Female athletes, prevent menstruation from messing with your athletic training with these practical tips for easing period symptoms
When sportscasters rant about a player’s defeat, they may attribute the loss to a sprain, stress fracture, or heatstroke, but you never hear, “She’s on her period.” Can you imagine? But during this year’s Australian Open, top women’s British tennis player, Heather Watson, dared to go there. She acknowledged that “girl things” interfered with her game.
Perhaps, it’s time to talk about the white (er, pink?) elephant in women’s sports. “The science on how menstruation affects sports performance is limited and mixed, but anecdotally, I have seen women who find they aren’t performing at the same level when they’re suffering from menstrual symptoms before and during their period,” says Liz Joy, MD, MPH, FACSM, a family and sports medicine physician at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, Utah who has treated women athletes on the amateur to elite levels. Of course, the degree of discomfort that periods bring varies between women, but read on to find out how your monthly visitor may be impacting your sports performance—plus, how how to trounce this irksome opponens. (See also: Your Menstrual Cycle Phases—Explained.)
Just motivating yourself out of bed when you’re doubled-over with abdominal pain is difficult enough; the idea of racing around a track or donning a swimsuit and diving into an icy lap pool with cramps may convince you to totally ditch practice. You can blame prostaglandins, the chemicals that build up in the lining of the uterus before your period starts, for causing the muscles of the uterus to (ouch) contract, a.k.a. cramps.
Get back in the game: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen and naproxen, lower the amount of those chemicals in your body. “Research also shows that anti-inflammatories minimize heavy bleeding as well as cramps," says Joy. So for athletes with either or both, I suggest 800 milligrams of ibuprofen, three times a day, starting the day before they think their period will begin through the first couple days of bleeding.” Alternatively, birth control pills and the contraceptive vaginal ring (particularly good for athletes who cross time zones and don’t want to compute when they’re due for their next pill) can ease bleeding, cramps, and depending on their use, can reduce the frequency of your period altogether. Joy says many athletes use birth control to manipulate the arrival date of their periods to ensure less discomfort during the days of a big tournament or even the Olympic trials. (Cramping is just the tip of the iceburg: Find out The Most Common Birth Control Side Effects.)
Feeling spent way before you near a finish line could be a possible sign of iron deficiency (during your period or extending beyond); iron deficiency may affect a quarter to a third of all female athletes, according to a review the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. Iron is an athlete’s friend. This mineral helps fuel our muscles with oxygen, turn the calories you eat into energy, and drive our ability to think during those key strategic moments. With every period, you shed iron through the blood that’s lost. This natural depletion, along with some physical effects of training itself and a diet that’s lacking iron (the RDA for menstruating women is 18 milligrams), can be major contributors to an athlete’s iron deficiency, suggests the journal review.
Get back in the game: Low iron is typically fixable through an iron-rich diet (lean meat and seafood are rich sources and iron-fortified cereal is good too) and possible supplementation. A Journal of Nutrition study found that iron supplements improved exercise performance, including the need for less exertion, among women in their child-bearing years. “The first thing to do is to get your iron status checked with a doctor, especially if you’re getting fatigued or you’re not seeing any improvements in your sport with training,” says Melinda Manore, Ph.D., R.D., a professor of nutrition at Oregon State University. “If you’re low, follow your doctor’s recommendations, since too much iron can be a problem and block absorption of other nutrients.” You can also try these 8 Energy Boosters to Avoid a Mid-Afternoon Slum.
Fluctuations in hormones may lead to excess fluid in your breasts that can cause sensitivity or plain-old pain. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that one-third of female British marathon runners experienced breast pain; the most common reason cited for pain was the motion of exercise itself, while menstrual-related reasons came in second (reported by over half those runners). For a week each month, athletes may be dealing with both. Because of the breast pain, some of the marathoners in the study revealed the need to alter their training, either by missing sessions or lower the intensity or duration of their workouts.
Get back in the game: Since exercise can put a lot of added and discomforting strain on the relatively flimsy supporting structures of your breasts, the fit of your sports bra is huge. Authors of the marathon study, who are part of the University of Portsmouth’s Research Group in Breast Health in Britain, revealed that a well-fitting supportive bra has been reported to relieve breast pain in 85 percent of patients. According to the Research Group, 70 percent of women wear the wrong size bra; bands are usually too big and cup size too small. For advice on finding your best-in-fit sports bra for optimal performance, find out The Best Sports Bras for Every Body Type.
“I’m automatically the underdog,” is thinking that probably won’t win many medals. As any athlete can attest to, where your mind is during competition can be as important as how fit you are physically. Common menstrual symptoms, such as sadness, moodiness, and anxiety can sometimes wreck that important mental piece.
Get back in the game: If you know that time of the month typically puts you in a funk, Joan Steidinger, Ph.D., a licensed sports psychologist in the San Francisco area and author of Sisterhood in Sports: How Female Athletes Collaborate and Compete, says to over-prepare your mental game by reminding yourself of all the success you’ve had in your sport (this can be a visual scan of an object that reflects your achievement too) and by coming up with empowering catchphrases or mantras to repeat before you need to perform (for example, ‘I still have a strong body and strong mind’). Another in-play strategy: imagine your strength is a fierce animal, such as a cheetah or lion. When anxiety or the blahs leave you feeling like the weaker competitor, shift your mind to focusing on working toward your personal best, instead of worrying about the other person. And don’t skip your team training, says Steidinger. You want your psyche to soak in that team energy.
Arriving to the field feeling uncomfortably heavy or okay, “fat” thanks to fluid retention (believed to be from hormonal changes) can turn up the sluggishness.
Get back in the game: Be proactive the week before your period by avoiding high sodium foods, which draw in fluids, says Monique Ryan, R.D.N., a Chicago-based certified sports dietitian nutritionist and author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. With that advice, you may be evil-eyeing your sports drink that has a rep for being high in sodium, but Ryan says that meals from fast food or even regular restaurants (for those on traveling teams) and packaged, processed foods will serve up far more sodium. Moderation. If you’re still suffering from puffiness, check with your doc about taking magnesium supplements that may help ease water retention.
A good night’s rest on a consistent basis is crucial for your body’s recovery after training and can noticeably improve your performance. Scientists at Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory found that when basketball players stretched their sleep duration to a solid ten hours over a course of five to seven weeks, they improved their speed, reaction time, shooting accuracy, and fatigue levels; the researchers had similar findings for other sports teams, including tennis and swimming. Now that’s great, but here’s the glitch: Your period symptoms can disrupt sleep (30 percent of women report disturbed sleep during menstruation, according to The National Sleep Foundation), which can sacrifice performance, mood, and thinking.
Get back in the game: After a sleepless night, take a short 20-minute power nap in the early afternoon to reduce sleep debt. Since menstruation can raise your core body temperature—and cooler is ideal for sleep—keep your thermostat between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit and take a warm shower before bed prior to entering that cool bedroom, advises the National Sleep Foundation. If you’re feeling anxious or moody, try a calming meditation or gentle stretching session before bed. Or try one these 7 Yoga Poses to Help You Catch More Zzzs.