Women’s Running: Miles and Periods

Good morning! I’m here to talk about the big old elephant in the room when it comes to women and running.

Our periods.

That’s right, our blessed monthly visitor. Our “friend”, Aunt Flo, or “The Curse” (any Golden Girl lovers out there?!). As women, we have grown accustomed to having our periods and to some extent live life without much thought to it.

Unless of course, you’re like me and are notorious for having exactly 3 tampons in you’re drawer and desperately text your husband and he replies:

“You don’t have tampons?! I mean, you knew this was coming right?!”

*sigh*

Yes, husband I did. I did in fact know this was coming.

Anyways I’m off track.

What I really want to discuss is how our periods (specifically our whole 28 day cycle) can effect our running, and how we can use this information to our advantage.

*insert maniacal laugh*

Take THAT period!

I may have had too much coffee this morning. Or those running endorphins are lingering and giving me some extra sass. Either way, lets carry on.

I remember one particular race during my high school cross country years when a girl on my team crossed the finish line with a sub-20 minute PR and immediately laid on the grass. I hurried over to her and told her to get up and walk so she wouldn’t cramp. Our coach of course ran over to us as well, and encouraged my teammate to get up and offered her a bottle of water. What I heard next shocked me. I’m talking, in a million years I never would have guessed my teammate would say:

“I’m fine. Really I’m fine, I’m on my period and I just need to lay here.”

I’ll get back to why this shocked me, but what down right flabbergasted me, was that our coach chuckled a little, patted my teammate on her arm, handed her the bottle of water, and walked away.

SHE WALKED AWAY you guys!

If I was shocked to hear that my teammate set an incredible PR while on her period, I was down right cartoon-ish with the whole jaw-hit-the-ground bit that my coach accepted this as a reasonable explanation for my teammate to pull up a piece of grass and just lay there.

I mean, ya’ll she was just laying there! After running 3.1 miles in under 20 minutes!

You see, there are rules to running.

Rule 1: Talk about running.

Rule 2: Talk about running A LOT.

Rule 3: Never, and I mean never, lay down after you finish your race.

My mind was completely blown.

First, for a freshman running an average 40 minute 5k and seeing a junior running under 20 minutes, well I basically thought she qualified for Boston and I witnessed this. Preeeety impressive….my witnessing it and all.

Secondly, and more to the point of this post, I was a period newbie. At this time, I had probably had my period all of 12 times. I was the awkward teen who struggled with using tampons and ran many miles with a pad.

A pad y’all. God bless.

But more importantly, and my third point, I was so naive and uninformed when it came to my period. Sure I knew what it was, I knew I could get pregnant, I knew it was normal, and expected, and basically all the basic stuff. But I didn’t know how it was effecting my running.

So, what did I do on that fateful day during cross country season?

I picked up my jaw, congratulated my teammate on her PR, walked away, and never thought about my period and running again. Well, until it was the week of my period and I tossed some extra tampons (yes, I did eventually say good-bye to pads) in my bag.

Which brings me to now, some 18 years later as a 30 year old woman runner. I am acutely aware of my cycle, where I am in my cycle, and how it effects my running and training.

3 pregnancies, 2 kids, and years of running later, I have a new appreciation for the strength my body has. I have learned to lean into times when my running isn’t great, knowing that my body is only operating as it was intended to do.

Here’s what I have learned:

There are 3 phases to a woman’s cycle are

  1. Follicular Phase (includes period) – before egg releases
  2. Ovulation – egg releases
  3. Luteal Phase – after egg is released

Its important to keep in mind that a women’s body was designed to create life. Therefore, throughout our cycles, everything (hormones, ovaries, pituitary gland, etc) is operating in such a way to prepare for a pregnancy.

