Exercise during menstruation: How does your cycle affect sporting ability?

Most women can relate to and sympathise with the often debilitating symptoms caused by menstruation. Each month a woman’s body goes through a series of changes in preparation for the possibility of pregnancy. An egg is released from the ovary and, if left unfertilised, the lining of the uterus is shed; frequently causing physical discomfort and emotional upheaval.

Alongside the physical changes the body goes through during menstruation, women are often also affected by premenstrual syndrome resulting in emotional, behavioural and physical symptoms. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, approximately 85 per cent of menstruating women experience at least one of these disabling premenstrual effects.

Menstruation can be an arduous time of the month for many women, affecting their ability to function as normal. When it comes to exercise the physical and emotional strain of menstruation can limit the ability to be physically active.

But just how much does the menstrual cycle affect sporting performance and what are some of the strategies women can implement in order to alleviate the draining effects of menstruation?

The physical symptoms associated with menstruation, such as headaches, weight gain, low energy levels and joint and muscle pain, make exercise an overwhelming prospect for many women. Emotional and behavioural symptoms including poor concentration, irritability, appetite changes and insomnia also have the potential to disrupt a woman’s ability to engage in physical activity.

According to exercise physiologist Jason Karp, fluctuating levels of progesterone and oestrogen lead to physiological changes in the body during menstruation; changes that are further exacerbated by exercise. Karp explains that during the menstrual cycle an increase in body temperature occurs, making it more difficult to run in the heat. Women also experience an increase in breathing meaning that less oxygen is available for the muscles involved in exercise.

However, this is a difficult area to research, explains Dr Susan White, the chief medical officer for Netball Australia; ‘the things that some women associate with the menstrual cycle, like fatigue or bloating or general lethargy, are hard to measure. And even if we could measure them, it is difficult to say if it is just one or a combination of those symptoms as well as other internal or external factors that may affect performance.’

In either case, many women find it difficult to exercise during menstruation; an issue that can also heavily affect the performance of elite sportswomen. Czech tennis player Petra Kvitova recently revealed that it is ‘quite tough’ to play at the start of the menstrual cycle, a statement that former world number one Martina Navratilova agreed with, explaining that while many sportswomen ‘don’t want to use it as an excuse; it can affect players in a big way’.

There are some options available to women to lessen the symptoms of menstruation, including the oral contraceptive pill or injections which can either control the menstrual cycle or stop it altogether. And while there is ample anecdotal evidence that menstruation affects the ability to exercise, unfortunately there is a lack of clinical data to support this assertion.

Source: Medical News Today