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Does Your Period Affect Your Workout or Not? [Dueling Research! Plus: Birth control as a performance enhancer!]

Posted May 04 2011 12:11am

Turns out this is a real magazine ! My fave story from this edition: Diary of a Tampon Virgin (admit it – we’ve all been there.)

Red may be my favorite color but unless it’s on a pair of adorable Nikes, I prefer not to accessorize with it at the gym.  And yet if you are female with functioning ovaries at least once a month you have to bend over in front of a mirror to make sure you can’t see your pad through your spandex pants. (Two words ladies: Diva Cup . Best invention ever.) Since the Gym Buddies are primarily of the ovary-possessing variety there is a lot of talk in the gym about when someone is on their period (cramps!), when someone misses their period (pregnancy!), what they’re doing about their period (birth control!) and – most importantly – what our periods mean for our workouts (Fatigue! Bloating! Weakness! General all around pissiness!). Oh the drama.

Thankfully science has our back(sides) with a slew of new research to help us lady folk deal with our lady bits in a ladylike manner while still getting our sweat on. (Keep your legs crossed on the weight bench?) This week researchers in Australia discovered that thanks to reduced levels of estrogen during menstruation (How do you pronounce that? Men-stray-shun? Men-stroo-a-shun? 5th grade humiliation?) female athletes are more likely to get injured during Red Celebration Week than during other times of their cycle. In two three-year studies that followed 78 women, it was determined that low estrogen at the beginning of the menstrual cycle (i.e. when you’re actually bleeding) causes reduced muscle tone and impairs coordination which led to a great incidence of injury, especially in the knees, feet and ankles.

This research is slightly controversial as it comes on the heels of several studies that showed no change in “muscle contractile characteristics”, VO2 max, oxygen consumption, heart rate and even rating of perceived exertion during the Period Party. These studies have led scientists to conclude that women do not need to make any adjustments to their training routines to accommodate Aunt Flo’s visit. I would personally like to smack these scientists upside the head with a case of Midol because whether there is a physiologic change brought on by hormonal fluctuations or if it is all in my head, there is a difference in my workouts when Mother Nature plays Call of Duty: Endometrial Edition.

For myself, I find that I get whinier and don’t push as hard in my workouts. (Plus I go through a serious nobody-likes-me-everybody-hates-me-I-look-fat-in-these-track shorts phase.) Research has shown that women are more sensitive to pain during the Week of Cotton Absorbency Testing, although I think they meant physical pain and not Facebook-induced depression . Rachel Cosgrove, in her book The Female Body Breakthrough, adds that “More than one study has shown that exercise feels harder the week before and the week of women’s periods because of increased levels of progesterone and decreased levels of serotonin. I can tell you from subjective reports that most women don’t feel optimal at this point in their cycles. You may find that your workouts feel harder than usual and that you’re more tired.” She adds, “Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t set a personal best this week. Just get in and get it done.”

Do not worry your pretty little head though, the researchers have an answer and naturally it comes in pill form – specifically The Pill. In what may be the best argument I’ve heard for taking birth control pills (oh yeah besides that whole preventing pregnancy thing), the Aussie scientists say, “There’s now quite a global body of research saying that the pill actually is protective of injuries. It protects you from injuries, it improves performance, improves muscle function.” Birth control as a performance enhancer? That’s definitely interesting. Not interesting enough to make me take the pill – I don’t care what the research says , it made me gain 10 pounds right before my wedding causing me to look like a tiara-clad chipmunk in all our photos which means I do not display them nor show them to anyone, ever – but interesting enough to make me think about the role hormones play in athletics.

What all this does not mean however is that we women should skip exercising during our periods. Lots of research has shown that exercising helps elevate mood, lessen cramps, reduce bloating and alleviate headaches.

So which is it – do our hormones make a difference in our physical performance? Or are any changes just due to mental factors? If you’re a woman, do you notice a difference in your workouts during the month and do you make changes in your training because of it? If you’re a man and you clicked through because you saw “performance enhancer” in the title, do you wish you could scrub your brain now?

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