My entire athletic life has been punctuated and interrupted by the moods of my menstrual cycle.
Years ago, as a professional triathlete, my PMT would last 1-2 weeks. I would suffer depression, fatigue, de-motivation, irritability, bloating, insatiable cravings (I used to call them the ‘Triple C’s’ because I’d crave Coffee, Chips and Chocolate), headaches, acne, poor recovery, stomach cramps, unfounded fears and self-doubt, fluid retention and invariably my ability to perform high skilled movements and high intensity training would plummet – it felt as if I’d never trained or acquired the skills before!
The things about the cycle is that it can be a vicious one, the very things that your raging hormones crave are the very things that set it racing and perpetuate the continuation of the beast-cycle!
Not everyone experiences a rough menstrual ride; but many many women do, and we suffer in relative silence and acceptance, tinged with confusion and resentment, month after month, year after year, figuring – I guess- that that’s just our lot in life!
Honestly, if I knew then what I know now I believe my experiences and achievements as a Triathlete would have been far more positive and far greater. Back then I lived in fear of the next pit-of-despair that my monthly cycle would dump me into. I sought answers desperately from books, doctors, coaches, the internet…with little luck; but I kept looking, asking, seeking, trying!
I used to think that I was just a weak, willed and inconsistent athlete, that I just couldn’t trust myself to turn up and do the required work with the consistency and discipline that I knew was required. I just crumbled under the impact of my menstrual cycle. For two weeks I was awesome, strong and happy. Then the next two weeks I was depressed, weak and devastated!
Fortunately I have developed tools, strategies and tricks that work to help me manage the today; unfortunately it took me until my late 30’s to learn how to manage this menstrual-beast. Now that I know what to do AND how to manage myself, things are steadier, I am more consistent, which means my athletic progress has been much improved and my self-confidence has become a firm bedrock upon which to build!
The things that worked for me were overhauling my diet and lifestyle factors, and understanding what to expect and factor-in during training and competition. I’ve always trained physically, so I’ve largely had the exercise part of the formula sorted, but on its own, exercise its not enough.
Back then the Paleo-diet didn’t exist for me – I found the solutions to diet through my Naturopath – it was basically Paleo! That’s the dietary answer right there. No sugar, no dairy, no wheat, (gluten), no grains, no highly processed, chemically laden packaged foods. Basically foods consumed direct from Mother Nature with minimal interference and processing! Since shifting to a Paleo-style eating regime my PMT has lessened significantly. I still have fluctuations in strength and skill, and I still notice a cyclical negativity in my thinking, but I know what it is now and I know what to do about it.
Everything you do and think impacts your delicate chemical and hormonal balance; hormones can be your enemy or your friend, it all comes down to how you treat and care for your body.
Sleep: 8+ hours as a rule! A little extra around the week leading into menstruation. I always get 8-9 hours sleep and I always try to top up on weekends if I can – even if it’s only a 30min nap post-training!
Stress: Eliminate it, minimise it, know what creates it for you and avoid it – this includes people, places and things!
– I always take Sundays as a day of retreat from the world, and I always have Saturday nights to myself rather than head out socially – it tires me out to be in social environments – so on the weekends I indulge the introverted-recluse in me and spend time with my dog Pepper at the beach or river or in the hills!
– I’ve slowly let the negative people in my life go, it’s not worth the effort and stress of having them around, draining me of my precious energy.
– I’ve also stopped rushing and I’ve stopped stressing about being late (which I rarely am) – it’s unbelievable how draining these two activities can be on a daily basis! Give it a try see if you don’t agree!!!
Thinking: Get positive and stay positive, every thought creates cascading chemical consequences in your body…be very, very of mindful what you tell yourself in every moment of every day because your body is listening and responding – for better or worse. The choice is always yours – and it’s a powerful choice you make either way!
I find that training through my cycle works well for me, even when I get those horrible abdominal crampy-pains, they go away quickly enough when I train. Sometimes I think I’ll have to stop because of them, but I never have. In fact, I usually feel better after training! I’m always fascinated to see what I can do when my head (and body) tells me that perhaps I can’t. I have never had any negative consequences or side effects or reasons not to train through my cycle.
What I do notice is that high-skilled movements and high intensity output can give me a bit of grief, my nervous system definitely isn’t functioning at its peak when I am pre-menstrual. I take comfort in this knowledge and just go about the business of doing the required work. When I’m pre-menstrual things often feel more like labour than love, and I figure that’s ok as long as I understand what’s going on – I’m not a failure, I don’t have to get frustrated, I just need to accept that’s how it is at this time of my cycle and continue to work toward my goal.
This is an interesting one for me having just come back from the 2013 Crossfit Games. I keep a close record of my cycle, so I always know what to expect and when. Leading into the Games I knew over a month out that I was going to be in the worst phase of my menstrual cycle during competition. This is not ideal for me. There is a definate decline in my performance in this phase, and also, no matter how well I manage myself, I still have to work hard to overcome the creeping mental negativity that I experience at this time.
It is a rare occasion that I would choose to manipulate my cycle, but with a long international flight and the biggest competition of the year both landing when I was pre-menstrual I was motivated to take action. So my choice was to take ‘the pill’ to delay the onset of menstruation. It was a bit like being in a holding pattern. It’s a simple process, as soon as competition was over I ceased taking the pill and my body’s hormones kicked back into their normal cycling.
What is really interesting is that my next period after the Games, after returning to Australia, was one of the worst I have had in a while. Bloating, cravings, negativity, fatigue and a hint of depression. My interpretation of this experience is that coupled with international travel and the heightened emotions of the whole Games experience, manipulating my body’s natural cycles had its consequences. I accept those consequences and am aware of them for the future.
Knowing your cycling and anticipating it are powerful ways to manage. I often find myself quickly checking my training diary to see where I’m at in my cycle if I’ve started to feel unreasonably flat or negative – it reassures me to know that at these ‘danger times’ I shouldn’t believe what my head is telling me…instead I have a laugh at it and know that it’s just that time of month again! Argh!
There is one positive spin I have on the recurring issues that arise each cycle – these are things that need to be addressed for personal growth and wellbeing! Every time they come up it’s a reminder that my work not yet done. Once resolved, these issues no longer rear their ugly heads!
PMT is a potent time for growth, if we just choose to see it this way – embracing and understanding it rather than rejecting and resenting it! Food for thought!