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Over the last three months I’ve been struggling with fatigue over the couple of days leading into my menstrual cycle or the first couple of days of my cycle. The purpose of ‘The Ash Hunter Diaries’ is for me to be open with you guys about my ups and downs along my journey towards Cozumel and my quest for Kona 2020. This has definitely been a low in my journey as it keeps interrupting the flow (pardon the pun) of my consistent training blocks... ugh! There’s nothing more frustrating than when training seems to be going on track and all of a sudden… BOOM! I’m floored for 1 or 2, or sometimes even 3 days with fatigue. Welcome to the world of being a female athlete.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve trained through this time of the month and have found some months affect me more than others and some don’t affect me at all. As of lately, though, I’ve noticed the affects three months in a row. I’ve always felt rather guilty or have beat myself up about not being able to achieve my target sessions during the pre-menstrual time of the month because I didn’t really understand what was going on inside my body. I hope that this blog helps other women who’ve experienced the same thing so they’re not be so hard on themselves when they can’t hit their targets during this time of the month. So let’s take a look at what happens to our hormones and the four different phases during the menstrual cycle and then we’ll take a look at a very simplified explanation on how and why our training is affected by our fluctuating hormones.
A quick summary – what is the menstrual cycle?
“The menstrual cycle starts with menses, when females are (unless they have become pregnant) bleeding and shedding the uterine lining. Menses is the start of the follicular phase, or “low hormone” phase, characterized by low luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), progesterone and slowly increasing levels of estrogens. This phase lasts for around the first 14 days of the menstrual cycle. Then around the "middle" of the cycle ovulation should occur, which is characterized by a spike in levels of estrogen and luteinizing hormone. This coincides with the release of the egg and is the time of the menstrual cycle when females can become pregnant. Ovulation is followed by the luteal phase and is the high-hormone phase of the menstrual cycle when both estrogen and progesterone levels are higher.” (Ihalainen, 2019)
According to author Dr Stacy Sims, when we start to get into the high hormonal phase (luteal phase / pre-menstrual phase) this is where oestrogen is inhibiting carbohydrate utilisation so therefore we can’t quite hit high intensities in training at this time. Increased oestrogen levels usually increases serotonin in the brain which causes some brain fog. The increase of progesterone increases the core temperature so we have less time to fatigue and less tolerance to heat. During the high hormonal phase we have less water in the blood so we become less efficient at getting blood to the working muscle tissue. Now that we know how our performance is slightly impeded we can use nutrition and recovery practises to overcome this.
Attempting to train when my hormones wreak havoc - slightly dramatic but keeping it real
The alarm goes off… my brain tells my body to get up, it doesn’t respond. With the sound of the alarm in the background, I feel like I’m looking at my body from above trying to wake it but it seems to be stuck in quicksand. I’m standing above my body shouting at it with motivational thoughts like, “you are ready,” “get up and slay that bike today, Ash” then I turn to negative comments to really try and get me out of bed, “you’re never going to achieve your best” or “get up, you’re being weak.” I end up having an internal battle and agree to reset the alarm for another 30 mins time. I roll over and regretfully still lay there achieving nothing because I am feeling so guilty for feeling like I’m giving in to fatigue and not being on my bike. One would think this would be a clear indicator that one needs to stay in bed. Hmmm.
Well, you see, we are endurance athletes and we’ve been trained to keep going without giving into tiredness and fatigue. Ok so I end up getting out of bed through shear guilt. I get onto my bike. Everything hurts more than usual, the spots on my saddle that usually take a few hours to get sore are there immediately, I feel short of breath, my heart rate is high, my attention span is low, where are my legs? They’ve gone! I can’t focus too long on one spot otherwise I feel like I will collapse onto the road into the foetal position and sleep there for the next 3 hours. Trying to be optimistic that I would ‘come good’ throughout the session I stayed out there 3 hours holding all of 100 watts NP (I usually sit at 135 watts for an easy warm up) which felt like a 7/8 RPE, I skipped my important backend intervals, went home and rested instead as I knew my body just didn’t feel right. I was able to train back to normal the next day. If you have ‘meat above your feet,’ (borrowing that saying from WITSUP – thanks) you may think I’m exaggerating here. Well, I’m not! I usually feel like this 1 or 2 days throughout each cycle. Life is a constant learning process and I’m just trying to work out my puzzle of the female physiology and endurance training.
Looking at fatigue
I wasn’t sure whether I was getting knocked out with these ‘fatigue days’ due to a lack of iron, dehydration, or that I hadn’t fuelled myself with enough calories a day or two before. I’d been to see a health professional about this topic to get my iron levels, blood count, B12, thyroid and a couple of other tests checked but they all came back within normal ranges. I make an extremely conscious effort to focus on hydration and have been seeing a dietitians to help with nutrient absorption and energy intake. But it keeps happening at the same time throughout my cycle each month.
Fatigue is very generalised but to me it feels like weakness, tiredness, decreased tolerance for heat training, increased heart rate, increased sensitivity, increased perception of effort and decreased mood. These symptoms seem to happen at any time throughout the luteal phase or start of menses. I could be training well and all of a sudden I hit a big wall (that seems to be built with solid bricks of emotions, sluggishness, discomfort and so much tiredness.) I then feel frustrated at myself for the interruption to my training block as I can only tolerate low –moderate intensity training and even missing a session or two due to needing the rest or not listening to my body (and also not telling my coach how I’m feeling because I just want to do the darn session… oops), pushing beyond what I should and then burying myself for a few days… doh!
After this happened for the third month in a row it’s becoming more obvious that my athletic performance can be impeded during this time of the month, maybe more so when my volume is higher. I’m pretty slow at working things out at times but I think I’m slowly starting to get it now.
I am calling this the quest to finding my menstrual cycle and exercise performance sweet spot.
Where to from here?
My coach has approached the topic with me recently, I don’t know why I haven’t thought of this before but we are going to base my training block around my cycle. We’ll use the days where my hormones are back to being stable/low at the end of the follicular phase and during ovulation to build and hit those target sessions and then do active recovery during those days when my hormones rise up in the luteal phase and get close to menses. We have been using the FITR Woman app to track my cycle so far. I will continually play around with my nutrition and keep using trial and error to see how my body is fuelled best within each phase with the help of Stacy Sims research. Each one of us are different but I hope you’ve enjoyed a rather un-talked about topic and that it may bring awareness to this topic. I am excited to start using my female physiology to my advantage and get the most out of my training when I’m feeling strong! I look forward to being a happier athlete and not getting frustrated at myself for not being able to hit targets or complete sessions for reasons outside of my control…
Here’s a couple of interesting articles I found that will provide some more information on this topic which have links to evidence based research:
Until next time! Keep up the great work.
31/10/2019 04:04:02 pm
Great article Ash and something I think that needs to be analyzed more. My training was based on my cycle when Bonnie was coaching me and would take day off or have recovery sessions on the low days. I had to even base races around my cycle which was frustrating. Perfectly normal what you are feeling. It is a challenge !
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