Racing and Training on Your Period
In our recent interview with Jenny Tough following her Atlas Mountain Race win, Jenny revealed that she’d faced an unexpected challenge during the race, getting a “surprise period”. For many, this is a very private topic and finding information and advice can be challenging. But with a growing proportion of the competitors lining up for ultra-distance cycling events having a period every 20-40 days for more or less four decades of their lives, it’s something we should be comfortable talking about openly. To help start the conversation, we asked Jenny Tough, Shona Oldfield and Jasmijn Muller to share their experiences and advice for training and racing around your cycle.
The First Time
Jenny’s experience at the Atlas Mountain Race demonstrates how challenging racing on your period can be if you are unprepared, and may be familiar to a lot of women who ride and race in remote areas:
“My period came as a surprise because I have an IUD. It’s great, 98% of the time and it was wildly poor timing to get one on this race! It’s literally the first time I’ve had a period while on a bike ride.
It was early in the morning of the day I arrived at CP2. It was really the middle of nowhere and there aren’t exactly bushes to hide behind on the course. CP2 was the next chance to see a village, so I wouldn’t have anything that wasn’t already on the bike until then, and I was maybe 10 hours away. I went through everything in my packs and had no good solutions, but at least figured it would be a light one and hopefully only last a couple of hours. Much chamois cream and unpleasantness.
At CP2, there was no pharmacy, but there was a shower. I washed both of my bib shorts and ended up lingering at the checkpoint wondering what I should do. The checkpoint volunteers were women and I knew them well enough to ask, but I had to decide – would I really accept outside assistance at this point? I knew I was winning the race. I also knew that only 5 solo women toed the line, so could I really live with the leading rider disqualifying herself over getting her period?
I went through a million scenarios in my head, really feeling the weight of the sisterhood that the five of us had to represent on this race. I felt a lot of pressure to put in a good ride, and, aside from this, I was on my way to achieving that. I wasn’t keen to leave the checkpoint and its private toilets in a hurry at this point, so I stayed longer than I should have.
Some of the guys made comments like I must have been struggling, and I couldn’t tell them the truth. I’m not embarrassed, but I just know that voicing your complaints out loud can be ruinous, so I didn’t want to start. I just laughed and said I was enjoying my coffee or charging my phone or whatever.
I finally left the checkpoint with some smuggled extra toilet paper and a hope that it would stop soon. It was awkward because I ended up riding out with a few guys and couldn’t seem to shake them off, but I needed to stop at least every hour. Without a tampon, my only strategy was to just keep stopping and cleaning. It was dark now, so a little easier, but I had stuck to my decision not to tell the boys. I knew they wouldn’t mind, but I didn’t want the negative mental energy this would bring. I was too close to feeling negative about the situation as it was – I already lost two hours that day!
I kept going like this all the way to Issafn, just trying to shake off any friendly and unsuspecting guys who wanted company and shrugging off all of the questions as to why I had slowed down so much.
In Issafn I found a shop selling pads. This might have been a pretty awkward transaction as all Moroccan shops are run by men, and women’s sanitary products are hidden from view and my French sucks… It wasn’t a game of charades I wanted to play, but luckily this shopkeeper was friendly and we got through it together, both blushing and awkward.
Pads are perhaps the least ideal product in the world. They don’t really attach to or fit on bib shorts, and within hours I had more saddle sores than I’ve probably endured in my whole life. It was horrific. But at least I knew I could ride on, not worrying about keeping my shorts clean, and I could change them every couple of hours and feel fresh again, which was a wonderful feeling after two days of feeling awful.
I passed the halfway point of the race, so I started being more liberal with my use of painkillers for the cramps, which in the heat of the day were absolutely maddening. I didn’t know until the finish line that while you’re on your period, heat regulation is also a problem. I mentioned to a volunteer off-hand that my heat exhaustion had been kind of scary, getting dizzy spells and shivers and being really surprised at how bad it had been, but she pointed out that my period was the likely cause.
