Riding Through the Month
Riding Through the Month
June 14 — 2023 | Santa Cruz, California
Words // Abbi Hamlin
Images and Video // Whitney Whitehouse
Alright, girl talk - let’s talk period, cramps, “that time of month”, menstrual cycle, whatever you want to call it. I realize this isn’t something we talk about every day, and for a long time has been avoided in conversation, but let’s face it, as women we make up a good portion of the population and we have a monthly cycle for most of our lives. That means that a very large amount of the population is almost always experiencing some effect of their monthly cycle - yet we’ve been told from a young age to avoid talking/thinking about it, and we have NOT been taught what actually is happening and how it affects us as athletes.
Hi, I’m Abbi, cyclist, sports nutritionist and health coach based in Bend OR. Now that I have your attention I want to share a little bit of my story, and why I’m passionate about women’s health. Starting in middle school, I didn’t have the best relationship with food - a story for another time - but through college I was constantly under fueling. As a competitive athlete in swimming, running, and triathlon this ended up catching up to me in college while running track and XC at WWU. I found myself constantly injured, tired, and worn out to the point I was benched more than able to compete. Not only that, but at age 21 I had yet to have my first period, and was told this was “typical for athletes” by my doctor. At this point I received a book from my massage therapist, “Roar”, by Dr. Stacy Sims. This book is all about matching your female physiology to your training and performance.
As soon as I read it, everything made sense - my missing menstrual cycle, my decreased performance despite my intense training, and my injuries. I realized how crucial nutrition was and shifted my focus to learning everything I could about women’s health and performance. My journey started out as a selfish journey to fix my wacky hormones and improve performance, and led me to my career path.
So let’s dive in. What exactly happens in our cycle over the course of a month and how might this affect us as active women/athletes/badass mountain bikers? It’s important to know that having a regular menstrual cycle is one of the most important indicators of our health as women (in menstruating years of course). Even though it can be a pain sometimes, having a cycle means our hormones are working correctly and that we are fueling enough!
It’s also important to learn what is happening in our bodies at a physiological level, and then take note of how each phase affects you individually. I love using my Garmin watch and tracking my cycle on the app. I can add in symptoms, and how I feel during each phase, which gives me a great understanding as to how I feel in my cycle. I believe we are all created differently so there is truly no “one size fits all” for periodising training. Syncing with your cycle is easier said than done, BUT when we understand our bodies, we are empowered to make decisions for ourselves, and maybe not be so hard on ourselves during certain times of the month.
There are two overarching phases in our cycle (follicular and luteal), but within those two phases we also have menstruation, mid-follicular, ovulation, luteal, and late-luteal phases. So let’s break down those phases and talk about how those might affect how we feel, and our riding!
- Hormones are low
- Estrogen begins to rise
The first part of menstruation begins on day one of your bleed. Listen to your body here, but as hormones are the lowest this is actually a great time to hit intensities (think sprint intervals on your bike!) and hit weight training hard. (A common misconception is that we should only be doing walks and yoga during this phase, when in reality it can be prime time for training…and doing a few rounds of sprints can actually help promote a boost in growth hormone and anti-inflammatory response that might help you get out of the period funk!) Obviously if you have severe cramping, take it easy here and listen to your body.
Emphasize iron during this phase. If we are in our bleed, we lose iron stores so it’s super important to replenish them. Iron can be found in red meat, dark leafy greens and legumes. Animal based sources are going to be more bioavailable than plant based sources. Our body is also primed to access carbohydrates, so we can add in healthy carbohydrate sources around training sessions. Some of my favorite carbohydrate sources are: sweet potatoes, fruits, whole grains, and locally made sourdough bread.
- Estrogen is dominant
- LH begins to rise
In this phase estrogen is on the rise. Estrogen is anabolic, which essentially means “muscle protection and muscle building.” During this half of our cycle, our bodies are set up to hit training intensities as well as recover from heavier weight training sessions. Great time to push yourself on the bike, lift some heavy weights, push intensities, and work on those gains!
Nutrition is important here to support healthy levels of estrogen and recover from our workouts and training rides.
Here are some things you can add:
Phytoestrogens (they support healthy estrogen levels)
- Examples: Flaxseeds, Almonds, Strawberries, Pumpkin Seeds
Iron - to support iron levels, healthy blood flow (we lose iron during our periods)
- Examples: Red meat, fish, lentils
Healthy Fats - reduce inflammation, regular periods, reduces PMS
- Examples: fish, chia seeds, flaxseeds, olive oil, grass-fed animal fats
- Estrogen peaks
- LH surges which triggers the release of an egg
During this phase we see that women respond differently. Some can feel awesome with the peak in estrogen, while others can feel a little flat. Listen to your body here, but it can be a great time to focus on form, maybe take some time to session features on your bike, with less focus on trying to hit top-end speed.
