How Your Menstrual Cycle/Menopause Affects Your Running

StressedSMConsider the following scenario:  Your training schedule includes a weekly track or hill workout.  One week, you hit your workout targets right on.  You are brimming with confidence.  The following week, the identical workout is awful with no apparent reason why.  You feel bewildered and discouraged.

Knowing where you are in your menstrual cycle can provide valuable insight into your performance. Let’s examine why and how to use this knowledge to your training and racing advantage.

The menstrual cycle is comprised of two phases.  During the Follicular Phase (Days 1-14), estrogen levels are low, except for a spike near Day 14.  Ovulation begins on Day 15.  The Luteal Phase (Days 16-28) is marked by relatively high but stable estrogen levels.  Also, progesterone levels peak, inducing a much-higher-than-normal breathing rate during exercise.

Many women have cycles that are either longer or shorter than the textbook 28 days.  In these cases, it is the length of the follicular (pre-ovulatory) phase that varies; the luteal (post-ovulatory) cycle is usually of stable duration.

Not only does estrogen level affect your cycle, it also impacts
what type of fuel is available for working muscles and consequently
what type of workout you will find easier to complete


Low estrogen levels are conducive to breaking down glycogen for quick energy.  High estrogen levels favour fat burning and lower lactic acid levels.  Many women find that during Days 4-13 (corresponding with low estrogen levels) high intensity runs are easier to complete, with lower heart rates and breathing rates (less perceived exertion).  These conditions are ideal for hard running and racing.

In contrast, many women find that hard running during Days 14 – 28 is very difficult, as the utilization of fat for fuel is better suited for lower intensity workouts.  Consequently, your long runs at an easier pace are sustainable.

How Does Menopause Affect Training?

Menopause is characterized by low levels of estrogen and progesterone. Although these levels may fluctuate, e.g. when symptoms like hot flashes are more intense, these hormone levels remain low in comparison to pre-menopause levels. So metabolism would correspond more closely to that described in the early pre-ovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle, facilitating high-intensity workouts!

Note: It was believed that any sort of hormone therapy, be it hormone replacement or birth control pills, would override our bodies’ own hormone levels & increase levels of both estrogen & progesterone. Depending upon the specific prescribed regimen, hormone levels may be increased in a continuous or a cyclical fashion.  However, current research by Dr. Sarah Joyce indicates that externally produced hormones do not have the same effect on exercise response as internally produced hormones.

With your understanding how your body utilizes fuel from phase to phase, how can you take advantage of your cycle to make training easier and improve performance?

The symptoms and their intensity vary widely from woman to woman and from cycle to cycle.  It is critical to determine how your running is affected by your own menstrual cycle.

  • Make note in your training log (all the more reason to keep one if you aren’t already!) of where you are in your cycle, along with a subjective rating (from 1 to 10) of your perceived exertion for the workout.
  • After a few months, your own personal pattern will become evident.  It may be identical to the typical pattern as described earlier, or it may differ.  The important thing is that it is how your cycle affects your training.
  • Plan your training and racing schedule taking into account your cycle.  Schedule easier low intensity weeks during lower energy phases.  Schedule harder training and races during your high energy weeks.  For example, from mid-October to early November, there are 3 major marathons/half-marathons in a 21 day span – all within a 1.5 hour drive of Toronto.  If you are fortunate enough to have such a choice of races, how your cycle affects your running may well determine in which race you are mostly likely to run your best……and your choice of your target race!

This does not mean that you need to abstain completely from tough workouts during lower energy weeks.  In this case, run these workouts based upon perceived exertion rather than adhering to workout target times.

Get Mother Nature on your side!  Adjusting your training around your cycle will help make training easier, bolster confidence and improve your running performance.

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