The logistical challenge was probably the main nightmare, over the physical discomfort, because there are no toilets, no streams/running water, no privacy. Stopping so frequently was a disruption to riding well, but the mere act of finding a place to stop was really the drama. Finding a place to wash my shorts really was the highlight of each day (and usually only happened once).
Morocco is a bad place to get your period, but I always remember when things like that happen that local women live in those conditions every day – those women are going to work and school and standing under the same hot sun as I’m dragging my bike in, the key difference being that I had the choice. Every time I wanted to feel like things weren’t fair – especially riding with only men, who might have been sympathetic but would never be held back by their bodies in this way – I just looked at the local women and remembered things aren’t that bad. Although the saddle sores are honestly pretty gnarly.”
The Practical Advice
Shona Oldfield was another competitor at the Atlas Mountain Race riding through her period. In contrast to Jenny, Shona has experience of racing during her period and also knew it was coming before the race started, so was able to prepare. We asked Shona to share some of her experience and advice for racing and maintaining hygiene and comfort:
“The reality is that most of us would prefer to not to have to deal with getting your period when doing any kind of multi-day event, it’s just another thing to have to plan and prepare for. Having said that, the current school of thought is that getting your period can be a performance enhancer, so maybe we need to learn to take advantage of this.
On a practical level, I always make sure I carry some tampons, even if I have just finished a period, as I’ve often found that the stresses of a race can bring another on (or some spotting) and being in the back of beyond and trying to fashion something out of loo paper isn’t a good situation to be in.
My top tips are as follows: tampons or similar in a Ziplock bag to keep them dry, some biodegradable wet wipes – as leakages happen and it’s good to be able to tidy yourself up, some hand sanitizer (sometimes your water is too precious to use for washing hands), and some emergency ibuprofen in case you’re feeling a little rougher than normal. I guess it’s like being at home in that you have to remember to stop now and then to check you’re not bleeding through – plus if using tampons, it’s good to keep an eye on where that string is. I’ve managed to give myself a hell of a blister from not noticing that the string was actually rubbing me – boy that was sore!
Most women I speak to learn to ‘tuck’ the string away to stop this happening. You can get bio-degradable tampons as well as wet wipes, so if you are in the back of nowhere with no access to a toilet, you should be ok to bury them with your wet wipe. To be honest, toilets in cafes in Morocco are pretty much a male preserve and pretty horrible anyway – so finding a nice rock or bush to go behind is slightly nicer and gives you 5 mins to ‘air it all out’!
Some people prefer to do away with tampons and use a menstrual cup. This essentially collects the blood and you rinse it out, so if you’re not somewhere too remote with access to bathrooms this is a good solution. It also has the added benefit of no string to contend with.”
Jasmijn Muller, a coach who has particular expertise in working with ultra-cyclists and training women in line with their hormones, has been kind enough to share the science behind Jenny and Shona’s experiences and some tips for making the most of your cycle whilst training and competing:
“Having your period is a good thing. It is a positive feedback system for your health status. On top of that, one of Dr Stacy Sims’ most powerful messages is that your period is an ergogenic aid! Your period is a performance enhancer, not a performance dimmer.
Realising this puts having your period in a whole different light. You actually want your period to happen during that important race, or at the very least during the first half of your menstrual cycle, when both female hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) are low and when you are in fact at your strongest.
Ironically, your exercise physiology is more like a man during your period and the days that follow. You are less likely to feel pain and will recover faster during this ‘low hormone’ phase. You are more likely to be able to hit top-end, fall asleep more quickly at the end of a long day in the saddle (due to a lower core temperature) and handle the heat better. You are also better able to do multiple hard days in a row.
