What female runners (and coaches) need to know
In a sport where everyone is trying to prove just how tough and determined they can be – to themselves, their training group and the coach, gender can be overlooked in discussions about how to train effectively and safely for distance running. But coaches of female runners need to be aware that there is much more going inside the minds and bodies of their athletes than the tough veneer many driven and focused runners present.
I’m not implying any weakness or lack of strength of character, far from it; in my opinion females tend to be tougher competitors than their male counterparts. In fact, this toughness can get some runners into trouble as they push their bodies to a literal breaking point.
If you coach female runners or are a lady making your own way in the sport of running you need to be aware of just how critical it is to understand and not ignore the relationship between your biology, training load and racing performance. I’ll fess up to being ignorant about some aspects of how female runners can get the best out of their training. As a coach and author I know I need to learn more, luckily I was able to turn to training partner Lisa Biffin to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge.
Secret women’s running business – by Lisa Biffin
As a female runner I have found over the years that there has been very little attention given to a particular topic that couldn’t be more important to fulfilling your goals and maximizing your enjoyment of the sport of running. If you’re a female you’ll already know what I’m talking about, if you’re a male coach or runner please keep reading, this issue might be awkward to talk about, but it isn’t going away anytime soon.
That topic, of course, is the female menstrual cycle. It is inevitable and perfectly healthy and natural that every woman will experience a menstrual cycle. What goes hand in hand with the female reproductive system are certain challenges and ups and downs that are sometimes not considered by male coaches or even talked about amongst female runners.
Consider when you are strongest
The reality is our menstrual cycles do affect our performances in training and racing. Feelings and emotions differ for each individual as do physical strength levels during the cycle. For example, right after a period has finished, all the sugary cravings have gone and the feelings of bloating have ceased, women can feel quite strong and at peak physical condition – this may be the perfect time to schedule a tougher block of training. It’s worth noting your strength and coordination levels in your training diary. Take particular note of which part of the cycle you felt strongest and in good control of your running mechanics. Over time you may be able to adjust your training schedule and demands to suit your body.
When should I run easy and avoid further stressing my body?
Another factor to consider is the emotional toll the menstrual cycle can take on a woman known as PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome). Due to the changes in hormones it is quite common just before or during a female’s period that emotions can be amplified, resulting in feelings such as sadness, severe fatigue, depression, intense cramps and bouts of uncontrollable crying.
Hormonal changes during the menstruation cycle differ from female to female and it is important that every woman clearly understands what the menstruation cycle is and how it will impact on training and racing. Again this should be noted in your training diary and discussed with your coach (if you have one).
The cycle explained
The average length for the menstrual cycle is 28 days however this does differ amongst individuals. There are distinct phases which can be categorised into the ovarian and the uterine cycle, these cycles overlap during the 28 day period.
Ovarian Cycle: The ovarian cycle is a monthly series of events during which the maturation of an egg occurs and can be typically described in two distinct phases:
- Follicular Phase: Typically lasts from the first day of the cycle to the fourteenth. Consists of a developing egg, surrounded by one of more layers of follicle cells and is the period of follicle growth.
Ovulation: Ovulation is not a separate phase but occurs mid-way through the cycle. It is common for women to experience abdominal pain or cramps during this time.
- Luteal Phase: After ovulation the ruptured follicle collapses and forms a new endocrine gland, the corpus luteum. If pregnancy does not occur, the corpus luteum starts degenerating which triggers menstruation and the beginning of a new cycle.
Uterine (Menstrual) Cycle: The uterine or menstrual cycle is a series of cyclic changes the uterine endometrium goes through each month as it responds to changing level of ovarian hormones in the blood. The events of the three stage uterine cycle are as follows:
Days 1-5: Menstrual Phase. The uterus sheds all but the deepest part of its endometrium and bleeding occurs.
