Periods and PeriodizationFeb 06, 2023
Ironman Champion Sara Gross on how she would have planned her training differently if she had tracked her menstrual cycle
When I was at Edinburgh University studying for my Ph.D. I was part of an elite athlete development program hosted by the University. I was 24 years old, had just come off of a summer with some moderate success in Triathlon, and was selected by the University to take part in their education and mentorship program. It was a wonderful experience. I remember eye-opening lectures from a premier sports psychologist that forever changed my understanding of goal-setting. It was there I learned about sports nutrition, conditioning, and stretching. And it was there I first learned about one of the most important training concepts - periodization.
Periodization is defined as the planned manipulation of training variables (load, sets, and repetitions) in order to maximize training adaptations and prevent the onset of overtraining syndrome.
Moreover, periodization is the word we use to talk about planned fitness training – the system of overload and recovery that ultimately leads to peak performance. And since I am a historian, I loved learning about the history of periodization, how it was first developed, and also how to organize my own training weeks and months into macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles. Like every good A-type triathlete, I wanted to plan my way into peak performance.
As an endurance athlete, periodizing training is the norm. My coach and I would lay out the building blocks for the year into various weeks dedicated to this or that type of adaptation, with training camps in the heat or at altitude sprinkled in. In practical terms, a lot of my weeks looked like this: 3 hard days/1 easy day /2.5 hard days/ 0.5 easy days, building for 2.5 - 3 weeks before we would take 4 - 5 days easy and repeat. This, according to the founding fathers of periodization Selye, Matveyev & Bompa, and their sports science descendants, was how to achieve peak human performance.
Except guess what? It didn’t really work for me. At least not very well.
I don’t really know how or when I started to realize that I wasn’t responding to my training as I should be. It sort of crept up on me slowly. Along the way, I found some things I did respond to – like altitude training, intensity (over volume), and strength training for cycling.
And I’m not saying that overload followed by recovery didn’t work for me. I am a human so, of course, it did, in particular, because I was pretty good and staying injury free. So, yes, periodization did work to a point. But then year after year, I would plateau quickly and my training gains would diminish.
A few years into my career as a pro athlete, I started to notice that I performed better at some times of the month over others. And over time, I knew that if I had a race at the tail end of menstruation, or within a few days after I stopped bleeding, my chances of performing well were high. I also noticed that the equal and opposite were true — a couple of days before menstruation started I would often have a less-than-stellar training day or race.
There was always this x-factor affecting my training that I knew very little about and that was rarely mentioned by coaches, except maybe to acknowledge that some women have an occasional “off day.”
It did not occur to me to track my menstrual cycle and figure out if there was a pattern. It did not occur to me to ask if there was something we could do to mitigate symptoms on my “off” days. It seems pretty stupid in retrospect, but sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know.
I didn’t track… because I’m a badass?
After years of very gradual pattern recognition, I started to talk to other elite female athletes about their experiences with their hormone cycles and realized that some of us were experiencing the same things. So why didn’t I start tracking my cycle?
Because I thought it was more badass not to.
And what I mean by that is that as an elite athlete, I knew that I couldn’t control what day an important race was on and that it was important for me to “learn” to go hard no matter how I felt on any given day. It was the “head down do the work” approach, which frankly, has its merits.
But as time goes by, I am left wondering what would have happened if I had tracked my cycle and done something about it – if I had changed the way I periodized my training. For example, maybe during the follicular phase when I felt strongest, I could have done 4 days hard, and one day easy? Or maybe during the late luteal phase, I could have taken an extra day to work on skills? And even those two small changes alone could have made a dramatic difference to my performances over the months and years.
Track Your Cycle
This week on the Women’s Performance podcast, I talked to exercise physiologist Dr. Alyssa Olenick about how much we do and don’t know about exercise and female hormone cycles. I learned that there is A LOT of misinformation on this topic and that #cyclesynching is big business. And frankly, I’m not surprised. Women are desperate for information on how to work with our physiology after feeling the effects of the black hole created by its absence for so many years. I can totally relate.
After talking with Alyssa, there are a few things I would have done differently as a younger athlete.
First, of course, I would have tracked my cycle, noted how I felt each day and figured out what my personal trends are.
Secondly, I would ask questions, talk to more people and ask my coach, doctor, nutritionist, and naturopathic doctor for help. I would try to find out if I could mitigate some of the negative symptoms and kick even more ass on the good days.
And now that we have more information, I would definitely recommend reading, listening, and learning everything possible on the topic (resources listed below) especially if you are looking to perform well in your sport. Be wary of misinformation, because like almost every topic in women’s health, there is a lot of it.
And finally, I would definitely tell my younger self to be empowered and take control of her own destiny. We are entering a new era in women’s health and while research is thin on the ground right now, everything is changing quickly and the amount of quality information is increasing.
Yet at the end of the day, no volume of scientific studies will ever change the fact that every woman is unique, so get to know yourself, your body, your feelings, and trust yourself to make the best decisions for you.
Perhaps more than anything, I am excited for the athletes coming behind me who will have the tools they need to create peak performances through training programs that are both period-aware and periodized.
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