Running and your period: how to go with the flow

Ever wondered whether your monthly cycle affects your running ability or how to ease PMS? We bring you the lowdown on running and menstruation.

Running and your period: how to go with the flow

If you’re a woman who runs, your period might feel like a major inconvenience every month. From painful cramps to worries about leakages, running around the week of your period can bring anxiety, discomfort and even embarrassment. 

But don’t fear! ALL women who run have to cope with their period (minus those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have had uterine surgery) – so you’re not alone. What’s more, hormonal changes in your body can actually enhance your running, making you better able to cope with either high-intensity sessions or endurance runs, depending on the time of your cycle.

Obviously every woman’s body is different, but in general, it’s not all bad. The female body is amazing, so let’s embrace it (regardless of what our lady bits are up to at the time).

The cycle

The average menstrual cycle lasts 28 days (although anything from 20 to 45 days is normal). Day one is the day your period starts. Ovulation (when your ovary releases an egg) occurs around day 14. This is the first half of your cycle, known as the follicular phase. Your oestrogen levels rise gradually and your body temperature is lower. 

At this time, your body also breaks down glycogen more quickly, to release energy faster. This can be a great time to train, as you may feel more energised and your muscles will have access to glycogen more quickly. During this time, you may find you can nail those high-intensity workouts, interval sessions and shorter races with ease. 

After ovulation, your progesterone levels rise. This can make intense training feel harder, BUT this is the point at which your body utilises fat for fuel more readily, so it’s a good time for longer, slower endurance runs.

PMS

OK, so we admit it’s not all joy. The week before your period starts, good old PMS sets in, meaning you might feel bloated, sluggish and irritable. But remember, some gentle exercise could actually ease these symptoms and lift your mood.

‘That week leading up to your period when you’re pre-menstrual is often worse than the period itself,’ says Dr Juliet McGrattan, GP and author of Sorted: the active woman's guide to life. ‘Bloating and moodiness are common problems. There’s no doubt that running is excellent for mental health and a good run is an ideal way to get a blast of happy hormones. Taking it out on the pavement instead of friends and relatives can be a relationship-saver. 

‘When you’re feeling bloated the last thing you feel like doing is putting on Lycra and heading out the door, a bit of exercise will however be beneficial. It will help reduce fluid retention and also ease constipation which can be a pre-menstrual problem too. Similarly, when you feel exhausted, a gentle run can act as a pick-you-up.’

Keep on running 

If you have particularly heavy periods, you might experience low iron levels due to bleeding, plus fewer red blood cells in your body could means slower transport of oxygen to your muscles, making running feel harder. Take it easy if this happens to you. But is there any evidence that women don't perform as well athletically during their menstrual cycle?

‘Interestingly, so far, medical studies looking at high level athletes haven’t shown any difference in performance at varying times of the menstrual cycle,’ says Dr McGrattan. ‘Anecdotally however many women will tell you they don’t feel able to perform as well at certain times of the month. The main problem is the lack of evidence, particularly in recreational athletes; there just aren’t the studies yet to give us the answers. Hopefully as we all become more comfortable talking about this topic and start to ask the questions, then the studies will follow.’

Running while you have your period can be a great time to run for many women, so as long as you feel secure in your sanitary protection. Athlete Uta Pippig won the Boston Marathon in 1996 while on her period (as evidenced by the blood streaming down her legs). Did she let this stop her? Hell no! Who knows what you might achieve?

‘There’s absolutely no need to stop running,’ agrees Dr McGrattan. ‘The first day or two of a period can be heavy and painful for some women, so the practicalities of running and not bleeding through your clothes can be off-putting. Understandably, many women don’t want to run on these days. A heavy blood loss can make you feel light headed so if you are heading out for a run, then just take it easy and see how you feel.

‘Generally though, there’s no reason why you can’t run right through your period. Period pain can put a stop to running when it’s severe and can be tricky to solve. Although you’ll commonly see ‘exercise’ on the list of self-help measures for period pain there’s actually no clear evidence that running will help. Many women find it does, but if running is hurting then try lower impact cross-training activities like swimming or yoga. It’s usually a case of trial and error and every woman is different so you need to find what works for you.’

Blood loss

One area you can control is your diet. Resist the urge to gorge on chocolate cookies and opt for plenty of iron-rich foods, like leafy-green vegetables, especially around the time of your period.

‘This is particularly important if your blood loss is heavy,’ explains Dr McGrattan. ‘Red blood cells carry the oxygen to your muscles and organs and your body needs iron to make red blood cells. If you’re losing more red cells than you’re making, then you can become anaemic. Anaemia will make you tired and breathless and running will feel like really hard work. If you think you may be anaemic, then you should see your GP for a blood test.’

The main thing to remember is that every woman is different, so there is no one-size fits all approach to running and periods. ‘For many, their monthly bleed is a mild inconvenience, for others it’s a debilitating week of misery,' explains Dr McGrattan.

'There’s such a large scale and what is acceptable to one woman is unacceptable to another, depending on her beliefs and lifestyle. All of us however should feel comfortable in asking for help if our periods are a problem for us. If you’re not trying to get pregnant and are happy to use hormones (many women aren’t) then there are plenty of solutions available to help reduce and even stop your periods. Speak to your GP or family planning nurse.'

'If you’re interested in whether your training is affected by your menstrual cycle, then keeping a diary can help you track whether there are certain times of the month when you don’t perform well,' she adds. 'You can then tailor your training plan to avoid high intensity sessions and races around then.’ 

Ultimately, be guided by your own body. If you’re feeling strong, go with it; if you feel sluggish, tired or weak, take is easy, or do some gentle cross training instead of donning your running shoes. But whatever route you do decide to take, it's your body so do what works for you. 

Sorted: the active woman's guide to life by Dr Juliet McGrattan is published by Bloomsbury Sport and available to buy on 6 April 2017. Click here to pre-order your copy today.