Women athletes are finally speaking openly about menstruation. Last year, world champion marathoner Paula Radcliffe criticized British Athletics medics for not knowing how to deal with elite athlete's periods, pointedly noting that they're not the curse they've been made out to be and that she in fact set the marathon world record in 2002 while suffering menstrual cramps. More recently, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui made international waves making waves by telling a reporter she didn't swim as well as she'd have liked because she got her period.
Stunningly, many of her female fans confessed to not knowing that women could even swim during their periods. More stunningly, it's 2016 and there is still so much silence, confusion and mythology surrounding menstruation! A woman's period is still so taboo in so many circles that it isn't discussed openly between coaches and athletes, and often not really talked about in training groups of women.
The common idea is that racing and training in and around your period is awful; that performance is the worst at this time; but here's the reality: You want to race and train hard on your period!
That's right. Your period rocks for performance. To understand why, you need to pull back the curtain on the physiology and see what's going on. You already know that you bleed during your period. But what is behind the bleeding? It is a sudden drop in progesterone and estrogen that causes the lining of the uterus to be sloughed off, which is effectively your period. Physiologically, it happens because no egg was implanted, thus no pregnancy has begun.
But what else happens? Estrogen and progesterone are not just reproductive hormones, but also affect many other systems of the body; most notably the endocrine system and the hypothalamus, which are key for body temperature control. Ironically, when these hormones drop and a woman starts her period is the time when she is actually "most like a guy" in terms of what is known in sport physiology and nutrition research: Pain tolerance is increased; time to fatigue is increased; she has a lower core temperature and greater plasma volume, so she can sweat more and stay cool longer, and from a metabolic state, a woman's body can tap into more carbohydrate stores and recover faster, as compared to the high hormone phase that leads into her period.
It's during this low-hormone phase that women should aim to hit high-intensity training sessions hard, try for PRs in power and speed activities, and optimize recovery through nutrition.
Fu Yuanhui may have blamed her period for abdominal pain, but the period pain, as unwelcomed as it can be, is actually a great sign for performance. Once you know your physiology, you can work with it to put out your best performance during every phase of your cycle—especially your period. We just need to keep the conversation--and the education--going. All of us hard working active women, not just elite athletes, deserve it. And it's about time.