Period Tracking Can Help You Run Your Best All Month Long

Woman trail running through the woods

Throughout our lifetimes, women and girls are told to be quiet about their periods and move throughout the day as they would normally. Yet, as athletes and runners, we monitor our macro intake, hydration, heart rate and sleep. Why ignore one of your body’s other regular processes?

I’ll never forget when one of my sixth grade classmates clutched her abdomen in the locker room, her eyes welling with tears. “What’s the problem in here?” shouted our basketball coach. When Elizabeth mentioned her debilitating cramps, Coach told her to toughen up and run laps just like everyone else, because periods are “nothing to cry about.”

If you’re like the majority of women, periods can be something to cry about. Pelvic pain and cramping can keep athletes on the sidelines, girls out of school and women out of work. But it’s not just menstrual pain that impacts the performance of women and girls — hormonal fluctuations throughout the menstrual cycle can also affect the body’s tissues.

Tracking your cycle for athletic performance isn’t about identifying which days you’ll perform better than others, because there are no “weak” days; women have achieved peak performance during all points of the menstrual cycle. Women persevere through pain, making us stronger, better competitors. And regular running might actually help ease PMS symptoms.

Period tracking is about maximizing your performance and minimizing injury based on the changes taking place in your body.

A woman wears running lights at night

What Runners Should Know About Their Menstrual Cycles

Hacking Your Run During Your Cycle

People have varying cycle lengths, but the average is about 28 days (23-30 days to be exact). The first day of your cycle is the first day of your period. The next two-ish weeks are called the luteal phase. At the end of this phase, ovulation occurs. The next two weeks are called the follicular phase.

During the luteal phase, your ovaries produce estrogen. Progesterone, a hormone that prepares a woman’s body for the potential of pregnancy, rises after you ovulate. Then, during menstruation, both estrogen and progesterone decrease.

Estrogen levels impact performance by changing the way you metabolize fats and sugars. When estrogen is high, fat is used as fuel while carbs are conserved. Running a marathon right before you ovulate? You might need more carbs than usual.

Progesterone affects how your body processes protein: The hormone increases the rate at which your body uses protein. Hitting the trail a few days after ovulation? You might need some extra protein in your morning smoothie.

Neither strength nor oxygen intake is believed to be impacted by menstrual phase, though. However, endurance activities, like running, might be impacted by ovulation. Ovulation causes a slight increase in your core body temperature. Science suggests this temperature increase causes women to reach exhaustion sooner during and around the time of ovulation.

If you’re near the time of ovulation, be mindful of this temperature increase to hack your body temperature. Stay hydrated and be mindful of your clothing. If it’s a training day, think about doing it indoors where you can control the temperature.

How to Track Your Period

There’s a host of technology available to help you track your period. Phone and watch apps like Clue and Flo let you log period data including bleeding, cramping and mood. There’s even a wearable device called Ava that collects biophysical data as you sleep to tell you when you’re ovulating.

If you prefer to go old-school, all you need is a dedicated notebook. Keep it beside your bed and each night before you go to sleep, log your bleeding pattern (heavy, medium, light, spotting, none), cramping, mood, appetite and any other factors that vary for you throughout your cycle.

After three months of consistent tracking, you will begin to establish a pattern, making it easier for you to predict your cycle.

Making Period Science Work for Runners

Period science is a bit behind most types of athletic research. It just hasn’t been studied much until now. Now that it’s getting some of the attention it deserves, sports teams like the U.S Women’s National Soccer team are using period research to maximize performance.

Some trainers will tell you it's best to be in low-hormone states during important runs. Hopefully as period science evolves with more research, we will learn to hack our runs and align them with nutrition to optimize performance every day of the month.

By Dr. Sarah Toler. Sarah Toler, CNM, DNP is a Certified Nurse Midwife and Doctor of Nursing Practice. As a midwife, Sarah knows it’s an honor to help women thrive throughout life’s greatest journeys. Sarah works with women throughout pregnancy and birth, but her real passion is the postpartum period.

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