During the ‘mid-luteal’ phase (i.e. the first week post-ovulation) high oestrogen and progesterone levels cause a change in your metabolism. Oestrogen is known to increase free fatty acid availability and improve oxidative capacity in exercise, thus making women slightly better at endurance during the mid-luteal phase than they normally are. Now this may sound perfect for female long-distance cyclists, but in reality there is a bit more to it.
Oestrogen encourages glycogen conservation, which makes it harder than usual for women to reach higher intensities and most long-distance races still have plenty of mountains that we need to power over. So if you are racing during this third week (if you had a 28-day cycle), you really want to make sure you take in extra carbs during the race to be able to hit that top end, since high progesterone levels also stop your body from storing more muscle glycogen at this time, which thus rules out any attempt at carb loading.
Raised progesterone levels can cause you to get out of breath sooner. Another thing about progesterone is that it is a bit catabolic, so during the second half of your menstrual cycle it is harder for women to recover from long, hard days in the saddle and the need for more and fast-acting protein with a high leucine content becomes even greater than during the first half of the cycle.
Racing during the luteal phase is further complicated by your core body temperature being elevated by 0.5 degree, due to the raised progesterone. This means your sweat response is delayed; it is harder to handle the heat than usual (not great when you are doing something like the Atlas Mountain Race); you fatigue sooner; and your sweat has a stronger sodium concentration too, which has implications for hydration strategy, avoiding hyponatremia and fending off muscle cramps. High oestrogen and progesterone also reduce blood plasma volume by about 8%, which thus thickens the blood and increases DVT (deep vein thrombosis) risk.
Things become even more challenging during the last few days leading up to menstruation with various PMS (premenstrual syndrome) issues pestering women, including bloating, constipation and diarrhoea, which are hard enough to avoid already with the stress we put our guts under as a result of ultra-endurance exercise and the generally far from healthy ultra-cycling diet to boot. Ultra-cyclists are no strangers to mood swings anyway, but with PMS throwing in an extra curveball it can be harder to level your emotions and get on with it at this time.
There are various ways to still have a great race when you are in the second half of your cycle (including Dr Stacy Sims recommendation of taking 250 mg of magnesium, 45 mg of zinc, 1 g of omega-3 and 80 mg of baby aspirin* during each of the 7 nights leading up to your period), but ideally you want your race to fall in the low hormone phase. The impracticalities of racing on your period can be overcome by using a moon cup or using the free bleed method.
It’s important to note that my advice only applies to women on a natural cycle – i.e. those who don’t take hormonal contraception. Add an oral contraception pill into the mix and things get a little more complicated from a physiological point of view. The pill is a great way to protect against unwanted pregnancies, but it also downregulates your natural estradiol and progesterone. The pill causes significantly elevated daily spikes in synthetic oestrogen and progestin which are 6-8 times higher than the levels of oestrogen and progesterone a naturally cycling woman has. As a result, women who take the pill are effectively in the ‘high hormone’ phase all the time, with all the negative effects of elevated oestrogen and progesterone.
As an alternative, localised low-dose progestin-only solutions such as the Mirena coil (hormonal IUD) or the Nuvaring will allow women to experience cycles that are more akin to the natural cycle in terms of hormonal levels, but often with less severe bleeds. Other alternatives such as condoms or the copper ring, of course, are totally hormone-free. What is more, the Mirena coil can be used as the progestin component for women on HRT (hormone replacement therapy), to protect the lining of the womb from thickening and protect against endometrial cancer.
Hormones are powerful stuff. From a mental point of view, there is also solid research to support the claim that your period is an ergogenic aid. I highly recommend picking up a copy of Women’s Moods (by Deborah Sichel and Jeanne Watson Discoll) to any woman who wants to have a better understanding of mood, mind and the menstrual cycle. During the first half of your cycle endorphins, the body’s own natural painkillers and happiness hormones, increase until they reach a peak at ovulation. Endorphins also help you to resist stress. Exercise itself releases endorphins, which is why exercise is such a great way of taking care of both your body and your mind at any time of the month.”