Does the menstrual cycle impair training performance?

In the course of my research for my presentation at the Structured Training Seminar in NYC next week (check it out here), I came across a surprising thing. Surprising because it is one of those soundbites you hear repeated frequently enough, yet I had never really sat down and researched the answer. You often hear:

“Women can’t perform as well during their menstrual cycle. This should be taken into consideration when programming.”

The topic of the presentation is programming for women. Yet, the statement above, was surprisingly not supported by research as a black and white fact. In fact, all the research I came across found no significant differences in performance during menstruation. Here are several examples:

“Physiological Differences Between Genders; Implications for Sports Conditioning”.

This study found no difference in performance during the menstrual cycle for women. It also found no significant differences in the relative response to progressive strength training and aerobic training. Women showed some disadvantage when training in heat, but not when matched to men for surface area:mass, VO2 max and percentage body fat.

“Effects of menstrual cycle on exercise performance.”

“These findings suggest that regularly menstruating female athletes, competing in strength-specific sports and intense anaerobic/aerobic sports, do not need to adjust for menstrual cycle phase to maximise performance.  For prolonged exercise performance, however, the menstrual cycle may have an effect. Even though most research suggests that oxygen consumption, heart rate and rating of perceived exertion responses to sub-maximal steady-state exercise are not affected by the menstrual cycle, several studies report a higher cardiovascular strain during moderate exercise in the mid-luteal phase. Nevertheless, time to exhaustion at sub-maximal exercise intensities shows no change over the menstrual cycle.”

“No effect of menstrual cycle phase on fuel oxidation during exercise in rowers.”

“In conclusion, our results demonstrated no effect of menstrual cycle phase on substrate oxidation and blood lactate concentration during rowing exercise at 70% of VO(2max) in athletes. Normally menstruating female rowers should not be concerned about their menstrual cycle phase with regard to substrate oxidation in everyday training.”

Now, of course there is a balance to this, as the body is not separate from the brain, and many more factors beyond just whether or not “you can perform physically just as well because research said so”, comes into play. This diagram from this paper shows the breakdown of variables well:

Picture 16

A holistic approach to performance takes into consideration more than just the chemicals, especially brain function (I JUST WANT TO LIE DOWN AND EAT CHOCOLATE), sensory-motor (you managed to walk into a wall cause you were spaced out), and sensory perception (DON’T TOUCH ME WHEN IM ON MY PERIOD!). Yet, the other stuff seems to function just fine from a strictly physical standpoint (though brain and body are never separate).

Picture 17

“Physical fitness is frequently defined in terms of aerobic capacity, anaerobic capability, muscle endurance and strength, flexibility, and body fat percentage, but actual athletic performance is much more complex, with neuromuscular, sensorimotor, psychomotor, cognitive, and psychological functions all coming into play (Fig. 4 ). There are significant genetic inheritance effects on various components such as peak oxygen uptake and anaerobic power (134). Therefore, both nature and nurture (genetic factors and training) are involved in determining athletic prowess (135). Finally, the human spirit is of such tenacity that the ultimate determinate of success and athletic performance may actually reside within the brain—according to the central governor model (CGM) of Noakes.”

“Although the majority of research to date suggests that regularly menstruating female athletes do not need to adjust their MC (menstrual cycle) to maximize performance, it is difficult to extrapolate controlled laboratory findings from a study population to an individual competitor on the playing field. It is critical for each woman to monitor her own physiological  responses and to listen to her body.”

This paper concluded something similar to the one above: “Statistically significant data may or may not have clinical or performance relevance. By the same token, a statistically nonsignificant change may mean the difference between first and second place to an elite athleteFor an athlete concerned about maximizing performance, individual variability in menstrual cycle changes to various performance parameters must be considered. It is difficult to predict how accurately controlled laboratory findings from a study population apply to an individual competitor on the playing field.”

Bottom line:

So far, the research has not shown a significant disadvantage to performance while menstruating. Some women will have knock-down-drag-out periods, where significantly intense exercise might just not be possible or a good idea, but so far there is nothing that says you shouldn’t exercise, can’t perform as well, or need to be careful. If anything, regular exercise benefits all hormonal processes in the body.

Performance is a combination of physical and mental variables. BUT, knowing that your body is still capable of performance, especially at an average level (an elite athlete may need to be more picky with their variables, including the effects of menstruation on their mentality and attitude) and may in fact help reduce PMS symptoms and contribute to better energy levels and feelings of well-being during your monthly…… there’s no good reason NOT to exercise, and no reason to believe that your performance will be impaired.

Besides, since you want more carbs, you might as well use them eh?

“Exercise releases endorphins, endorphins make you happy, and happy people just don’t kill their husband.” Legally Blonde

Sounds like common sense.

The research pool is not large on this topic and you have to remember that the exercise intensities tested, sample populations, and methodology vary, but there seems to be decent support so far to chill out about exercise during your menstrual cycle, and it might even help despite how hateful you feel towards the world 😛

Go ahead and take it out on a barbell.

Picture 18


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  1. I wonder if somewhere around the luteal phase your body just wants more calories-hence the sweet cravings which I think is more of a social conditioning that signals that your body just wants more calories, not necessarily carbs. I definitely notice a lack of stamina around this time, but on the occasion that I decide to eat extra calories, that magic happens where I lift better and wake up leaner.

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