Being on your period should make running harder, right? All that leaking, cramping and fatiguing… it’s hardly conducive to a swift session. But Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi is convinced that periods may actually add a little fuel to the running fire – so what does the science say?
You’d think that bleeding for umpteen days – and all the issues that come with that – might make running harder. If doing our day jobs becomes harder during that bloody week, going out for a run or competing in a race must turn into a herculean challenge, right?
Interestingly, I’ve found the reverse to be true. The two occasions where I’ve excelled myself at running – winning the Nevis women’s 10k race and achieving a sub-4 hour marathon around Loch Ness – both happened on the first day of my period. Even weirder, I lost my period for a couple of years and that experience left me woefully unprepared, so I ended up running both without the kit I might normally have had to hand at home.
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I’ve often wondered what it was about both of those races that made me feel so good. Was it the novelty of running in an unknown environment? Perhaps I’d just trained better. While both of those no doubt played a role, I’m convinced that being on my period had an impact on how powerful I felt.
Since those races, I’ve made a point of going out for a jog when I’m on my period (in my trusty period pants) because, undoubtedly, it helps with fatigue and cramps.. And a prime example of how cramps don’t necessarily have to slow you down while running is the legendary Paula Radcliffe. She broke the world marathon record in Chicago in 2002, despite experiencing period cramps during the latter stages of the race.
Period placebo or genuine performance-enhancing hormones?
According to physical therapist Dr Ellie Somers, your period is what is known as ‘ergogenic aid’. She told The Mother Runners: “It’s like a woman’s very own built-in performance-enhancing drug. Having your period as a runner or athlete is critical to achieving your top performance.”
While not everyone might recognise the experience of their periods making them run faster, it is interesting to think about how being on our periods might prompt us to move differently. During my last period, I ran a 12km evening run faster than I had for weeks… namely because I realised that I’d come on mid-run and needed to finish quickly so that I could check to see if I was free-bleeding in the middle of Hackney. It wasn’t the period as such that made me run faster, but the way I was thinking about my period. I didn’t want to hang around on the canals – I wanted to get home and out of my running hot pants!
Of course, it’d be wrong to make out that periods never impact our ability to move – anyone who’s had a really heavy flow, lives with endometriosis or experiences debilitating cramps knows how hard it can be to function, let alone run. And, because we’re talking about women’s health, there are hardly any studies that have looked into when’s the best time to run during our cycles.
The key is figuring out how you feel. Anything from poor sleep to work stress and dinner eaten on the go can impact our training capacity – and those chronic lifestyle factors play a bigger role than whether or not we’re bleeding every month. If anything, I’d argue that many of us look after ourselves much better during our periods than at any other time, which may explain why some of us feel so good when training in that interval.
Periods are completely subjective – at every level
Radcliffe has gone on to campaign for more support for periods in sport, calling for more studies on how the menstrual cycle impacts female performance and has admitted to having tried to control her own period during her career.
In a study published in the journal PLoS One, researchers surveyed 1,073 women who took part in the 2015 London Marathon. 30% reported that their menstrual cycle had had a negative impact on their performance and training.
And then there’s the Israeli Olympic marathon runner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter. She was forced to stop during the race in Tokyo because her menstrual cramps were so intense. Salpeter eventually finished in 66th place, with a time of 2:48:31 (a time that the overwhelming majority of us can only dream of ever matching) – 30 minutes slower than her PB.
At the time, the runner – who had been leading the race – spoke to Channel 12 news, saying: “Not every day is good for us (women) because every month, we receive this period and some ladies, they’re OK with it and some are not good with it.”
There’s no biological reason that we should run slower on our periods
Saying that, however, there’s no evidence to suggest that menstruation is linked to underperformance in running – meaning that you’re not less capable of pushing your speed or length just because you’re on your period. The only biological factor that may make running slightly harder is the fact that hormonal surges can make it more difficult for the muscles to access oxygen.
To get round that, you want to fuel right and have recovery techniques in place, whether that’s foam rolling, massage gun therapy or a good old yoga stretch.
During ovulation, our oestrogen levels increase and that can have a positive effect on our energy levels. Those levels are at their highest around day 14; they’re at their lowest on day one – the first day of our periods. You might feel most ready to run in the week after your period stops but it’s worth saying that when our oestrogen levels are lower, the body is better able to tap into stored energy. That could translate to feeling like your breakfast is keeping you going for longer than usual.
Benefits of running during your period
According to period brand Flo, running can act as a natural painkiller by flooding the body with feel-good endorphins. It also increases blood circulation around the body, promoting oxygen flow and reducing bloating.
Ultimately, everyone’s periods and experience of having a period is different. Some of us feel energised by them, others feel like death warmed up. There’s no right or wrong way to go about moving when you’re bleeding but one thing is clear: we still don’t know enough about the menstrual cycle and that’s stopping amateur and professional athletes from performing with confidence all month long.
For more period stories, healthy eating tips and workout stories, follow Strong Women on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK).
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