- Progesterone rises & peaks
- Estrogen gets a second wave
- Then lastly hormones begin to fall in late-luteal phase
During this phase, it can also be called the high hormone phase because estrogen and progesterone are both high. Progesterone is “catabolic” which means it breaks down muscle. Progesterone is really good at helping build our endometrial lining, but it’s not so good at helping us with performance, or feeling rock solid on our rides. During this phase, we also see an increase in body temperature. In the early luteal phase it’s a great time to focus on more steady state aerobic work and moderate training (think longer intervals on your bike as opposed to sprints), and be less worried about hitting times/watts perfectly. It’s normal to feel a little more tired during this phase so don’t be too hard on yourself! As always, listen to your body - if you feel good, then awesome, go get it!
*Note on “late luteal phase” - this phase is the 4-5 days right before your period, during this phase we can see an increase in inflammatory response because our body is getting ready to shed tissue. This can leave us feeling not quite as “on-top” of our game as usual. So again, let’s focus on what we can control. This could be a great time to work on functional strength, easier paced rides and mobility. Take this phase to do what feels good and have fun on your bike!
Nourishment is important in this phase. Our bodies are using nutrients to build the lining of our uterus, so we see an uptick in metabolism, and an increased need for carbohydrates and protein. Our bodies use magnesium and zinc more during this time so those would be important to incorporate. As we train through this phase, we need to be hitting extra doses of protein to offset the catabolic effects of our high progesterone.
Here are a few key important nutrients:
- Fiber: keeps you less bloated, more regular, and controls blood sugar, helps control cravings (Veggies, quinoa, sweet potatoes)
- Healthy fats: helps inflammation & cramping (naturally occurring omega 3’s, sunflower & sesame seeds, fatty fish, nuts…avoid highly processed inflammatory fats such as canola oil or seed oils)
- Magnesium: can be super beneficial for reducing cramps & stabilizing mood (Dark chocolate, dark leafy greens, organic whole grains)
- Sodium: salt (I like to use Celtic Sea Salt or Himalayan Salt)
- Zinc: (oysters, nuts, cashews)
- Protein: (Increase protein to mitigate side effects of progesterone breaking down muscle)
- Higher energy needs (100-200 cals)
Look to whole food sources for your nutrients first before looking at supplements, and always consult with your health care provider before starting anything new!
Wowza, we just crammed a lot of information into those paragraphs! Women have a cycle and different hormonal fluctuations during the month that we should not be ignoring. We also live in a day and age where female athletes can feel pressure to “look” a certain way. In endurance sports like cycling we need to be FUELING our body and giving it tools to perform!
Many women reading this may be on some form of birth control. This does change our hormones throughout the month, although it depends on which form. IUDs generally do not interrupt your body's natural rhythm of hormones, as they stay localized to the uterus. If you have an IUD but no longer get a period (common with the mirena), you can track your cycle through temperature and charting. Most likely you will still ovulate, but tracking is a bit more of a chore. Oral contraceptives however do interrupt your hormones and down regulate hormonal function. There are some ways we can use nutrition and training to help, but it depends which dosage/type is being used. This is where seeking medical help to decide what is best for you can be beneficial.
Menopause is the last piece I want to address. There are many badass women out there crushing it in menopause and beyond. Your hormones do change during this stage of life, so some of this post does not apply. Stacy Sims has a book that is an awesome resource if you fall into this category called NEXT LEVEL. Definitely check it out, and maybe we’ll do a blog post part two for women in menopause.
When it comes to tracking and cycle syncing, the best thing you can do is to start tracking YOUR cycle, and take notes on how you feel in each phase. There are many outside stressors that impact how you feel individually, and everyone is different. I’ve given you the facts, but how it plays out will be very different for each individual.
A couple of key takeaways for all my beautiful/badass/mountain biking queens:
- Knowledge is power - my belief is that the more we can educate women on their bodies, the more we can empower them.
- Focus on protein throughout your cycle! This is going to be key in your recovery and ability to adapt to training stress.
- As we women are created strong and beautiful and powerful, this post shouldn’t be overwhelming, but instead help educate us on our phases and how we can work with our bodies.
- LISTEN to your body! We all have different experiences and outside factors such as contraceptives, menopause, and life stress will impact how we feel.
With all that said, go out, get after it, and crush your goals!
I want to attribute this information to the pioneers of women’s health & performance such as Dr Stacy Sims, and the researchers in the Stanford FASTR program. A lot of the information in this blog post is from Dr. Stacy Sims’ book Roar. It has been a huge resource to me and clients I’ve worked with, and I would highly recommend getting a copy!
The information and other content provided in this blog, website or in any linked materials are not intended and should not be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.