Exercise and Your Period: Be Your Best When You Feel Bad
July 8, 2022 – We’re heading into the Wimbledon finals this weekend, when the world’s best tennis players face off for one of the most coveted championships in sports. But while that excitement unfolds on the court, a different drama has been happening in the locker room – where women players commiserate over the stress and anxiety of competing during their periods.
At least that’s what we can infer from Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig, who sparked a public conversation on the topic in May. Responding to a tweet on “why women’s menstruation is never talked about as a possible factor in discussions about top seeds losing in the women’s draw,” she said: “Definitely something that affects female athletes!”
“Finally bringing it to everyone’s attention!” Puig went on. “Not to mention the mental stress of having to wear all white at Wimbledon and praying not to have your period during those two weeks.”
In fact, more and more players are speaking out about the impact of periods on their game. United Kingdom tennis pro Heather Watson talked about it back in 2015 when she was beaten in the first round of the Australian Open. Her period had started that day, leaving her lightheaded and lethargic, she has said.
The growing conversation around the seemingly taboo topic – in a relatively traditional and austere sport, no less – would seem to signal that things are changing, and not just for tennis players but for all women who try to be active.
After all, you don’t have to be a world-famous tennis star to know that exercising on your period can be a real pain – literally. Many women have the cramps, the fatigue, and the fear of leaking through workout clothes (despite what feminine hygiene marketing would have you believe about being able to do anything on your period as long as you use their products). For those with regular periods, the cycle impacts all areas of life, including workout routines.
The good news: You can find ways to help you not only feel your best, but also perform your best during your period.
Armed with the right mindset and information, you can achieve an impressive performance level during your period, says Stacy T. Sims, PhD, an international exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist. It’s all about planning your workouts in a way that works with your body instead of against it.
“In training, we can leverage the knowledge regarding the ebb and flow of our hormones and how our bodies adapt to stress to our advantage,” she says.
And if you can do that, you’ll be able to not only keep moving when you may not feel like it, but also manage monthly symptoms. More good news: With the renewed public interest on the topic, there’s never been a better time to talk about periods and performance. So let’s talk.
How Your Menstrual Cycle Impacts Your Energy
Step one is educating yourself on your cycle so you can anticipate your less energetic – and more energetic – days, says Madalyn Turner, a certified menstrual coach, chiropractor, and women’s menstrual cycle expert in St. Petersburg, FL.
The mensural cycle is broken down into four phases, she says. In order, they are:
- Menstruation: This is when the uterine lining sheds and you get your period.
- Follicular: This occurs between the first day of the period and ovulation.
- Ovulation: In this phase, an egg is released from the ovary and estrogen is at its peak.
- Luteal: This marks the days between ovulation and the start of your next period, when the body prepares for possible pregnancy.
How to Match Your Workouts to Your Cycle
In the days leading up to and during your period, you may feel tired, cranky, or achy, possibly due to the body’s drop in hormones like estrogen and progesterone. Still, if you can move your body even a little, it may help ease your symptoms.
“You don’t have to go at it every day of the month,” Sims says. “During the week of your period, it is great to exercise as you feel able.”
Consider short bouts of moderate exercise, she says. “A short burst of activity such as a 20-minute moderate-paced walk is a great way to increase painkilling endorphins in the body,” says Sims.
In fact, a 2015 study found that moderate aerobic exercise can help boost your energy and improve concentration during premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and a 2018 study found that 8 weeks of aerobic exercise reduced physical PMS symptoms such as headache, nausea, and bloating.
Finish your workout with some light stretching, Sims recommends.
The follicular phase, Turner believes, is a great time to really give your workout your all. That’s because a rise in estrogen may leave you feeling energized, she says.
You might try high-intensity interval training, or lifting with heavier weights and fewer reps, or doing intense cardio such as a cycling class.
During ovulation, estrogen peaks. Your energy level and mental clarity are at a monthly high, says Sims. That makes this a good time for one last push before switching gears in the next phase of your cycle. Sims recommends reaction drills, lifting with moderate weight and higher repetitions, and high-intensity cardio like running.
As you enter the last phase of your cycle – the luteal phase – your energy level will likely still be high, though it may fall as your period nears and hormone levels change.
That makes this a good time to shift to moderate aerobic activities such as using an elliptical trainer, taking a Pilates class, or lifting with lighter weights for a higher number of reps, says Sims. Walking, rowing, and cycling are also excellent options, she says.
Bottom line: Knowing what’s best for you and your individual cycle can help you feel better during all your workouts, Turner says. And you don’t have to be a professional athlete to do that.
“Typically, we have been entrenched with the idea that we can’t do anything but lay on the couch when our period comes,” Turner says. “But I believe we are the generation to leave that outdated narrative behind and really become empowered by learning how to work with the beauty of our bodies and not against them.”