Thursday, September 20, 2012

On The Female Cycle and Endurance Training/Racing

I've been meaning to write this post for a while but just haven't had the time to sit down and give it the attention I think it deserves to do it justice. This has been an important and recurring topic of thought in my world for several years and I've done quite a bit of not only specific logging/observation of my personal experiences, but have also done some research to find out what others have experienced or observed about it as well. What am I even talking about?? The female hormonal cycle. Lovely. But it's a real issue that is important to understand and address if you happen to not be on hormonal birth control (which would make all the observations coming up irrelevant).

So here's what I've personally noticed over the last few years... Almost immediately after my period comes, I'm on FIRE and feel awesome in training. I can handle just about any load... especially the long stuff... pile it on! I'll kill it and smile the whole time. And then do it again tomorrow. My heart rate is low, my power is high, my paces feel easy. My recovery is quick. It's awesome!

That freakish awesome phase tends to last ~2 weeks... then it starts going downhill for me. HR goes up, power goes down, effort feels extraordinary, negative thoughts creep in. I feel heavy and lethargic and pissy. WTF?!? I have definitely noticed this most on the longer workouts- 20 mile runs or Ironmans are about the worst thing I can do in the days before my period comes because I just feel like garbage and beat myself up mentally/emotionally... it's pretty much the only time I think to myself I suck at this! Then my period comes and tah-dah! I'm a superhero again. Interesting cycle, that one.

It took me a while to really dial this in... I started suspecting about a year ago (when I got my period 2 days after my disappointing race in Kona last year) that my cycle had something to do with how I was performing and feeling in training and racing... so I started making notes in my TP calendar and then I'd pay very close attention... and sure enough, it happened every month. Pretty much like clockwork. So the thing that really sucked about this was that my last 3 Ironmans (yes, all three of them... CdA, Kona, and Canada) landed 1-2 days before my period started... CdA and Kona I actually didn't make the connection until afterward but this time around at Canada I knew the timing. And I was super bummed. And I spent the two weeks prior to the race trying to figure out if there was any way to naturally make my period start like 3 days early. (Parsley tea, anyone? That was Google's suggestion.)

In the end I actually did not drink any parsley tea... instead opting to just do the best I could managing my mind and any other factor I could control... I lowered my expectations a bit... I mentally prepped myself to not feel awesome all day but fight through that crap anyway... and I will tell you, I found some interesting articles online that supported what I had been feeling. Some of what I found was contradictory but a lot of what I found fit well into what I thought I already knew.

This was the most interesting article I found via Running Times (they always have good smart articles!) It validates what I'd figured out- that performance is indeed compromised during the luteal phase- primarily due to metabolism and thermoregulation. Specifically, during the luteal phase we need to take in more carbs/hour than we do during follicular phase... this was such an AH-HA! to me b/c when I looked back, a lot of those crappy feelings I had in training and racing were eerily similar to the way you feel when you're bonking... pissy, irritable, heavy, lethargic. I had always ruled out bonking as an issue b/c I'm like a machine fueling my training and always am careful to fuel well. But in Canada, knowing that I was dealing with this luteal phase shit, I ate more for breakfast and more on the bike than I ever have before and that went a long way toward keeping me in a way better place both mentally and physically. I also did as this article suggested and sodium loaded more than normal pre-race. I think it also really helped that Canada was not hot at all- normally I handle heat fairly well since I train in it all the time but last year in Kona I did a piss poor job of handling the heat... which didn't make sense until I read that article explaining the thermoregulation thing. I remember not understanding WHY my heart rate and breathing felt so labored while I was jogging 10' pace but that article put some of it into perspective for me.

Anyway, I'm posting this here just so some of you (who are not on hormonal birth control) might be able to change the way you fuel yourselves or manage yourselves mentally/emotionally throughout your monthly cycle. Overall I'd say that the couple of changes I made for Canada were good ones and while that was not a magical day where I was on fire, it wasn't as bad as it could have been had I not understood where I was in my cycle and adjusted my plan accordingly. One of these days maybe an Ironman will happen during my follicular phase (Boulder this year was an example of that! Yay for actually feeling good for once this year in a race!) and I'll have the race I know is in me... but until then, we just have to collect the information and do the best we can with what we have on the day! Hope this helps.

I'd also be curious to hear if any of you out there have paid attention and have had similar experiences?


13 comments:

Molly said...

I definitely have the same experience. The day or two before I start, I feel like total tired achy garbage, then I suddenly am full of energy. I started the day after IM AZ last year, which explained my feeling like ass leading into the race, and then roughly the same thing happened at all my early races this year. For IMC, I started a week early, on the Thursday before race day and suddenly all the crap I'd felt all taper week vanished and I was excited to race! I think it made quite the difference for my race day...the only downside was the GI effects of being on a period cropped up during my run and I made a few more portajohn stops than I would have liked.

JC said...

Very interesting stuff. It makes TOTAL sense. I think I may start taking a closer look at my stuff. Great post!

mmmonyka said...

I am wondering whether it would make sense to "adjust" your period several month before your race when you know that you race will fall in your luteal phase.
There are pills that people take to do that, aren't there? Of course I would not do that a month prior. But if I knew that next year (i.e. 10 months out) my race will fall into luteal phase, than I could do something now and the side effects should wear out by the time of my race.
I have no idea and maybe it is in fact not so easy. An expert would be able to tell.

