The Female Cycle: Strength & Training

How the Female Cycle Affects Strength & Training

Yes, we’re discussing it. PMS. A topic not often mentioned out loud, we’ll admit, but one that seriously (and often adversely) affects female athletes and their ability to perform. In general, female CrossFit athletes hate showing weakness. They pride themselves on being able to keep pace with the guys and there just isn’t any space for hot chocolate and fluffy blankets.

How to deal with 5, 7, 10 or 14 days of weakness

Every woman will experience different levels of PMS, but for most their cycle has a massive influence on their performance – and at a time when sensitivities are at a peak and a surge of WOD endorphins are desperately needed, feeling like you’ve lost all strength and coordination can be highly demotivating.  

So how should female athletes deal with these monthly woes? Firstly, they need to acknowledge that there are going to be changes in their training because of their cycle. Once those changes have been recognised and pinpointed to a day on the calendar, that knowledge empowers you.

Ladies, make peace with the fact that things are going to be different – but have contingency plans in place. The clinical depression and general demotivation that comes with hormonal changes is enough – you don’t need to add feelings of inadequacy to the mix.  When your hormones go out of whack you will already be irritated, add a WOD that you aren’t game for, watch your name dropping on the leader board, and your mental game will suffer.

What to look out for

It might seem obvious, but often we women suffer through symptoms wondering what on earth is wrong with us – until a few days later when the penny drops. Typical mental symptoms of the severe hormonal changes that occur during the menstrual cycle include; depression, severe fatigue that isn’t helped with sleep or coffee, demotivation, a lack of interest in things that usually give you enjoyment, irritability, forgetfulness and ‘foggy brain’. Physically, we experience; bloating, insatiable on demand cravings for quite specific things (whether salty, greasy or sweet), stomach cramps and fluid retention.

Some of the less obvious things (that you think are happening for no reason) include; poor recovery between sessions, odd joint aches and pains, and random, unfounded fears and self-doubt (to the point of phobia of picking up a bar or doing a gymnastics movement). During this time, we often feel like we don’t know what our bodies are going to do, which can lead a usually confident athlete to become quite fearful.

Some of the expressions that you can see in class could be that you struggle with a technical movement, your timing is out, or your ability to maintain your usual work capacity in high intensity workouts plummets - to the point where you feel like you’ve lost the skill or lost fitness.

All of this is disconcerting because we like to know who we are every day when we wake up. Part of that is knowing what your last best effort was. So if you arrive and you were doing great two days ago, and now you can’t lock out a bar overhead without losing your breath, it is very discouraging. As a result, you may start questioning a lot of things.

Take a deep breath, and do what you can

At the risk of sounding as though we’re reciting the serenity prayer; the only thing to do at this time is to realise that these things are beyond your control. We often think we can push through it - practice more, harness more, fit in extra training sessions. No! You cannot change the delicate chemical and hormonal balance that has gone out of whack. Those changes are innate and they are there for a reason. The only thing you can do about them is to temper the changes a little bit, changing up your lifestyle to ease the symptoms at least.

Lifestyle factors to consider

Sleep: In the week leading up to day one of your cycle, increase the amount of sleep you get and include naps when possible. Don’t feel guilty about having more sleep, you need it… and others will find it easier to be around you too.  

Stress: Unfortunately everyone has stress, but starting to identify what causes stress, and attempting to minimise or eliminate as much of these elements as possible will go a long way to relieve some pressure. Stress changes your hormonal patterns, so try keep all the things that change your hormones as normal as possible or at ideal levels. This includes things that you wouldn’t normally get stressed by – being in loud places or with loud people, having to do very complicated mental tasks that require being still. Avoid these, or plan them around your cycle.

Diet: Nutrition is important. If there are things that you identify that cause any gut irritation, avoid those foods during this time. Be very strict about this, you don’t need any more inflammation. Avoid sugar at all costs. The insulin spike will throw your hormones out even more (dark chocolate is an exception, as it acts as a comfort without the added sugar). Avoid dairy, gluten and highly processed, chemically laden, packaged foods, as these foodstuffs place added stress on your system. Replace those things with fresher, crispier, more visually enjoyable foods. Be aware that you are looking for pleasure fixes; you are looking for something to lift your serotonin levels – do it in a natural, healthy way.

Training: Approach each training session as a play session, one in which you are going to do things that will give you pleasure, and not pain. This will give you immediate feedback. Do things that you enjoy, are easy and include movements that gratify you; and be ok with that.

Go ladies!

By Diane Teles, Co-Founder of CrossFit 360Vida, Level 1 Coach and Physiotherapist