The other day I got a panicked text from one of my athletes. Her period tracking app had just informed her that her period was set to begin on the DAY of her first marathon. As someone who experiences cramps, bloating and gastrointestinal distress leading up to and during the first 48 hours of her period, she was worried about how it would impact her first-ever marathon.
“What advice do you have for running on your period?” she asked.
While I’ve spent time figuring out how to navigate my own menstrual cycle and distance running, I know that everyone who menstruates experiences their own signs and symptoms that may not be applicable to the next person. So I decided to look into the research available on menstruation and marathon performance, as well as poll my trusted running community via Twitter and Instagram.
When it comes to running on your period, here are the three biggest takeaways I discovered throughout my search.
1. Getting Your Period During A Marathon Might Actually Help You Perform Better
There’s limited research surrounding the topic of female marathon performance and menstruation. However, there is evidence to suggest that running on your period may actually improve your performance.
A 2021 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance administered a survey questionnaire to recreational, non-elite runners who had completed multiple marathons within the past 18 months. Of the 185 women found eligible for the study, a total of 106 had their best marathon performance in the luteal phase of their menstrual cycle, when female sex steroid hormones estrogen and progestin are high. Seventy-nine had their best performance during the follicular phase, when estrogen and progestin are low.
For those unfamiliar, the luteal phase begins right after ovulation and lasts about 14 days, ending just before a menstrual period occurs. The follicular phase, or the phase in which your body prepares to release an egg, begins after the luteal phase (days 14 through 21) and starts on the first day of menstruation. Therefore, the study’s results found that women are more likely to perform better either just before, or actually during, their period.
Why does this happen? Well, research shows that female sex steroid hormones (SSH) are more than just reproductive hormones. They also affect metabolism, bone health, respiration, muscle function, thermoregulation, and fluid balance. Compared to exercise, elevations in the SSH during the menstrual cycle at ovulation and during the luteal phase cause lower blood lactate responses, increased fat oxidation, and reduced glycogen utilization during exercises. All of these physiological effects can potentially be advantageous for exercise performance — particularly for endurance activities, like running a marathon.
While it’s important to recognize that this is an observational study — AKA it is based on reports from individuals themselves and not performed inside a lab — other research and anecdotal evidence confirms this phenomenon. Stacy Sim’s book ROAR, includes both anecdotal and research-backed evidence of athletes experiencing peak performance during their cycle.
2. You Can Incorporate Your Menstrual Cycle Into Training
Just because research suggests you may perform better when on your period, doesn’t mean your cramps, gastrointestinal issues, bloat and other symptoms associated with your period won’t get in the way of, or affect, your goal race. While research suggests exercise during your period may actually reduce symptoms like cramps, that may not hold true for everyone. Additionally, heavy menstrual bleeding (HMB) during your period can potentially put you at risk for low iron levels, which can cause fatigue, anxiety, reduced mood and energy levels, certainly affecting your ability to perform.
That’s why it’s important to incorporate your menstrual cycle into your training. Log the start and end of your period into your training log, as well as any associated symptoms that accompany it. This way, you can track what helps relieve your symptoms (Midol, increased hydration, iron supplements, specialized nutrition) and have a better knowledge of what to expect if, in fact, your period does arrive the week of your race.
It’s also important to log a long run and a hard tempo interval (or speedwork) while on your period. Knowing how your body reacts to stress from your period can help you adequately prepare and push through difficult moments during the race.
3. There Are Other Ways to Prepare
Just about every runner who menstruates has experienced their period on a run, so fortunately there is a lot of anecdotal evidence about what works for different runners. Suggestions include taking Midol, investing in period panties (Thinx even makes a special ‘sporty’ period panty) or a diva cup, opting for a dark-colored race day bottom in case of leaking, waking up early enough to allow for period-related digestive issues to unfold naturally, keeping some toilet paper with your GUs in case the Port-A-Potty runs out, and if you’re on birth control, skipping an off week to move things up a week and avoid getting your period on race day altogether. However, this last suggestion could backfire due to stress, so I don’t personally recommend it.
You can also look for information on your marathon’s official website to see if their med tents will offer sanitary supplies like tampons or pads. If unavailable, email the official race contact to ask.
While you can prepare for your period, the truth is, there’s still much to be learned about how they affect our performance. Additional research performed on how the menstrual cycle affects marathon performance has found that even elite athletes and their coaches understand very little about the menstrual cycle.
While we wait for more research to become available, the best thing you can do is track how your period affects your running performance to gain valuable information to help you ace your next race.
Image by Daniel Reche via Pexels