in her early 20s, was also on birth control pills, knowing her cycle was simple.
We created this weekly schedule for Days 1-22 (Day 1 is the start of her period):
- One long endurance day
- Two running days with intervals
- Every other day strength training, often in combination with an easy run.
- One day off.
Then for Days 23-28 (PMS Cycle), we’ll have three days off, two short easy runs, and one long easy run.
Boosting female performance requires more protein
A second way to use a menstrual cycle to boost performance is by adding more protein to meet the daily demands.
Women generally require regular protein intake of 1g per pound of body weight
Sims says that women simply do not get enough protein to build and maintain muscle strength.
And since women cannot utilize protein and carbohydrates in big quantities all at once (in one big meal, for example), the protein intake needs to be spread out throughout the day.
Sims says that women need 20 to 25g of protein before and immediately after training, and then again in the evening to help muscle growth during sleep.
I often have to recommend that women consume protein powder drinks to get enough protein.
Increased strength training boosts performance
A third element in using a menstrual cycle to boost performance is strength training.
One of the biggest myths about women’s training and strength building has been about strength training.
Traditionally women do cardio classes or lift small weights a lot of times.
And while there is value to lifting light weight (if you do enough repetitions to build fatigue), Sims says that for building muscle strength, women need to throw some big weight around.
An important part of my client’s success in using her menstrual cycle to boost performance was her time in the gym.
We created a strength program that involved two to three days a week of doing heavy weight lifting for five to eight repetitions.
We focused on hip hinges like deadlifts, squat movements, then upper body and core work.
The goal of strength training is not to build cardiovascular endurance but to build muscle strength by fatiguing the muscle, then feeding it protein to gain strength.
We cut down to once a week as we got closer to the marathon.
Slowly build endurance capacity
In addition to the calendar, protein, and strength work with her menstrual cycle to boost performance, we also did a lot of running!
My client progressively built up the distance on her weekly long easy run.
She had more time on the weekend, so we used the time to add mileage each week until she reached about 18 to 20 miles several weeks out from the marathon.
During the week, she did two shorter runs that will involve intervals and one or two more runs that were short easy runs to build aerobic capacity.
The interval training was designed to build different muscle fibers, increase aerobic capacity, and improve running form.
She was able to build up her endurance through the training time and successfully completed her marathon in under four hours!
We learned a few things in the process: she needs more speed work to improve her breathing capacity (she has exercise-induced asthma), more breath work training, and more variety in her nutrition.
Her efforts to use her menstrual cycle to boost performance were really effective and eye-opening.
Want to know more about what you can achieve?
My purpose with Simple Endurance Coaching is to help cyclists and runners achieve their goals with more strength, endurance, and mobility.
If you liked this article, please share it with others.
Sign up on the website to get a free copy of my e-booklet, “The Simple and Mostly Complete Guide to Strength Training for Everyday Endurance Athletes.”
You can also opt in to receive my weekly blog posts about what works in endurance sports.
Contact me or sign up for Virtual Coffee so we can discuss your goals, ask questions, and talk about making your endurance training more effective, fun, and Simple.
Paul Warloski is a:
- USA Cycling Level 3 Coach
- RRCA Running Coach
- Training Peaks Level 2 Coach
- RYT-200 Yoga Instructor
- Certified Personal Trainer