Days 6 – 14: Proliferative Phase. The endometrium rebuilds itself and under the influence of rising blood levels of oestrogen, the endometrium generates a new functional layer. Ovulation occurs in the ovary at the end of this stage (day 14).
Days 15 – 28: Secretory Phase. The endometrium prepares for implantation of the embryo. If fertilisation has not occurred, the corpus luteum begins to degenerate toward the end of the secretory phase and blood progesterone levels drop. The menstrual cycle starts over again.
Reference: Human Anatomy and Physiology, fifth Edition. Elaine N Marieb
Dangers of not having a period
Growing up as a young female runner I would be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t pleased when I missed some monthly periods. Getting used to your body and its changes is a daunting and confusing time with so many dramatic changes taking place,
I often thought of not having to deal with a monthly period as being a blessing in disguise. However, I very quickly learned of the big health risks associated with not having a regular cycle.
Amenorrhea is the medical term used to describe the absence of periods and whilst it is common for a female to miss the occasional period, it is neither normal nor healthy for this to be a long term occurrence. Many women use female contraceptives such as the ‘pill’ which can be used to regulate and skip monthly periods. This is a well documented method for females to be able to control their monthly cycle, but must only be done under the supervision of your medical doctor.
However not all women chose to skip periods, but coaches and runners needs to be aware that missing periods can be a warning sign that physical and emotional health is not as it should be. Some of the factors to be on the lookout for are:
- Heavy training load / over exercising
- Significant weight loss
- Disordered eating
- Increased stress levels
If you or one of your athletes are missing regular periods then medical advice from a doctor should be sought on why this may be occurring. You could be putting yourself at risk of injuries such as stress fractures and doing long term damage to your body.
Many women are coached by males within athletics and this can make keeping the lines of communication open about female issues a challenge. In all the time I have been running, I have only ever had one coach broach the subject with me despite how import these issues are.
You need to be able to discuss how you’re feeling openly and in a comfortable environment with male or female coaches. If you can’t you may be putting your short and long term health at risk and not maximizing the benefits of your training.
Admittedly, the topic of a female menstrual cycle may be difficult to discuss, however the more approachable coaches are, the stronger the relationship will become, as will the likelihood of better results for the athlete.
If you feel too embarrassed to discuss this with your coach, confiding in a female friend of more senior member of your training group can be good way to ensure the coach has the information needed to properly manage your training.
Case study Raelene Boyle – Australian athletics legend
I recently picked read Raelene Boyle’s autobiography “Raelene – Sometimes beaten, never conquered” and was surprised yet pleased that Raelene and her coach scheduled her training and competitions around her cycle. Raelene says:
Like any woman, I knew there were times in my menstrual cycle when I felt at my strongest, and times when emotionally and physically I was at my lowest. After a great deal of trial and error, I discovered that I was at my strongest and fittest soon after getting my period. In the days leading up to it I was often in pain. These attacks were usually accompanied by hot and cold sweats and a feeling of being boated. It goes without saying on those days I was prone to irritation and a difficult person to deal with.
I was also very injury prone at those times and when my Achilles tendons tore or snapped it was always just a day or two away from my period.
Know your body
It is important as a female runner to listen to, understand and be kind to your body. We are all impacted very differently during our cycles, but the closer aligned with our bodies we are, the better we can determine when we may need to train a little lighter or fuel our bodies with additional supplements such as iron or magnesium. By knowing your body you will be able to better plan your racing and training calendar.
There are days when I have woken and felt like sharp knives are being jabbed into my stomach, I somehow have managed to swell to twice my normal size (well I feel like I have) and the only thought going through my mind is that of retiring to the couch with a block of chocolate and a hot water bottle. I know I am not alone with these experiences and thoughts.
As women runners we need to be able to have an upfront relationship with our coaches and support groups so that we do not feel pressured to push our bodies too hard during times where rest or less intense training is required. The important factor is to listen to your body and work with and not against it to ensure longevity in the sport and a healthy body for the remainder of your life.
Written by Lisa Biffin and Brian Martin