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Women Are Warriors:
How Hormones May Affect Athletic Performance

Aug 4, 2022

Watching Eugenie Bouchard rule the court or Lindsey Vonn race down a mountainside, one cannot help but admire such athletic prowess.  But even an elite athlete has good days and better days.  Thanks to an article in The Economist, I learned of recent attention given to the effects of the menstrual cycle on women athletes’ performance, which can fluctuate with phases of the cycle.  In fact, world-class performers like Chinese Olympic medalist Fu Yuanhui are now speaking frankly about this matter.  When her team came in fourth in Beijing, Fu said, “…my period came yesterday, so I felt particularly tired – but this isn’t an excuse, I still didn’t swim well enough…” 1

Virtually all top male and female athletes are aided by a nutritionist, sports psychologist, and trainer—and lately, some female athletes are working with menstrual-cycle coaches to address the fluctuations in hormones that occur each month.  Transitions between the phases of menstruation, pre-ovulation (follicular phase) and the luteal phase (post-ovulation) are very likely to have psycho-physiological effects that athletes and coaches need to understand in order to counter negative symptoms that intervene in training and performance.

As example, during the first phase the menstrual cycle (prior to and during ovulation), a higher level of estrogen and testosterone have a positive effect on mood and motivation, as well as allowing the body to access stored carbohydrates and maximize high-intensity training.  Post-ovulation (the luteal phase), a higher level of progesterone impacts nerve activity, metabolism, and protein synthesis, making the body less resilient and thus, increasing fatigue in response to stress.  Angela Naeth, a partner at United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy suggests that rather than build muscle in this phase, it is better to focus on “steady-state aerobic activity.”2

While individual women have different sensitivities to hormonal shifts, strength and conditioning coach Cody Roberts writes in Science for Sport, that “…the best thing that any coach can do (male or female) is to create a safe space for the athlete to be honest…about their mental and physical state.  The menstrual cycle is not everything, but it is a component that at times, regardless of sleep, nutrition or recovery, is going to interfere with performance.”3

As a climber, I found it interesting that Maddy Cope, a British professional climber and coach, emphasizes the need to balance scientific research and what athletes report about their individual experience. Cope notes in The Economist…”that most research does not translate well to her own discipline [climbing].”4

The Economist article continues, “Climbing is a supremely technical matter, and the tests used in research compare poorly with the actual demands of the sport….[omitted sentence]  Most good training plans for climbers include exercises of a range of intensities and incorporate a “de-load” week, to allow the body to recover. Menstrual-cycle-informed training in this case might be as simple as arranging for the de-load week to coincide with the stress-sensitive luteal phase.”

Food and drink affect fitness and performance at all times and top athletes are almost always intentional about favoring nutrient dense foods.  Equally, women can address hormonal fluctuations by emphasizing certain foods and avoiding others, especially during the luteal phase the week prior to menstruation.  “The luteal phase is often the time when cravings hit for carbs, sugar, fatty foods, etc.”5  It is suggested that women eat foods rich in B Vitamins, as well as magnesium rich foods like avocados, nuts and legumes, and dark leafy greens that support mood and energy levels.  Ideally, one should also avoid alcohol, animal fats and added salt during this phase.

Menstrual-cycle sports science looks like a promising field of research, one that will allow women to achieve their full potential in sport, whether one has the ambition to compete at a high level or simply to experience a personal best.

  1. “Chinese Swimmer Fu Yunahui Praised for Breaking Periods Taboo,” Tom Phillips, The Guardian, 15 August 2016.
  2. “The Menstrual Cycle and Female Athletes,” Angela Naeth, UESCA, accessed July 26, 2022.
  3. “How Can Coaches Best Understand and Approach the Entire Menstrual Cycle?” Cody Roberts, Science for Sport, 31 May 2022.
  4. “How Menstruation Affects Athletic Prowess is Poorly Understood,” The Economist, Science & Technology, 20 July 2022.
  5. “Menstrual Cycle Nutrition,” Ivy Eliff, OnPoint Nutrition, accessed 27 July 2022.