Damie said...

I think we have talked about this, but when I was 20-25 playing soccer, I would always have AWFUL practices the Tues-Fri before my Sat period. I would feel bad, couldn't keep up, make bad decisions, and come home crying. Then, on Sunday, I would have an AMAZING game. I did start to track this and I related it to my period. I started really dialing back my play that Tues-Fri and put all of my most important games and such the day to week following. I did some research on this too, and I found that the hormone drops and rises were also probably the culprit to my joints hurting tremendously a few days before my period. So, same here. No long runs before period. Perfect time for time off or cross training or other. Then period comes, and BAM. Time to race or crush the training.

Iron Krista, "The Dog Mom" said...

I really need to log how I feel… Normally i feel the worst just before! Like 3-4 days. In Canada I thought I was in the clear as I wasn't supposed to start until like Sep 4-6th, a full week+ after IM… but guess who started on TUESDAY after? Way early…..

And, I did eat way more than normal. Way way more. 1800calories in 5:45? and lots of cals on the run too… hmmm. you are soooooo smart :)

JB said...

MBK and I talk about this all the time... my pattern and moods are about the same... I'm on birth control and my gyn suggested I just keep taking the pill and avoid periods for a few months to see how I felt... but I didn't like the idea of completely losing the cycle

Mary IronMatron said...

I have paid close attention, and found the same thing about the post-ovulation phase. I actually perform best/feel best about 3 days INTO my period and in the week following it. I start to feel crappy about 8 days pre-period... and yes, require more carbs, and God forbid I have an IM in that window, which I have had -- that's right -- for all five of my IMs!
THE REAL KICKER is that now I am experiencing pre-menopausal hormonal shifts. Now the fatigue and mood swings are even more pronounced before my period, and I sweat at night.. and it's intense. I started asking my 45+ year old athletes about it, and sure enough, they had similar issues with sweating... and hence with dehydration in the days they had had particularly bad night sweats the night before.....
and then you get into the iron depletion of the periods you get when you are pre-menopausal... bleeding out close to 40g. of blood in just over an hour and a half for 48 hours straight--yep--that can do wonders to ferratin levels! ha!
Good stuff.
I can't wait for menopause...... not.

Ana-Maria RunTriLive said...

I have noticed similar things, but only during the past 2 years or so. In the past, I did not even know when my period would come. I had no PMS, bloating, etc. Nothing. Now, I have 3-4 days around ovulation when all I can think about is sex, overall 3 weeks of feeling great (starting on day 2-3 of my period) and then one week when I look pregnant, bloated, feel yucky, tired, sluggish, etc. I also feel very hungry during that week and probably eat more calories overall. As far as racing/performance, I have not kept track other than a poor HM performance the day I got my period, and a good race but tougher than it should have been marathon 4 days before my period last year. And Mary's comment scared me:)

Ginger Spansel said...

Back when I had periods... (51 and having really random periods) I remember having a really heavy feeling in my chest when running just before my period. I have had IM friends who have "adjusted" their periods a couple months out before an IM.

rr said...

I "adjusted" for Kona twice = for exactly this reason. And then I did Novasure, which ended them forever, and even though I still technically have a cycle, I couldn't tell you when it is, because all the symptoms went away with the Novasure. No PMS, no cramps, nada. I wonder if it is still affecting my run though, and I just can't see the pattern so well...

Katie said...

Soooo...sort of a similar experience? I went back on BC after ironman and it played HELL with my body & training. After 2 months I went back off...which led to more hell...but things are finally starting to even out. All very interesting stuff!

Libby said...

ugh so glad you posted this. the unwritten shit we aren't supposed to talk about. I'm not on BC either but my PMS is so bad. my boobs like double in size. I thought I was going to suffocate in my speed suit for vegas!! I was due to get it two days before the race and then I was late thought I was preggo (I'm pretty regular) was flipping out and felt awful- mostly just from being so bloated and heavy and sure enough I got it during the race.
I'm kinda the opposite. I'm pretty solid for 90% of the cycle but 2-3 days before and 2-3 days after are horrible. day 1 is f'ing ridiculous. I get stabbing pains in my left side and cramps so bad that I've gotten stranded on a run and had to be picked up by a passing police car as writhed on the ground unable to even walk. SUCKS! somehow i've had the opposite luck and vegas was the first time I've had to face it in a race situation at all. and wouldn't you know it--- day 1. luckily it wasn't as bad as it gets at all but it sucked. right on for posting this. such a huge part of our training and racing that no one discusses.

Karen said...

I have the exact same problem. Until however, I did the Whole30 Challenge. 30 days nothing but whole real foods. No grain, no dairy, nothing that contained anything you couldn't find living before. I mean, I learned how to make Whole30 "mayo" even. It was intense, but I felt amazing!!! The best part and I never thought about it before until boom my period showed up. Of course it was at the right time...but im absent-minded and this time there were no cramps, no tired feeling, no lethargic feeling, nothing and no change in running, crossfit or paddling. It was unreal to the point it stopped me completely in my tracks...to think holy S^%$. I can never eat anything un-whole, un-real again. Of course fail...and what happened this time......the usual. SO I am back to my whole30 and real foods only in hopes that when the NYC marathon comes around Nov 4 I wont be sluggish and lethargic like I technically should be...