This week, Natasha Sky published an article on her blog, Muay Tash, about her experiences of training and fighting while on her period.
I’m glad that she did, because I’ve often thought that it was an issue that was worth writing about. I also particularly like the way that Natasha was totally up-front and unashamedly honest about a subject that is rarely spoken about in general, let alone in Muay Thai gyms.
Since I read the article, I’ve been thinking about the possible effects of the menstrual cycle on a woman’s athletic performance. It’s not something that I’ve taken into much consideration before, since I always just carry on with my training regardless, but I’ve now started to pay it a little more attention.
This week, I trained through my period. As always, I got up and trained just as hard as I would during any other week. However, after reading Natasha’s article, I listened to my body slightly more than usual and attempted to make mental notes on any subtle changes that I could feel.
How Does Training Feel During Your Period?
During training on the first day of my period, I felt slightly lethargic, but that’s not uncommon for me on any day!
After warming up, I did some boxing sparring with Nut, a Thai boy at the gym who specialises in boxing. Sparring with him can be frustrating at the best of times as he is so quick to move, so effective with his defense and so accurate with his punches. On that day, it was a little more difficult as I found my body responding more slowly and my emotions reaching a little closer to the surface. I was sparring pretty badly and was getting annoyed at myself for doing so, which only made me worse. After only two rounds, Master Toddy could see that I was getting frustrated as he turned to another trainer and said ‘mai sanook’, meaning ‘not fun‘ and that I wasn’t enjoying myself. He then ordered us to put shin pads on and spar Muay Thai so that I could come into my own a bit more. It’s a great asset to have a trainer who is so attentive. He is able to pick up on the slightest changes in my mood or performance and changes my training accordingly. Of course, there have been many times where I’ve been close to tears and he’s still hammered me into the ground, but he knows when to or not to do that.
In the rounds that followed, I no longer felt frustrated and took pleasure in being able to kick Nut around the ring after being so used to having him punch me in the face constantly. However, I still wasn’t performing as I should have been. My technique was sloppier than usual, my reflexes were slower and my will was weaker. I was allowing myself to be backed up more easily and not being as aggressive as I should have been.
The most annoying thing was that I was kicking incorrectly. Since the day I walked into Master Toddy’s, he’s taught me to keep my arm out straight when I throw the roundhouse kick rather than swinging it down and leaving my face open. It’s something that’s been drilled into me from day one, but for some reason, I wasn’t doing it on that day, which was very odd. I felt myself executing my kicks poorly and of course, Master Toddy pointed it out to me in frustration. I told him that I had no idea why I was doing that, to which he replied, ‘you don’t know? I don’t know, either!‘ I feel that each time I train on the first day of my period, this always happens. I seem to be somewhat ‘out of it’ and end up doing stupid little things in sparring and getting annoyed with myself, hoping that he won’t notice, but there is no escaping his watch. It’s as if we’re both thinking ‘what the hell, Emma?!‘, except he actually says it.
The Science Behind It
I’ve read that many women experience clumsiness, slower reactions and poor coordination during their period. This is apparently caused by the low levels of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone in the body just before and at the start of menstruation.
A study on ‘Effect of the Different Phases of the Menstrual Cycle and Oral Contraceptives on Athletic Performance‘ found that “neuromuscular coordination, manual dexterity, judgement and reaction time for complex tests have been shown to be adversely affected in women with premenstrual syndrome or symptoms”.
That would explain my situation! This drop in key hormone levels can affect various aspects of your training by altering energy levels, emotions and cognition. While the effects of the menstrual cycle on a woman’s body are certainly significant, it seems to be unknown whether or not it hinders actual athletic performance. Even so, the effects, whether physical or psychological, are important to take into consideration.
There are articles about this dotted around the internet, which provide some intriguing information about how the body responds at different stages in the cycle, but generally suggest that there is little concrete evidence to support the idea of flagging performance as a result.
A 1995 scientific study on ‘The Effect of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Athletic Performance‘ found ‘no significant differences‘ when studying various factors, such as maximum heart rate, maximum respiratory exchange ratio, anaerobic performance and endurance time to fatigue over different cycle phases. A similar study, performed in 2001, concluded that “investigations to date have not consistently demonstrated significant differences in aerobic capacity, anaerobic capacity, aerobic endurance, or muscle strength in any specific menstrual cycle phase”.
If we look at it statistically, it would appear that there is little reason for menstruation to have a significant effect on performance in training. However, An article from the Chiropractic Resource Organisation states that “Premenstrual or late luteal phase discomforts can cause athletes to lose their competitive edge. Feelings of fatigue, headache, bloating, nausea, back-aches and such can interfere with focus, endurance and strength. Since these symptoms are none to remit several days after the onset of menses, patients retain the risk of injury and impaired performance during that time“. That article also mentions a study of female football players and their menstrual cycles, which showed they performed the poorest during menstruation.
