How to Run with the Flow of Your Menstrual Cycle

It took me several years to realize that my body runs in cycles. Every month, about 5-7 days prior to my cycle starting, running would get really hard. My breathing would be more labored, my legs felt like lead and I just felt down right tired. Then, like something out of Harry Potter movie, the spell would be broken and I could run and train almost effortlessly. Coincidentally, that magic would appear right after my cycle began and continue until the next PMS phase.

My inner wizard decided to begin to track the changes daily. I wrote down every workout, my effort levels, pace, heart rates, crabbiness level, and where I was in my cycle. It didn’t take me but a few months to begin to notice a trend. There was no need for scientific data, it was all right there in front of me…

  • My heart rates were 5-10 beats or higher in runs during the 7-10 days prior to menstruation [PMS] and would drop to normal rates once I began to menstruate and actually lower 5+ beats during ovulation (aka – the Wonder Woman phase).
  • My breathing was more labored in my hard runs during PMS and easier during the rest of the cycle.
  • My motivation was much lower during PMS and I found it more challenging to get the runs in due to low energy levels.
  • I was much more fatigued during PMS and slept and napped more often.
  • I noticed I had more muscle soreness when I ran races in my PMS phase than any other time of my cycle.
  • Ovulation was the optimal training zone, with lower heart rate at faster speeds, faster recovery and the ability to leap small buildings in a single bound (really.)
  • And I bet you’ll be surprised to find out I craved sweets during PMS (shocker) but didn’t during the rest of my cycle .

Although we all cycle, the symptoms and experiences vary greatly. Some of us have a harder time during menstruation, while others seem to struggle during PMS. The symptoms vary from physical, emotional and mental and from one cycle to the next. Further, one cycle to the next can vary.

The good news is what goes down, must go up. The “up” or the “high’ phase of the month are typically days 4-15 [Day 1 is the first day of menstruation] or what I typically refer to as the “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar” Phase. This is the Follicular Phase [Days 1-14], and a time when estrogen levels are low and when our bodies more easily break down glycogen for quick energy, making high intensity workouts more efficient [energy-wise]. You may find during the first two weeks of your cycle you are able to run faster, with lower heart rates [easier] and leap tall buildings in a single bound. This is a great time to push harder runs and races.

Then we ovulate [Day 15] and move into the Luteal Phase [Days 16-28] where estrogen levels are stable, but high. This is what I refer to as the “When Is This Run Going To Be Over” Phase. Although hard and fast runs will seem more challening during this phase, your long runs may seem just fine due to the high levels of estrogen and it’s preference of fat-burning for fuel [low intensity exercise].

It is my contention that female runners need to train differently than men. That is, by the natural rhythm of their body and sync with the ebb and flow of the hormonal phases of each cycle.

Every month we run through the high and low points in our cycle, which help us develop mental skills that comes in handy for racing. Women have an inherent pain threshold that allows for pregnancy and labor. So, although it seems like a grim sentence, good things come from a cyclical life and all those tools can be used effectively in training and racing!

The following tips are just a few ways to take advantage of your cycle for training and to improve performance:

  • Monitor your cycle and keep track of your strong and efficient days as well as your more challenging times of the month. I find it easier to color code days: yellow for smiley strong days, gray for tough, challenging days and blue for anything in between.
  • Include heart rate, effort levels (perceived), mood, motivation levels, speed, distance, climate and diet habits. Review it and familiarize yourself with the high and low periods of your cycle. After a few cycles, you’ll be able to pinpoint the various phases of your cycles and schedule your future training based on your high and low swings.
  • Plug your cycle dates into your daily planning system or training schedule. It will be easier to better plan and adapt effort levels and intensities week to week, and even plan races around the highs and lows. At the very least, you will know when to expect the more challenging days of the month.
  • If possible, try to schedule your “key” training sessions during the stronger times of your cycle [usually on days 5-14, 17-20]. Cut back or ease up effort levels during the challenging and symptomatic phases of your cycle. This could mean running your runs a little slower, or running an easy run instead of a scheduled hard run. Keep in mind we can also have varying symptoms cycle to cycle. I’ve found for me, every other cycle is “not-so’bad” or easier in terms of symptoms.
  • If you struggle with cramps and severe problems, cross-train with activity that is less jarring to your body like cycling, swimming or yoga. Consider it a cutback week for your running and a Spa break for your body. Cross-training is a great way to maintain your fitness and remain active through the challenging days of your cycle.
  • Train by effort level or heart rate. It makes it easy to ebb and flow with where you body, hormones and recovery is run to run. Your heart rates will tell you exactly where you are during the run so you can adjust pace and avoid over or under training.
  • If your motivation runs low, schedule runs with a friend. In most cases, you will run if you plan it ahead of time and they will keep you motivated.
  • PMS symptoms have been linked to poor dietary habits and low levels of magnesium, which affects blood sugar levels and hormonal metabolism. Include foods rich in magnesium, B-Complex and calcium in your diet [dairy, green leafy veggies, whole grains, nuts, fish, beans are just a few].
  • Maintaining a fuel and activity log (online) can be very useful in tracking the quality going in (food) and the quantity going out (running). Free online logs like FitDay.com allow you to enter your daily activity as well as your fuel day to day and analyze the balance. This is a great way to make small changes that will make a great difference in your performance.
  • Although some women go as far as adjusting their cycles with medication to coincide with race dates, it is best to check with your doctor before doing so.
  • If you are scheduled to have your cycle on race day be prepared. There are plenty of fanny packs to carry products. You can also tape it to the back of your race number. In an emergency, stop at the medical station as they will have a supply of feminine products.
  • Although it seems like a burden, our cycles allow us the down time to take care of ourselves and the up time to push beyond our limits. It all ties into listening to our bodies, adjusting workouts by slowing or shortening during those few days that seem impossible and in turn, pushing when you are feeling like Wonder Woman. Training with your cycle rather than fighting it can be instrumental in progressing the quality of your running performance.