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RAD BLOG

Training the Female athlete

Training the Female Athlete:

Hey ladies, ever wondered why some days you feel like you have lots of energy and you are on top of your game and other days you just feel really tired and slow? Ever struggled to manage your weight whether that be trying to lose weight or gain/maintain weight? Ever had your period stop and not known why? Well, be rest assured you’re not alone, the female body is a wondrous thing, however it is important that we respect that, and we adjust our training and nutrition to adapt to our ever changing bodies. Unfortunately we are often guided by training and nutrition information that has been researched with male participants as female participants are seen to have too much variability with the fluctuations in hormones throughout the menstrual cycle. The only problem being, is that we are not smaller versions of males, we are our own person with different and fluctuating needs, that means for us to be able to get the most out of our bodies and our training we need to adapt and change our training and nutritional needs in accordance with these fluctuations.

So yes ladies this post is going to talk periods and how best we can train around them to get the most from our training but also some dietary considerations we may need to make at different stages.

So lets discuss the menstrual cycle…..

Prior to puberty the development of both boys and girls is very similar with relatively the same body size, body composition and physiology (5). Once we hit puberty however there are key physical and physiological changes that occur for both sexes (5). Males have a significant increase in testosterone which results in increased muscle mass and height (5). While females have an increase in oestrogen which increases physical development, increasing fat tissue and resulting in the onset of menarche (or the menstrual cycle) (5).

A little more about the menstrual cycle. There are two key hormones that affect the menstrual cycle, oestrogen and progesterone (4,5). Oestrogen arises with the onset of puberty and the menstrual cycle it is produced to prepare the body for pregnancy (4,5). However, oestrogen also plays a role in bone and muscle strength as well as ligament and tendon stiffness. It helps to maintain normal cholesterol levels and affects brain, heart and skin health (4,5). Progesterone prepares the uterus for the potential of pregnancy by triggering the thickening of the lining in the uterus to accept a fertilized egg. It also causes the body to rely on fats for energy rather than glycogen, the body’s preferred fuel source (4,5).

A diagram depicting the fluctuations in hormones during the menstrual cycle:

There are four phases to the menstrual cycle each with varying hormone levels and consequently effects on the body.

Phase 1 (Period: Days 1-5):

Hormones and the physiological and psychological changes:

  • Hormones are at their lowest during this phase (4,5).
  • You may find you have changes in your mood leading to increased stress, potential accidents, poor reaction times and poor perception of exercise difficulty (4,5).
  • There is also a reduction in the body’s immune level response due to an increase in the bodies utilisation of magnesium and zinc (4,5).

Effect on training:

  • Initially during this stage it is important to allow the body to recover. It might be a good idea to reduce skill and precision training and include more simple low stress tasks (4,5).
  • You may initially want to reduce training volume load and include strength training (4,5).
  • As you progress to the mid to late stages of this phase you can include anaerobic and power-based activity, lactic acid based work and strength training (4,5).

Nutrition and it’s affect during this stage:

  • During this stage the body has a greater reliance on carbohydrates/glycogen for energy (3).
  • As the body is using more glycogen (carbohydrates) for fuel during this stage you may want to increase you carbohydrate intake (3).
  • You may also want to increase magnesium and Zinc intake during this phase to help increase the body’s level of immunity (3).

Phase 2 (Follicular Phase: Days 6-14):

Hormones and the physiological and psychological changes:

  • During this stage oestrogen levels are increasing to their highest (4,5).
  • Oestrogen has an anabolic effect for muscles and bones (building and strengthening muscles and bones), while there is also an increase in ligament laxity during this phase. Therefore injury risk is higher during this phase for injuries such as ACL and ligament related injuries (4,5).
  • There is an increase in glycogen storage as well as fat, protein, water and electrolyte stores (4,5).

Effect on training:

  • Include high intensity, low volume complex tasks (4,5).
  • Include anaerobic and power based activities as well as lactic acid based work and strength training (4,5).
  • Symptoms may vary during this stage from person to person but it is important to train appropriately, for some the focus may change to maintenance rather than improving physical capacities, however some may feel fine during this stage and be able to continue to push hard (4,5).

Nutrition and it’s affect during this stage:

  • As the body is using more glycogen (carbohydrates) for fuel during this stage you may want to increase you carbohydrate intake (3).
Some of the various symptoms women experience throughout the menstrual cycle:

Phase 3: (Ovulation: Days 15-23):

Hormones and the physiological and psychological changes:

  • Oestrogen levels start to drop before progesterone levels start to increase. Testosterone is at it’s peak during this phase (yes ladies we do still have testosterone in our body however we have much lower levels than that of men) (4,5). 

Effect on training:

  • Now is the time to do more strength and power training (4,5).
  • Intensity can be quite high during this phase (4,5).
  • Symptoms during this stage can vary from person to person so it is important to train appropriately according to your symptoms (4,5).

