I’m a man. We’ll acknowledge that right away. So the topic of using menstrual cycles to boost performance is not something I have personal experience with.
All I know about women’s menstrual cycles comes from research – except that I live with a female wife and a female teenager.
And we’ll acknowledge that anything I say about menstrual cycles is fraught with peril!
However, I’m taking research done by women and using it with a female client.
I’ve read, reread, marked up, and read again Roar by Dr. Stacy Sims and Selene Yeager.
One premise of the book, which, if you are a female athlete or a coach who works with female athletes is something you should buy immediately, is that women are not small men.
That seems painfully obvious, but most studies on nutrition and performance have been done on men, then extrapolated to women.
Sims argues that women’s nutritional and training needs are completely different than men?s based on menstrual cycles and hormones.
Using Menstrual Cycles to Boost Performance
Plus Sims says female athletes can use their menstrual cycles as a guide to boost performance.
For example, the PMS part of the cycle is an ideal time to do a rest week, while different times of the cycle offer better times to really crush a workout.
So when the daughter of a friend of mine said she wanted to run the Milwaukee Marathon in October, I asked her if she’d be willing to try out Sims’s ideas in exchange for training.
She agreed, and we’re now working with a training plan that revolves around four main ideas in using menstrual cycles to boost performance:
1. A progressive build program of running endurance.
2. Increased protein intake, particularly before and after a workout.
3. Increased strength training.
4. Working with her menstrual cycle to work with her body’s natural cycles.
The client’s goal is to simply finish the Marathon comfortably and a little faster than the last time she raced 26.2 miles. She’s 21, a college student, and a non-competitive runner.
Running Endurance Build Program
The client will progressively build up a weekly long run.
She has more time on the weekend, so one of the days, she will do a long, slow endurance run that will increase in distance each week until reaching about 22 miles a few weeks out from the marathon.
During the week, she’ll do two shorter runs that will involve intervals.
We’ll start with a 30-second interval, 30 seconds regular pace for 10 minutes, run easy for five minutes, then repeat for another 10 minutes.
These interval sessions will happen twice a week.
We’ll start with 30 seconds, increase to 60, then 90, and slowly build up to eight-minute intervals that we’ll do four to five times.
The interval will be just a boost from the normal pace, and the key is to return to a normal pace and keep it there for the whole 10-minute interval session.
Using Menstrual Cycles to Boost Performance: Increased Protein
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 20-25g of protein before and immediately after training, and then again in the evening to help muscle growth during sleep.
Increased 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 this, Sims says that for building muscle strength, women need to throw some big weight around.
So we’re structuring a strength program that involves at least one day of doing heavy weight lifting for five to eight repetitions.
We focus on hip hinges like deadlifts, squat movements, then upper body and core work. Other strength training days focus on plyometrics, core, glutes (Sims calls the butt the “steering wheel of the body”), and body-weight exercises.
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.
Using Menstrual Cycles to Boost Performance
The essential thinking here from Sims is that women can use their menstrual cycles to boost performance.
The more estrogen/progesterone in the system, the more challenging heavy training will be. So Sims argues that the days of her PMS cycle should essentially be a rest week, and the days of her period should be heavier training days.
Since my client is also on birth control pills, knowing her cycle is simple. So we created a weekly schedule that is roughly like this 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 of 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.
I’m really curious about how this all works with my client.
We’ll use her notes and feedback as well as data from her Apple watch to track progress. I?m particularly interested in her heart rate as an indicator of fatigue.
I shared a google doc with her training plan, so she can make notes on the plan about how training went that day.
As always, if you have questions or comments about using menstrual cycles to boost performance, post them here or contact me.