The US Women’s Soccer team was on fire in the recent World Cup, and I must say that it’s nice to see their mainstream media coverage on the increase. Badass Megan Rapinoe has been the name on everyone’s lips ever since, for her mad skills but also outspoken views on the current US political climate and shocking inequality across a myriad of different communities that—mindbogglingly—we’re still battling. I’m a fan. It’s about time we started giving more praise to such inspiring female role models and voices within the LGBTQ community.
There’s something else coming out of all this soccer coverage in the media, though, that has made me totally giddy. Did you know that the US Women’s Soccer team worked with a menstrual cycle advisor during training for the World Cup? It might just be this that brought the Cup home for them and here’s why.
Women are cyclical by nature. Our bodies change throughout the month as we go on a journey from one period to the next, governed by the dance of our hormones. It’s a kind of ebb and flow. Our bodies start in the follicular phase as the ovary prepares for egg release. This is followed by ovulation which releases said egg, thus enabling an opportunity for fertilization (if sperm happens to find itself in the vicinity). Then, provided pregnancy does not occur, we enter the luteal phase as the uterus prepares to shed its lining before finally, menstruation occurs.
It’s a predictable cycle that should be fairly regular if all is in good working order. That’s actually the beauty of it: it’s a great indicator of a woman’s health. Irregular cycles or extremely heavy or prolonged bleeding are signs to do some digging and take action, because your hormones might be off balance. Alissa Vitti’s food-based protocol outlined in her book Womancode is a great place to start if your body feels a little (or a lot) out of whack and you’re striving for a more harmonious cycle. It was an invaluable resource for me when I came off hormonal birth control after almost a decade of using it and I recommend it to no end.
One of the surprising benefits that I’ve noticed as a result of ditching the pill has been the way I’ve been able to coordinate my self-care routine based on where I’m at in my cycle at any given time. Obviously life doesn’t always want to play ball and either personal or professional demands can render me overworked and undernourished, but when I can listen to my body, I most certainly do. And it rewards me every damn time for doing so.
There’s a lot that we can gain by working in sync with our menstrual cycles, particularly when it comes to how we engage in exercise. Whether you’re a superstar athlete in the making or just the average gal trying to take care of her bod, there’s a lot we can learn from researcher and sports scientist, Dr. Georgie Bruinvels—menstrual cycle advisor to some of the top female athletes on the planet right now.
As Bruinvels explained to The Telegraph, from a research perspective and also anecdotally, the toughest time to females is during the pre-menstrual and menstrual phases. This is when hormone levels are the lowest and the body can benefit immensely from adjusting diet, sleep, and lifestyle factors accordingly. Under her direction, all 23 US players began tracking their period through an app that allowed the coaches and the rest of the team to know at what phase each player was in and the individual impact. Nutrition, sleep, recovery, and training were all modified individually based on each player’s phase. She went on to reveal that it empowered players when they were feeling their worst to know that they were being proactive in building their strength up to their next follicular phase. Preparation is key and all that.
Bruinvels has done a lot of research on iron deficiencies in female athletes—in particular those performing during menstruation. We know that iron deficiencies can cause a whole host of problems, such as reduced cognition and lethargy. Iron-rich leafy greens, dark chocolate and quinoa are all great additions to the diet during menstruation, alongside rest and more gentle forms of exercise such as yoga and swimming.
Following your period, your body starts to increase the amount of estrogen and testosterone it produces as it prepares for ovulation. These bring with them a newfound sense of vitality, confidence and physical strength that create the perfect recipe for pushing yourself to your limits and training hard. This peaks during the short 1-2 day window of ovulation about half way through your cycle.
From ovulation until the arrival of your next period, the body enters the luteal phase. Estrogen and testosterone levels slowly decline, replaced by an increase in progesterone as the body prepares for a potential pregnancy. While barely noticeable at first, as the days float by, you’ll find yourself naturally gravitating more towards restful pursuits, earlier nights and then those PMS symptoms we all know and love (!), such as carb cravings, bloating and mood swings. Do yourself a favor and let them just be. Try to take it easy on yourself during this time and have faith that they’ll soon pass, to be replaced by a surge of energy once more within a few days.
If the above sounds an information overload, fear not. The education is truly lacking and honestly, the menstrual cycle is treated with such disdain in society that getting on hormonal birth control to effectively put our bodies into a kind of chemically-induced menopause is a rite of passage for the majority of young women. The benefits we are promised by things like the pill are numerous, but so too are the risks. From difficulty connecting with others to skewing who we’re attracted to, there are multiple mental health implications as well as an increased risk of breast cancer and stroke to name but a few.
Learning to tune in to your body and listen to what it needs throughout the month is an excellent way to cultivate that inner magic and divine feminine energy. Doing so can help you plan the best time to push yourself to your limits (late follicular/ovulatory phases) or schedule a trip to the spa (late luteal/menstruation) and honestly, after a few months of doing so, it’ll become second nature. For the first few months of observations, keep a journal and jot down how you feel, corresponding to where you are in your cycle. You’ll be surprised at how nice it is to recognize the same strengths and needs time and time again as perfectly normal and not any fault of your own for underachieving or saying the wrong thing or any number of other things we blame ourselves for.
Transforming your view from one where you see your menstrual cycle as a hindrance to one of acceptance and discernment, you can begin to feel empowered, strong, and capable of achieving whatever it is that you set your mind to. It’s an opportunity to get in the best shape of your life, too, embrace a varied workout routine, faster healing of injuries and less guilt about taking time off and vegetating in front of Netflix when the time calls for it. Go get em’!
Do you chart your cycle? How do you find it effects your exercise routine?