Photo Credit: Michael Dawson

Females are unpredictable. And yes, we are talking about hormones here. Up until recently there has been very little research in sport and exercise physiology for females, because… they are unpredictable. Or that’s the excuse anyway. Adult males have a consistent hormone profile whilst females have a cyclic hormonal profile where progesterone and oestrogen change concentrations through a 28 (ish) day cycle. With a male’s consistent hormone profile researchers can test them whenever they like, where with a female’s they need to be testing monthly, in line with their hormonal cycles. Now, this really isn’t that big of a deal to overcome but, regardless, it has resulted in most of the performance, training and nutrition research being specific for the male gender. This decision to exclude females from of a huge proportion of influential studies has led to females being trained as small males for centuries.

But females are not small males. They have unique physiological needs and we need to know these unique needs in order to provide unique solutions. This is finally starting to be recognised and there is now research specifically aimed at females beginning to surface that gives insight into how females should embrace and train with their hormone cycle.

These emerging studies are answering important questions. Questions such as why Paula Radcliffe broke the world record for the fastest marathon in Chicago in 2002 while she had menstrual cramps. The answer to this question can be found by delving into the physiological effect hormones have on our bodies and understanding how this influences training.

Follicular Phase (Low hormone phase) = Day 1-12

Ironically when females are menstruating their physiology is most like a man. Female sex hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone are rock bottom during this phase. Just a few days prior the body was primed and ready for housing a baby. As soon as motherhood is no longer on the cards the body relaxes and stored energy is released causing more energy systems available for exertion. Studies have shown women can make greater strength gains, produce more force, feel less pain during exercise and recover faster during this phase. This explains why a mind blowing proportion of PB’s are broken during these 12 days of an athlete’s cycle. So ladies, step up your training and hit the gym or schedule some high intensity training during this phase as you will be getting some serious bang from your buck.

Ovulatory Phase = Day 13-15

The ovulatory phase is characterised by a spike of hormones producing an ‘injury danger zone’. Luteinising hormone and follicular stimulating hormone are rapidly released. These hormones have a magnitude of effects but one that is significantly detrimental for athletes. Joint laxity is temporarily increased putting athletes at higher risk of ligamentous injury during these three days. Ladies, no need to get the cotton wool out and stay safely on the couch but if possible, avoid plyometric or high intensity full contact training during these three days.   

Luteal Phase (High hormone phase) = Day 16-28

During this phase the hormones kick into high gear. Approximately 5 days prior to menstruation the hormonal peak is hit, causing premenstrual syndrome (PMS) to become apparent to varying degrees.  So what effect does PMS have on performance?

Studies have found evidence that blood sugar levels, breathing rates and thermoregulation are negatively impacted during this time accounting for decreases in aerobic capacity and strength. On the flip side key performance indicators such as VO2 max and lactate threshold remains constant throughout the cycle. Therefore, endurance athletes should maintain performance during this phase if they can manage the symptoms of PMS. However, balls sports athletes have been proven to have reduced reaction time, neuro muscular coordination and manual dexterity during PMS. So ladies, if this is you, you need to be sure to take extra care in getting your head in the game during this phase.    

Jenny Storey is a SportsLab Physiotherapist. With a history of representing New Zealand in both rowing and hockey, she understands sports from both sides of the equation. She is excited to see more research specifically aimed at females and what this means for female athletes at all levels of performance.