Nutrition and it’s affect during this stage:

  • If you are experiencing poor sleep quality during this phase you may like to increase your magnesium intake as magnesium levels have an affect on our sleep (3).
Example sources of Magnesium:

Phase 4: (Luteal phase: Days 24-28):

Hormones and the physiological and psychological changes:

  • Progesterone rises and oestrogen slightly elevates (4,5).
  • Progesterone causes increased inflammation and muscle breakdown, brain fog can also occur and temperature increases (0.3-1), therefore it is important to have adequate recovery during this phase (4,5).
  • There is an increase in glycogen stores in the liver and muscle tissue and a decrease in the blood stream. This will lead to a greater utilization of fat stores during this time (4,5).
  • There is a depression of blood lactate concentration (4,5).
  • There is the greatest retention of water, sodium, chloride and potassium during this stage potentially causing bloating (4,5).
  • There is greater protein breakdown during this stage leading to lower muscular endurance (4,5).

Effect on training:

  • Include high intensity, low volume complex tasks (4,5).
  • Include anaerobic and power based activities as well as some strength training, due to decreased blood lactate levels. Strength training may decrease however during this phase due to the increase in muscle breakdown (4,5).
  • Include low intensity and high volume aerobic work as the body has the ability to cope with low impact prolonged stressors at this time (4,5).

Nutrition and it’s affect during this stage:

  • The body has an increased reliance on fats rather than carbs during this time so it may be difficult to hit higher intensities for prolonged periods. It is therefore good during this phase to change the focus from long duration, high intensity work to working on more technical skills (3).
  • Maintain or increase protein intake to counteract  the increase in muscle breakdown (3).
  • There is an increase in sodium loss causing bloating, therefore you may want to increase salt intake during this phase to help reduce bloating (3). 
  • The body has an increased utilization of magnesium and zinc during this phase lowering the bodies immune levels. Therefore it is important to increase magnesium and zinc intake during this time (3).
  • Increase omega-3 fat intake to help manage inflammation (3).
Example sources of Zinc:

Now that we have some understanding of just how much the menstrual cycle can affect our training and just how important it is for us to respond appropriately to this to gain the most out of our training. We now need to take the next step and look at tracking our period and the symptoms that follow it. There are many great apps out there that can help you do this but one of my favourites is the FitrWomen app. This app allows you to track the days of your period but also the symptoms you may be having, it then provides you with some helpful tips on how best to train and fuel yourself during the various stages. One of the great reasons why we should track our period is that we are then able to learn about our bodies, know how we are going to feel at certain times, but also how best to fuel and adapt our training to allow us to get the most from our body during the various phases.

Oral Contraceptive:

Now some of you may be asking how does this change if I am on the oral contraceptive pill and a great question to ask. As we know the oral contraceptive pill is designed to prevent a Woman from getting pregnant, it does this by preventing the natural rise and fall of progesterone and oestrogen in the body throughout the cycle. This means that the two hormones stay at a stagnant level throughout the cycle until it is time for you to have your period at which time both oestrogen and progesterone drop (2).

So what does this mean for your training and nutrition. For the most part it will mean that these things can stay very consistent throughout the month with you experiencing less symptoms associated with the natural cycle (2). With the exception being when you are on the period phase where you will still experience all the same symptoms as usual (2). Even though your hormone levels are kept relatively consistent when you are on the oral contraceptive pill it is still important that we listen to our body and respond appropriately (2). 

A diagram of hormone levels when taking the oral contraceptive pill:

But what if I don’t get my period?

Some may think this is odd but it occurs far more often then you would think. When a female has an absence of her period it is called amenorrhea (1). This can occur when an individual has increased their training loads with inadequate nutrition (1). Meaning that an individual has increased their training load without increasing the volume of food they are eating as well making sure that food meets their nutritional requirements to fuel not only their body for every day living but also for their increased training load (1). It can be accompanied with an eating disorder, however this is not always the case, and can be due to a lack of education and awareness (1).  When there is a cessation of the menstrual cycle this can lead to fertility issues later on if not dealt with. It is difficult to determine the prevalence of this disorder however it could be as high as 50% of athletic populations (1). As with all previous nutritional information in this post it is only a guide and if you need more guidance with this it is best to seek the advice of an accredited Dietitian.

So if you only learn one thing from this blog post then I hope it is to become informed about your body and treat your body the way it deserves to be treated, with care. Remember that we are not a mini man nor are two women the same, so it is important that we do not compare ourselves and our abilities to other males or with each other and that instead we choose to further improve ourselves for ourselves.

References:

  1. Dusek, T. Influences of high-intensity training on menstrual cycle disorders in athletes. Croatian Medical Journal. 42(1): 79-82, 2001.
  2. Larson, B. Cox, A. Colbey, C. Drew, M. McGuire, H. et al. Inflammation and oral contraceptive use in female athletes before the Rio Olympic Games. Frontiers in Physiology. 11: 497-455, 2020.
  3. Manore, M. Nutritional needs of the female athlete. Clinics in Sports Medicine. 18(3): 549-563, 1999.
  4. Oleka, C. Use of the menstrual cycle to enhance female sports performance and decrease sports-related injury. Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology. 18: 318-326, 2019.
  5. Pitchers, G. Elliott-Sale, K. Considerations for coaches training female athletes. Professional Strength and Conditioning Journal. 55: 19-29, 2019.

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