The first day of your period marks Day 1 of your cycle and during this time, there are moderate levels of estrogen and low levels of progesterone and even lower levels of Follicular Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing Hormone (LH). By Day 3-7 of your period, estrogen begins to rise which signals your period to slow down and eventually end. The rise in estrogen continues until it peaks just before ovulation and then it begins to decrease again as your body enters the last phase of your cycle. When ovulation occurs (roughly day 14 of an average 28 day cycle), LH is the highest and at its peak, with a sharp increase in FSH as well, and a gradual decrease in Estrogen. Once an egg is released during ovulation, we enter the last phase of our cycle, the Luteal phase. During this phase, there is a harmonious competition of hormones occuring. FSH and LH plummet and is basically non-existent as there is no need for these hormones right now since an egg has already been released. Instead, progesterone increases dramatically to prepare to sustain a pregnancy. Estrogen also rises slightly, although not as much as progesterone. In the event there is no fertilization of an egg (conception), both progesterone and estrogen drop by around day 28.

And the whole thing starts over again for, oh about 40-ish years.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

Lost? Confused? Jumbled under a pile of hormones and terms? Yeah, me too. Its not the easiest thing to read and grasp, so I’ve taken all those science-y words and created this nifty little Excel graph for a handy visual!

You can’t take the nerd out of the chemist 😉

Chart of hormonal changes during a woman’s cycle by Running With Randi

In the chart above, days 1-5 would be a woman’s period, day 14 would be ovulation and day 15 would begin the Luteal phase. This is all based upon an average 28-day cycle.

Okay, knowing what we know from above, and the primary hormones during each phase of our cycle, how does this translate to our runs and workouts?

Basically, that was a really long-winded way of saying that more than likely the first half of your cycle (days 1-14) you’ll feel generally strong and able to nail your workouts. During the time of ovulation there are hormonal surges that could effect your energy levels, quality of sleep, and even how you feel during your runs. You may feel off or like your legs feel flat and your pace may be noticeably slower.

During the last half of your cycle (days 15-28), its reasonable to feel more sluggish and tired as the progesterone increases, but once it levels off and begins to decrease (around day 20), you’re likely to feel yourself with increased energy, good sleep quality, and back to nailing your runs.

Again wordy and confusing.

So, here’s an example calendar of a cycle illustrating strong days indicated as “+” , so-so days as “/”, and tough days as “-“, or where you’re most likely to see physical effects during your runs. You can also think of this as colors: Green = feel great, yellow = runs aren’t fantastic, and red = I’m on the struggle bus.

SundayMondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturday
Period /Period +Period +
Period +Period ++++++
++/Ovulation //
//++
++++New Cycle

A quick, yet important note: I have applied all the info to a “typical” 28-day cycle with an average period lasting 5 days. Knowing the exact day of ovulation is not possible unless blood work is involved, so using the 28 day cycle method, it is assumed that ovulation occurs close to day 14.

And we all know what happens when we assume.

So please know that there will be normal variations in every woman’s cycle. And, every woman is bound to have their own set of variations within their normal cycle as well. The key here is becoming more informed about your cycle so you can adjust your runs/workouts as needed.

Here’s an example, I do really well running during my period and for about 4-5 days afterward. By day 10 of my cycle I feel like my legs are bricks and I’m running through a wet blanket. Besides the increased effort to run, my pace is slower by as much as a minute or so, my heart rate jumps up, and my breathing is more labored. So these hormonal shifts have very clear physical manifestations that can impact running. Some women find it difficult to run during their Luteal phase (after the egg is released before next cycle begins) due to the increase in progesterone, but I find this time to be one marked with effortless runs and hitting my goal paces (likely due to the increased estrogen as well).

If you’re struggling during a run, take a deep breath, take a look at your calendar and see where you are in your cycle and make a note. If a pattern begins to emerge, then you’ll have an idea of how you can tweak your running for certain times of the month to get the most benefit out of your training!

After all, knowledge is power!

And for a shameless plug, I just so happen to know a really awesome personalized running coach who has been studying, tracking, and noting patterns with female runners and their cycles, so if you need some help getting a handle on this in your own training, she’s currently accepting new clients 😉

Do you notice changes in your running during various times in your cycle?

Do you adjust your running/training during your cycle?

If you track your cycle, how do you track it? Calendar? app?

Do you track your cycle along with your running workouts?

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