Benjamin Franklin forgot something when he said “nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” He forgot menstrual cycles. Being that he’s a man, I suppose I’ll have to forgive him for not knowing what millenia of women do: That every month the majority of us women between 12 and 50 will spew stain-inducing bodily fluids with a regularity and frequency that put both death and taxes to shame (after all, unless you’re Elvis you’ll only die once.)
The worst thing about Aunt Flo, Aunt Rosie, My Friend, Mother Nature’s Visit, My Present – besides the stupid nicknames we give it – isn’t that it knows no regard for expensive cruises, athletic tournaments or white dresses being worn while riding a white horse on a white beach inexplicably holding a white badminton racket; it’s the hormone fluctuations that go up and down behind the scenes. At their very worst, out-of-control progesterone and estrogen fluctuations cause misery ranging from wicked PMS/PMDD to cystic acne to unwanted facial hair. (side note: Ever notice how it’s always “unwanted facial hair”? Is there such a thing as wanted facial hair? Eyebrows, I suppose. But even those we pluck, wax or thread into submission.) But we know all this already. The part we rarely talk about is the effect of our monthly hormone cycles – and you still have some hormone fluctuations even if you’re on a hormonal birth control method that lessens or eliminates your period – on our workouts.
I once had a yoga teacher ask me if I was menstruating. No, I hadn’t leaked all over my yoga mat (although that would have made for one heck of a story) but we were getting ready to do headstand inversions and she wanted to make sure none of the women were bleeding because – and I swear she actually said this to me – going upside down would inhibit my uterus from being able to expel the blood because of gravity working against it. I did not retort that seeing as my uterus is a very large powerful muscle capable of expelling whole human beings, it would probably be okay with a few extra g’s pulling on that blood. Not to mention that if our hearts can still pump while we are upside down I don’t see why the rest of our body wouldn’t be similarly able. Needless to say I did the headstands anyways. And yes, I did happen to be “men-stroo-ating.” While my period hasn’t affected my yoga practice much, it has put a crimp in some of my other workouts.
Period-induced weakness is a topic that comes up with the Gym Buddies and I about once a month – our bodies have all been kind enough to synch up our cycles (you know you are close friends when you even menstruate together). All of us swear that in the few days right before the Crimson Tide (I love you Cher Horowitz!) crashes over us, we lose stamina in our cardio, strength in our weight lifting and the final kick in our chocolate-stained teeth: our pain threshold is lowered. To say nothing of feeling bloated in our spandex Nike leggings. Lest you think this is a mass hysteria (hysteria: translated from Greek meaning literally “roving uterus”), science backs us up. Well, sort of.
While exercising while shedding your uterine lining can be uncomfortable and inconvenient (although this can be mitigated by using a Diva Cup – I cannot tell you enough how much I love that thing!), thanks to both progesterone and estrogen being at their lowest right before the blood hits, the most deleterious effects from your cycle are usually experienced in the pre-menstruating phase. There aren’t that many studies on menstruating female athletes but the few that exist do seem to show “best performances during the intermediate postmenstrual days and worse performances during premenstrual and initial-flow days.” Women exercising in this phase can expect to feel “increased fatigue” “slight decreases in aerobic capacity and strength” as well as “an increase in perceived exertion” (i.e. you get whiny because doing your usual workout feels twice as hard). To add insult to injury – literally – we’re also more susceptible to injury during the menstrual phase of cycle thanks to the work of another hormone, relaxin, that peaks during this phase.
But who needs research when you have a good PR firm? In our ongoing effort to medicalize and then advertise every normal bodily function, Asics has recently come out with a new shoe designed specifically to adjust to a woman’s hormone cycles. When you’re on your period and your feet swell, the shoe automatically alters its padding to accommodate your hobbit feet. And then when you’ve finished bloating like you’re your own flotation device, they shrink back down again.
Nobody – not the experts, not me and certainly not the shoe companies – is going to tell you to skip exercise just because you’re on the rag. In fact, I personally have found vigorous exercise to be the best way to relieve cramps. But I do give you full permission to be cranky while you work out. And the experts recommend easing up a bit during the week right before, and the first few days of, your period. Olympic powerlifting coaches recommend lifting a little lighter either by decreasing your reps or your weight loads. Also, don’t feel bad about listening to your body. If you feel more fatigued than normal, scale back that long run. Don’t try and push through – this is not the time to try for that PR or up your one-rep max – because you are at a greater risk of injury. Just remember, no period lasts forever and you will fit back into your pants again.
Birth Control Update TMI
In case I haven’t sent you all running yet, you’re about to get even more up close and personal with my (vacant, yay!) uterus. A while back I wrote a post about trying to figure out the best birth control method and received quite a large number of informative, opinionated and impassioned comments. I ended up choosing to get the Mirena IUD (a.k.a. the “hormonal” intrauterine device). I was worried due to a lot of anecdotal reports I’d heard about it leading to weight gain or making it hard to lose weight after the baby is born. While I can’t make any conclusive statements – I have NOT lost all my baby weight yet (which I’m trying to be zen about but you know is driving me nuts) – I’ve had it in for about 5 months now and have lost some weight. I certainly haven’t gained any since having it put it in. Thanks for tuning in to this unscheduled uterine update!
So, Ladies (every time I say that I want to finish it with “you wanna roll my Mercedes?“) – any of you noticed a difference in your workouts right before and during your period? Would you still do handstands? Would you buy special “period sensitive” workout shoes? So, Men – have I made you really uncomfortable yet? Just made you glad all over again you’re not a girl?