COMPETE: Ladies Only

This post is for the ladies.

I've been an endurance athlete for well over a decade now. Throughout that time, I found baffling, confusing and incomplete answers about how our menstrual cycles work with training cycles, how to utilize the inexplicable power I had some days (and why) and not others, and how to work around the very unique issues that come with being a female. I struggled with taking ibuprofen on event days, only for it to not work, or to grapple with other issues in it's place. I sometimes skipped races or events because they fell on not-optimal or cramping days. (When I went through with the events, they were generally fine, but I felt aggravated at the unfairness of it all - LOL - not my general state of being.) I found it so incredibly frustrating that one of the issues that make women so physiologically different from men was ignored, or barely touched on.

The effects of menstrual cycles on athletic and endurance performance have little scientific research. Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui broke a major taboo during the 2016 Olympics by discussing her poor performance related to having started her period the night before. But it highlights a neglected conversation we need to have about periods and performance.

I wanted to share this information with PATHFINDER Compete first. While you're preparing for an Event of Team Assessment magnitude, I don't want to leave a single stone unturned in the effort to give you the best chance at thriving during your event. This is going to be A Long Read, but I promise you, this is going to change how you prep for Events.

One of my most highly-recommended books for women in PATHFINDER is Roar by Dr. Stacy Sims. Dr. Sims is an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist, and this book finally directed me to answers I have long sought. When I first heard about the book on an obscure, tinny podcast back in October, I was skeptical about how useful it could actually be, and had it not been for the world-class running coaches discussing it, I might've dismissed it. I ordered it anyway. When it arrived in the mail, the first sentence I noticed was, "Women are not small men. Stop training and eating like one." I was hooked. Here were some answers, finally.

Below, find some real-world recommendations taken from that book, and some additional advice and knowledge for you to make the best decisions about your unique health from an endurance athlete perspective.

Of course, always ask your doctor if the suggestions are right for you and your body.

It's time to start taking BCAA's.

We don't usually recommend specific supplements in PATHFINDER, but for Compete rosters, especially women, it's time to start taking branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) if you haven't already begun. We want to focus on leucine (muscle-building amino acid), isoleucine (red blood cell production +), and valine (muscle regeneration and energy production). It's harder to build muscle during your high-volume hormone period (the week prior to your period), and maintaining muscle development protects your muscles during prolonged, hard effort. There are a pitifully small number of scientific studies with women and the use of BCAAs, but of the few, the results were promising and it is generally accepted that the use of BCAAs create positive results in women.

Getting more branched-chain amino acids (especially leucine) can also mitigate fatigue, lethargy and feeling 'that mood.' Meats, dairy and eggs are all great sources of branched-chain amino acids along with a powder supplement. A supplement with 5 to 7 grams of BCAAs is ideal to consume daily (up to 2x) during training.

If you'd like a recommendation for BCAAs, I'm a big fan of Xtend BCAA powder in the Watermelon flavor. (Seriously - don't even mess with the other flavors. This kool-aid-like powder is the inner-child highlight of my every post-workout.)

What do I do if my Event falls during my period?

This is actually pretty good news! On the first day of your cycle, your hormones drop to the low-hormone phase. Again, there are very few studies conducted on women's sports performance during the menstrual cycle, but one study found that women swimmers clocked their fastest times during menstruation. You'll want to read the suggestions below for PMS for your particular symptoms. 

If you have heavy periods already, you'll want to take some extra steps. First, if you aren't already, consider taking an iron supplement in the month prior to your Event.

Sims recommends "250 mg of magnesium, 45 milligrams of zinc, 80mg of baby aspirin and 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids (flaxseed and fish oil) each night for the week prior to your period beginning" while following your planned training and nutrition schedule.

What do I do if my Event falls during PMS?

The week prior to your menstrual cycle beginning are high-hormone days. During this week, your physical reaction time might be dulled, and your blood sugar levels, respiratory rates and thermoregulation might be adversely effected. Exercise and Events might feel harder during high-hormone days. The cyclical rise and fall of hormones prior to beginning your period for the month will have a greater impact on exercise metabolism, fuels you burn, how you sweat and tolerate heat and cold. Below, I'll address most of the major considerations if you're doing Team Assessment (or any other Event) in the week prior to your period. Of course, these are suggestions, and not every suggestion will work for every person. Your attitude will still be everything!

More Carbs. Hello chocolate/tortilla chips/ice cream! We're going to need to deal with cravings here. Estrogen reduces your carb-burning ability to save your limited glycogen stores, while it increases fat burning and fatty acid availability. This is great for endurance athletes! But you're going to need to put more carbs into your system to fuel long endurance activity. Sims recommends a "combination of 10-15g of protein and 40g of carbs (200-220 calories) before any workout longer than 90 minutes and then an additional 200-250 calories of carbs per hour while you're out there." (In other words, when you get a chance to eat during the Event, and you're premenstrual, EAT ALL THE CARBS.)

BLOATY. The tightness that comes from bloating can feel truly gross. Your estrogen and progesterone are changing the fluid levels in you body, making you retain water and constricting your blood vessels. The chain of events that happen on a biological level wind up reducing your cardiac output and blood pressure, thereby affecting your performance. Improving your fluid input (especially with electrolytes) will help balance some of the discomfort. If you use caffeine as part of your pre/during Event food/drink, this might also help with bloating. Avoid anything containing sugar substitutes and sugar alcohols like xylitol, mannitol and sorbitol. This also leads us to...

Bringing the heat Hopefully heat won't be a big issue this year, but you may feel it more if you're premenstrual. Progesterone elevates your core temperature, so you may feel hotter and the cascading hormonal shifts might make it harder to sweat. You also shed sodium, which is something to stay alert to because it might make you slightly more to prone to hyponatremia.

You're going to need to pre-game fluids even more than usual to compensate. The night before, Sims recommends high-sodium chicken broth or a sodium hydration fluid to keep your levels up, and I'll go one further with the suggestion that if you're premenstrual, to take a sodium pill at the halfway mark (at least) of TA.

GI Issues & Cramping Ugh. This is what we all dread almost as much as starting our period out in the field. To put it simply, the hormone cascade slows your smooth muscle contractions and increases the uterine contractions.

In the 5 to 7 days prior to your period, you can reduce the effect of cramps by taking magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids and one 80-mg low dose baby aspirin (the "recipe" is above in the What Happens...During the Event? section). It has to be aspirin - not ibuprofen or another NSAID - because aspirin suppresses the production of prostaglandins irreversibly, whereas NSAIDS are reversible. Tums will be your third teammate during the Event as well - take one every four to six hours.

*If you have any medical reason to avoid taking a low-dose aspirin, obviously avoid this recommendation or discuss further with your physician.

Should I tinker with my cycle?

Ahhh, the temptation to skip the white pills and just keep rolling... if you're on oral contraceptives, the temptation can certainly be there. It can definitely work, but it can also backfire at a multi-day Event, depending on how your oral contraceptive works for you and your body. Manipulating your cycle with the Pill may also have performance-hindering side effects. The jury seems to still be out on how the Pill effects muscle-mass, recovery and aerobic capacity. Ultimately, it's a personal decision because there are so many variables.

Recovery Time

You made it! It's time to recover! Sims final recommendation on interventions to take during the recovery period highlights how critical nutrition will be to complete recovery. "Progesterone is extremely catabolic (breaks muscle down) and inhibits recovery. Aim to consume 20 to 25 grams of protein within 30 minutes of finishing training sessions." 

I hope this post provides our women PATHFINDER athletes some new and improved knowledge to continue conquering Events!

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