It seems to be very difficult for any solid conclusions to be drawn, possibly because the effects vary so much between different women and at different points in their cycle. However, I definitely feel like I slump at the start of my period, and I’m interested to hear other women’s perspectives on this. It’ undeniable that periods can make us feel on less than top form in training, but generally, serious athletes will just power through.
How Do We Deal With It?
Even if my poor performance was genuinely due to my period, it might seem ridiculous for me to say so, which is why I never mention it in the gym, unless it’s to a female friend (in which case it’s allowed, right?) As a female who is trying to prove herself in a male-dominated environment, I certainly wouldn’t want to admit any gender-related weakness to my trainers or male training partners (plus, do they need to know that?).
More importantly, since it’s something that we have to put up with every month, it seems best to just ‘suck it up’ and get on with it. If I took a day off every time I had period pains, I’d lose a lot of training time! That is not to say that I haven’t found myself hunched over the side of the ring due to period pains, but that will only happen in between rounds and I’ll resume training as soon as the bell rings.
I’d be lying if I said that the pains didn’t bother me during training, but training through them actually makes them a lot easier to deal with. This is probably partly because my mind is distracted and partly due to the endorphins that are released during training. So, while you may feel as though you’re not performing well at some points during your period, a more uncomfortable and annoying training session is often better than no training at all. I’m pretty confident that the benefits of training through your period far outweigh those of taking a day off.
Skipping your Period.
I have often heard of women not turning up to training or cancelling fights because of their periods.
The opponent for my third fight pulled out the day before fight day for the same reason. Of course, the menstrual cycle and its affects vary from woman to woman, but I have never felt that it was so much of a hindrance that I needed to alter my training or general plans. However, I’m not saying that it’s never a valid reason.
Thankfully, I have never had to experience fighting during my period. The reason that I have managed to avoid doing so is that I use contraceptive pills, which enable me to have more control over my cycle. For those who don’t know how that works, it involves taking a pack of pills over 21 days and then leaving seven days before starting the next pack, during which menstruation occurs. If I wish to delay my period, I can do so by continuing to take the pills without leaving a break in between. I did this for my last fight.
While it is an option, I prefer not to skip my period regularly, simply because I don’t like to tamper with my cycle too much. However, from what I have read, there seems to be no reason for this to be an unsafe method, although there can sometimes be side effects.
It is also possible to delay your period without the use of contraceptive pills by using Utovlan, a pill specifically meant for this purpose.
For those of you wondering if contraceptive pills are widely available in Thailand, the answer is ‘yes’. You can buy them from every pharmacy and prescriptions are certainly not required. In fact, they are so easy to get hold of that I once bought some from a tiny train station pharmacy.
Another issue that female fighters have to deal with as a result of their period is difficulty in cutting weight.
Since I have always had to fight close to my normal weight, cutting is not something I’ve yet had to go through. However, it’s definitely an intriguing topic and one that I’d like to talk about, nonetheless. The main issue with this seems to be that women tend to have a higher body fat percentage than men, which limits the amount of ‘water weight’ that can be cut. Hormonal changes can also affect a woman’s ability to cut weight, as the cyclical fluctuations have subsequent effects on metabolism and water retention.
I think most women are familiar with the ‘bloated’ feeling that sometimes accompanies that time of the month. Cris ‘Cyborg’ Santos has previously been crticised for citing her period as a reason for not making weight. Whether or not that is a valid excuse is debatable, but it is certainly true that periods can make cutting weight more difficult.
It is a possibility that the use of oral contraceptives may also come into play, as they cause an increase in oestrogen levels, which therefore triggers water retention. Weight gain is an age-old complaint of the contraceptive pill, although it’s unclear how much truth there is to that as studies seem to be conflicting.
What If Your Periods Stop?
Just as menstruation can change the way some women train, training can change your menstrual cycle. However, that’s only if you overdo it.
It is possible for female athletes to stop menstruating due to the stress that they might put their bodies through while training and competing. This is called ‘Amenorrhea‘ and can be caused by extremely low levels of body fat, physical and mental stress and rigorous over-training.
If this happens to you, you should see a physician to discuss the link between your training and your periods.
The Bottom Line
So, can menstruation affect your training? – I’d say ‘yes’. Should it hold you back in training or fighting? – I don’t think that it has to.
As always, I welcome anyone reading to share their experiences of any of these issues. I’d love to hear if anyone can shed any light on the topics raised here.