Exercise and the Menstrual Cycle

Were you aware that your menstrual cycle may affect how you perform during exercise?

It might explain why you can run like a gisele one day - smashing your fastest 5k and then struggle to put one foot in front of the other the next. 

 It amazes me that only now changes in the menstrual cycle are receiving attention from both the scientific and sporting communities. But hey, better late than never I guess.

 The Great British Hockey Team now inform their coach the dates of their menstrual cycle so their training plans can be tailored accordingly.

 And it has been documented that English middle-distance runner Jessica Judd failed to make it to the 800m semi-finals in the 2013 Moscow World Championships after being prescribed a drug to delay the start of her period. 

However on the other side of the debate, Paula Radcliffe talks about how her period started on the day she broke the world record in the 2002 Chicago marathon. She believes we shouldn’t let our cycles stop us. Good advice, but could it be that she really is superhuman?

So what happens during our cycle to perhaps influence our performance in exercise?

Our menstrual cycles run from the first day of our period to the first day of our next. An entire menstrual cycle usually lasts between 24 and 38 days, but the length may vary from cycle to cycle. 

 There are three phases:

  1. Menstrual phase. This starts on day one of the cycle and usually lasts 4-6 days. It is when menstrual bleeding, cramping, headaches etc are experienced. During menstruation, we are most likely to experience the lowest motivation for exercise. While menstruation should not stop us exercising, as it can help relieve period pain due to the internal endorphins released (which act as as a natural opioid), we should understand that it’s perfectly normal to feel demotivated during our period. 💪 Exercise choice should be light cardio, shorter stints of aerobic exercise, swimming or yoga.                                         We have to be mindful that the risk of injury can rise during our period. One possible explanation for this may be related to the higher levels of the hormone ‘relaxin’ that are secreted during menstrual bleeding. This can make our joints, ligaments and muscles more lax and can increase the risk of pulls, tears etc.
  2. Follicular phase. This is from the start of our period until ovulation - when the egg follicle on an ovary prepares to release an egg. During this phase, our oestrogen levels peak and it is thought our pain tolerance increases as a result. Also our muscles may be given a small degree of protection against trauma and damage. 💪 If this is the case, the follicular phase is when we may perform best at high intensity and high impact forms of exercise, like running, hiit and intense weight training. This phase is usually when we are most energised, open to trying new things and generally feel at our best.
  3. Luteal (premenstrual) phase. This starts on ovulation day when the egg is released from the ovary. It can start between day seven and day 22 of a normal cycle. During the luteal phase, our body temperature rises and that can make intense exercise uncomfortable. Good news though, is that we are likely to expend more energy and lose more weight in the later part of this phase as we head towards menstryation - assuming of course our diet is consistent. However, we can also experience food cravings and an increased appetite, so we may need to exert discipline to avoid weight gain. 💪 Exercise choice in this phase should be decided on how you are feeling. Usually in the early stages of the luteal phase energy levels are still fairly high as oestrogen levels are still up. So higher intensity workouts may still be on the cards if you’re feeling energised. In the latter stages of the phase and as we head towards menstruation, we may want to adopt lower intensity exercise; Yoga, Pilates, Sculpt, a light weights workout etc.

Hopefully this has been helpful in highlighting why we should take into account our body’s natural rhythms and why we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if our performance on the Spin bike was terrible compared to last week’s. 

We have to realise that, unlike our male counterparts, we really do have an excuse! (sorry, guys, unnecessary I know 😜)

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Menopause and Joint Pain


funny image highlighting nasty menopause symptoms

And maybe that’s due to joint pain........

 I recently commented in a Sculpt Method class that menopause can cause joint pain, especially in our shoulders, hips, knees and lower back. I was inundated by messages from women who, despite knowing that joint pain was an inevitable part of the ageing process, didn’t realise the main culprit was fluctuating hormone levels. 

