Menstrual cycle affects women differently


By Gary Droze


Happily, we are past the days when the menstrual cycle was cited (mostly by men) as a factor that should preclude female involvement in sports such as competitive distance running. Many women have accomplished personal best performances during menses; a third of all female Olympic gold medals were won by athletes who were menstruating, according to a survey cited by British Athletics Senior Coach Frank Horwill.

Still, anecdotal and scientific reports demonstrate that the menstrual cycle elicits tremendous variances in response among individuals and between different ethnic groups. This finding should come as no surprise to anybody who has coached girls and women for very long. I have witnessed the full spectrum of symptoms, from a mild, transient discomfort in some athletes to a virtually incapacitating, weeklong train wreck in others. From nineteen years of coaching females, I have a few observations to offer about this visitor:

An individual’s menstrual symptoms do not reveal her “toughness” (or lack thereof). I got past this stereotypical view in 1984 while coaching high schooler Michele Linihan, who was rendered bedridden about every 28 days…but in between, she never missed a workout, hammered out long runs every weekend at 6:00am, and ran a 4:59 mile her senior year. That’s toughness.
Improved fitness improves the response. While some females will always have a harder time than others, the negative symptoms taper in those who progress from a sedentary to an athletic lifestyle. Researchers theorize that increased serotonin production associated with regular exercise mediates the prostaglandins that induce uterine contractions (premenstrual cramping). Whatever. I have just noticed that increased fitness especially helps my beginning runners.

Cross-training can salvage a workout session. Running involves repeated impact, which could add distress to a lower abdominal region already disturbed by water retention and cramping. Substituting a non-weightbearing activity, such as stationary cycling on a recumbent bike, may bring relief.

Knowledge is power. While you won’t find as many websites by using keywords “sports and menstruation” as, say, “sports and gambling,” a few very informative sites do exist. For starters, try and For the adventurous, the book Hormones and Female Athletic Performance, by J Daly and W Ey, will leapfrog your menstrual cycle knowledge past that of any male running coach, no matter how many years he has been trying to figure out women!