What does this mean?
 
Athletic performance has historically been a man's world when it comes to studies, the fact that women have a menstrual cycle has been cited as a reason we are ‘too difficult’ to study due to ongoing fluctuations; even less studies are available on performance for women taking the oral contraceptive pill. However, it’s important to debunk the myth that having a menstrual cycle is some kind of performance curse; in fact a period has been referred to as an ‘ergogenic aid’ by researcher Dr Stacy Sims, a leader in hormones and sport[1].
 
The studies we do have on the menstrual cycle and athletic performance are often limited by the small number of–often recreational–athletes engaged in the study, and finding meaningful outcomes can be difficult. That being said, general trends have been found that are relatable to a large percentage of women, and apps such as FitRwomen have been developed to foster an understanding of your body and cycles as relating to performance using this data. What we do know from the small amount of studies we have, allows us to garner some insight into how the athletic body reacts to a 4-week cycle.

 

Week One
 
During the first week of your period, you're hormonally closest to a man, this is a great time for high intensity and peak strength work. Blood sugar, heat tolerance and respiratory rate are all optimised. Exercise can actually help alleviate menstrual cramps and symptoms. You’re ready to go!
 
Week Two
 
Week two mostly mimics week one, with the exception that oestrogen surges late this week to facilitate ovulation. This is still a great time for high intensity and peak strength work, and there have been studies finding that physiology is at it’s peak for performance on day 14 of the cycle.
 
Week Three
 
Your body increases reliance upon fatty acid availability compared to earlier in the cycle, blood sugar levels start to become less reliable and you may begin to notice an increase in body temperature and reduction in immunity[2]. You may begin to feel more fatigued and less able to reach peak power numbers. The focus is on moderate-intensity and endurance.
 
Week Four: Recovery Week
 
Your body has a steep decline in hormonal levels, often believed to be the cause of premenstrual symptoms. You may experience bloating, cravings and perceived decreases in strength and power. You may struggle to recover from hard sessions; if possible it’s great to make this week coincide with a recovery week!
 
 
This example of a four week training plan is tailored to a four week menstrual cycle, training for an XCO length event (60–120mins) in the build phase, for an athlete riding 6-12hours/week: that is, much of the long distance base and strength phase is completed, moving towards a competition phase in training. Often it is at this point in a program when hormonal differences are apparent during sessions: you may struggle to hit the higher zones, and feel more fatigued or hotter or just ‘flat’ when completing intensity work.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Saunday Total Hours

Week 1

Day Off

Zone 2 ride including VO2 Max Efforts 2x(2x4min), 3min RI with 10min between efforts, 1hr Skill Based ride zones 2 and 3, 1hr Mountain Bike Time Trials, 4x8min, ‘race’ simulation efforts on singletrack, 90min Zone 1 Recovery, 1hr

XCO Race    

OR 3x10min Zone 4,

90min

Mountain Bike Ride, Zones one and two: long ride day 2:30 8.5

Week 2

Day Off

Zone 2 ride including VO2 Max Efforts 2x(2x4min), 3min RI with 10min between efforts, 1hr Skill Based ride zones 2 and 3, 1hr Mountain Bike Time Trials, 4x8min, ‘race’ simulation efforts on singletrack, 90min Zone 1 Recovery, 1hr

XCO Race

OR 4x10min Zone 4,

90min

Mountain Bike Ride, Zones one and two: long ride day 3hrs 9

Week 3

Day Off

Zone 2 ride including VO2 Max Efforts 2x(3x4min), 3min RI with 10min between efforts, 90min Skill Based ride zones 2 and 3, 1hr Mountain Bike Time Trials, 4x12min, ‘race’ simulation efforts on singletrack, 90min Zone 1 Recovery, 1hr Mountain Bike Ride including 3x20min High Zone 3/Sub threshold efforts, 2-5min RI, 2hrs Mountain Bike Ride, Zones one and two: long ride day 3hrs 10

Week 4

Day Off

Day Off Skill Based ride zones 2 and 3, 1hr Day Off Easy ride in recovery zone 1hr Mountain Bike Skills Ride, Endurance and Tempo Zones only, working on skills progression, 2hrs Social Mountain Bike Ride 6

 

 

 

 

Of course, for different disciplines (CX, Gravity, XCO and XCM) the type and duration of ‘intensity’ would vary within this program, in order to replicate the demands of each sport. This four week program is merely an example of ways to hack your physiology to get the most out of your body at different times of the month. You will notice the intensity is geared towards the first two weeks, and endurance and recovery in the last two.

[1] Sims, S. T. (2016). Roar: how to match your food and fitness to your female physiology for optimum performance, great health, and a strong, lean body for life. New York, NY: Rodale.

[2] Carpenter, A. J., & Nunneley, S. A. (1988). Endogenous hormones subtly alter womens response to heat stress. Journal of Applied Physiology, 65(5), 2313–2317. doi: 10.1152/jappl.1988.65.5.2313