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’s rarely spoken about in general, let alone in Muay Thai gyms.
Since I read her 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’d taken into much consideration before, since I always just carry on with my training regardless. Now, I’ve 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 made some mental notes on the subtle changes I felt.
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 things worse. After only two rounds, my trainer 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’s 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 seems to know when to or not to push those buttons.
In the rounds that followed, I no longer felt frustrated and took pleasure in being able to kick Nut around the ring after 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 this gym, I’ve been taught 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. I felt myself executing my kicks poorly and of course, my trainer pointed this 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’s undeniable that periods can make us feel on less than top form in training.
How Do We Deal With It?
Even if my poor performance was due to my period, it might seem ridiculous to my male trainers and training partners for me to say so. For this reason, I only ever mention it in the gym if it’s to a female friend. Women already have to battle sexist stereotypes by simply entering the gym space, and it can feel as though revealing any effects of the menstrual cycle on our training may make us even more vulnerable to those stereotypes.
I’ve always told myself to ‘suck it up’ and just keep on training. However, as someone who doesn’t suffer from debilitating menstrual cramps, I’m lucky to be able to do so. There have been days where I’ve found myself hunched over the side of the ring due to period pains in between rounds, but once the bell rings, I’ve always been able to put those pains to the back of my mind. However, not everyone is so lucky.
For me, training through period pains actually makes them easier to deal with. This is probably because of the distraction, as well as the endorphins that are released during training.
Skipping your Period
I’ve 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 that reason. While I’ve never had to pull out for this reason, the menstrual cycle and its effects vary from person to person.
For the first few years of fighting, I never fought while I was on my period. I managed to avoid doing so by using 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 started to slack on this later on, and did end up fighting on my period later down the line. On one occasion, I got my hands wrapped before I realised that I needed to change my tampon. Running off to do that just before a fight with tape all over your hands isn’t something I recommend.
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. EDIT: According to new research, guidelines for birth control have been wrong for the past 60 years, and there is actually no reason for women who take it to have periods.
If your period has already started, you can delay it 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 not required. In fact, they are so easy to get hold of that I once bought some from a tiny train station pharmacy. I use Microgynon, which costs 58 baht per box.
Another issue that female fighters have to deal with as a result of their period is difficulty in cutting weight.
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.
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 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 training.
If this happens to you, you should see a physician to discuss the link between your training and your periods.
The Bottom Line
Can menstruation affect your training? Certainly. Should it hold you back in training or fighting? I don’t think that it has to. However, this entirely depends on the individual. You are the expert on your own cycle and its effects. Listen to your body, and consult a physician if needed.
As always, I welcome anyone reading to share their experiences of any of these issues. Feel free to leave a comment below to share yours.