 Oestrogen protects joints and reduces inflammation, but when oestrogen levels drop during menopause, inflammation can increase, the risk of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis can go up and the result can be painful, stiff joints.

 Women often describe the feeling as joint stiffness, swelling, shooting pains and even a burning sensation after working out. 

 How can we help ease the discomfort?

  1. Exercise regularly. Low impact exercise such as swimming, cycling, yoga, pilates and Sculpt put little or no pressure on the joints and can improve joint mobility. This can help prevent joints from becoming sore and stiff.
  1. Eat a clean diet which includes anti inflammatory foods.  Eating foods that are low in sugar, salt, are non processed and derive primarily from plants help the body deal with many unpleasant side effects of menopause; including the inflammatory effects of oestrogen reduction.
  1. Drink water. Women who sweat excessively as a symptom of menopause and who don’t drink sufficient water, become dehydrated. This is leads to joint pain as the joints aren’t as lubricated as they should be.  Dehydration also means the kidneys may be unable to get rid of uric acid, which can cause a buildup of tiny, sharp crystals in and around the joints. 
  1. Stress. When we are stressed and/or scared we release the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, cortisol. If there is a continual release, cortisol can act as an inflammatory agent and result in joint pain.
  1. Prevent weight gain. If we are carrying excess weight, we put added stress on the joints. For every extra pound we carry, we place the equivalent of 4 pounds of extra pressure on our knees.



Common Misconceptions About The Core


In this article I aim to address four of the most common misconceptions about ‘The Core.'


image demonstrating the core reflected as an apple and a tape measure

1. Your core is exclusively your abdominal muscles.

In fact your core consists of all the muscles which attach to the pelvis, hips and spine. 

Think of your core like a canister - a big pressurised system that stabilises your spine. 

 Included are the diaphragm, glutes, pirformis, hamstrings and quadriceps. Also under the umbrella definition of The Core are all layers of abdominal muscles, pelvic floor and the deep back muscles.

 2. Your core can only be strengthened through abdominal work.

 This is not the case. In order to have a strong core, you should adopt a wide range of exercise and movement patterns. Anything from squats, lunges, running, cycling, Yoga, Pilates, walking up stairs, dancing while drunk 🤣 all build stability and strength in your core. Ensure to also add in single side work to help improve balance and also get the muscles of the weaker side - and we all have one - working hard too.

 A strong core involves having good control of the abdominal, pelvic and hip regions. The majority of the muscles found in these regions are involved in strengthening and stabilizing the lower back, protecting it from injury.

 3. To reduce fat around your tummy and give definition, you should do abdominal exercises.

 Quite possibly the biggest myth of all! Unfortunately you can’t spot fat reduce. We all have individual body compositions and do store fat in different places; some in our thighs, bum or around our middle, but in order to lose weight in our core area we need to look at our overall energy balance. In other words we need to be in a calorie deficit. This can be achieved predominately through diet but also with a mixture of cardio and strength based exercise. Once we lose fat - and it may be that your tummy is the last place you lose from - then abdominal exercises will help make those muscles more defined.

 4. You need to keep your abdominal muscles tense during exercise in order to strengthen up the core and protect your back.

 For decades we have been told to tense some of our core muscles by drawing in the belly button to the spine, or bracing in the muscles and maintaining a constant contraction.

 Having a tense abdominal region make sense while maintaining a static position during exercise. However, the way our bodies move - especially during exercise requires intricate, complex and fluid movements and so our core needs to be able to move dynamically. That means it can constantly change from a state of contraction to relaxation and back.

 Let’s think about running. If the core muscles remained contracted throughout the running pattern, it would make the body more rigid and less mobile. This may result in excess force and stress being placed on the muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints. This could increase the risk of injury.

 Bracing the core can also have an impact on how we breathe..... if we brace over 70% of our maximum amount, it becomes harder to breathe normally. Not ideal when we’re already doing an activity that leaves us short of breath!





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