With growing interest and investment into female cycling as well as improved understanding of how best to build training and racing around the menstrual cycle, coach Matt Shallcrass shares his experiences from coaching female athletes at World Championship and Olympic level, not only for performance but more importantly for overall health and well-being.
The physiological determinates of success in cycling don’t differ between male and female, however where it differs is the effect the menstrual cycle can have on training and health.
Many of the sport science breakthroughs or research that historically guided our training philosophies are either void or have such small numbers of female participants, they can't be considered as representative.
It was often noted in these research papers that due to the female menstrual cycle it was difficult to have a consistent hormone level for repeatable or reliable study designs.
Thankfully in the last few years and even more recently we've seen some amazing work done to specifically research female physiology and impacts on performance and health, thus driving improved education on how we can train safely and effectively and utilise female physiology to get the best performance possible without compromising health and well-being.
As researchers Stacy Sims and Katie Schofield put it “women are not small men”. This essentially captures the importance of this growing field of research and the importance around having conversations about women's specific training.
The information here relates to the timings in a natural menstrual cycle so whilst hormonal contraception can reduce hormone fluctuations, there can still be subtle changes and tracking or paying attention to your cycle in a similar way to those who naturally menstruate can have positive outcomes for physical and mental health and ultimately help athletes perform and achieve their goals. Below we discuss how we can periodise training to aid training effect and physical adaptation.
To first understand how we can periodise the training load it’s important to look at the menstrual cycle and the different phases. It is important to note a couple of points here.
• Not all females will have regular cycles or be within the time frame specified
• Some athletes on hormonal contraception don’t notice or experience any signs or symptoms
• The cycle can be broken down into further finer stages, however for this article have kept it to 3 stages across a 4-week training cycle
How can this be applied to training?
Follicular phase – Week 1
The body is primed here for high intensity and high resistance work, this is due to the low hormone profile which is enabling a greater uptake of carbohydrates and thus giving better muscle glycogen stores to access for these hard sessions and aid recovery. In this phase we would often target on and off-bike strength workouts coupled with anaerobic and lactate threshold work.
Mid Follicular Phase – Week 2
The training focus is similar to week one and provides good two week focus on heavy resistance training and higher intensity efforts. The bonus on this week is that as you enter ovulation with an increase in estrogen it can further enhance the training effect, another positive factor is that core temperature is at its lowest point so sleep can be improved, and we can see greater recovery rates.
Luteal Phase (Early) – Week 3
During this phase we see an increase in estrogen and progesterone, which increases sympathetic nervous drive, this alters ability to recover from hard sessions. In this phase, steady-state aerobic work is advantageous. With the overall rise of estrogen and progesterone in this phase, the ability to utilize stored carbohydrate is limited. Therefore, we need to ensure that we increase nutrition, particularly carbohydrates, to help fuel the training and the high energy demands of the body in this phase.
Luteal Phase (Mid) – Week 4
This phase is where you may feel changes in your body the most, such as bloating, menstrual cramps, and fluid shifts. Recovery this week is key, listening to your body is the best thing you can do here. Training is often low intensity and often fewer sessions per week than the previous weeks. It’s a great time to focus on technique work, coffee rides with friends and generally taking the days easy and reflecting on the great three weeks of hard work you have completed!
Racing during a period
A lot of conversations I’ve had with female athletes are around 'what happens if my race is during my period?'
Whilst having your period can be an added stress come race day, the great news is it doesn’t have to affect your performance.
Your body can produce PB efforts during this phase, ultimately your performance is more a combination of accumulative training, and rest!
So, if it looks like that targeted event or race falls during that phase of your cycle, all it means is you need to listen to your body and maybe take addition rest or easier days prior to the event and fuel well. If you have trained consistently well in the weeks leading in and are motivated and excited to be on the line, then you’re ready to perform.
One thing that's important to consider is Relative Energy Deficit Syndrome (REDs) - a state where the body’s systems and function are impaired through a state of low energy availability, energy output exceeds energy intake. This can manifest over one, or multiple training cycles and females can be at a greater risk than males, however it can affect anyone and is an issue all athletes should all be aware of.
If we consider the energy demands of the menstrual cycle to maintain a healthy function, we see variation in how the body can uptake and utilize fuel sources and we know that the diet will vary with a higher demand/need for nutrients during each stage. Now if we add on top of this endurance and strength training, the specific demands for nutrients and total caloric demand goes up.
REDs can be difficult to diagnose and if you suspect you have REDs then medical consultation should be your first point of call to help with diagnosis and treatment plans.
How can REDs present itself?
· Altered Menstrual cycle
· Fatigue, low energy
· Altered mood, poor concentration
· Under performance, failing to improve
· Recurrent injuries
· Loss of enjoyment from sport
What are some of the health consequences?
· Bone health
· Menstrual cycle function
· Energy metabolism
· Infection resistance
· Cardiovascular health
· Protein synthesis
· Psychological health
While all the advice around training can seem overwhelming or confusing at times, the take home message is ensuring we try to “train neutral”, this is a phrase we used when preparing for the Tokyo Olympics.
What this meant was ensuring that the calories burnt during the training sessions were replaced, through pre-fueling, during and post session, and using recovery days, or lower energy days, to continue to fuel well and not reduce calories just because we have an easy day.
This, coupled with periodising the training in conjunction with the menstrual cycle, helped guide us to reduce the risk of REDs, when we know where the pressure points are in each block, we can plan to help combat them. It is really important to be brave, know when you need to stop, have a rest and let the body recover and bounce back.
Secondary to this we ensured that the phase of the cycle and the training given was matched in terms of energy source, for example in week 3 of the menstrual cycle when stored carbohydrates utilization is low, we used a higher carbohydrate drink mix to help achieve the goal of “training neutral”.
Good planning around nutrition and training is helping to ensure we can all “train neutral” and avoid the pitfalls of impaired performance and REDs.
Remember to always listen to your body, you know yourself better than anyone else.
Being healthy and understanding the demands of training and your body are critical factors for enjoyment and success.
Matt Shallcrasscoaches for Team EF Coaching and is based in New Zealand. Matt has spent the last ten years coaching with national track teams specialising in Team Pursuit as well as bunch racing and road - he's had the privilege of coaching the New Zealand Men's team at world championships and more recently the Canadian Women's Team at the Tokyo Olympics.