How can coaches best understand and approach the entire menstrual cycle?
In recent years, there has been much-needed attention and attempts to understand the menstrual cycle and its interaction with performance for female athletes.
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By Cody Roberts
31st May 2022 | 3 min read
Bruinvels, G., Hackney, A. C., & Pedlar, C. R. (2022). Menstrual Cycle: The Importance of Both the Phases and the Transitions Between Phases on Training and Performance. Sports Medicine, 1-4.
In recent years, there has been much-needed attention and attempts to understand the menstrual cycle and its interaction with performance for female athletes (see HERE). Most importantly, a topic that was once avoided is now appreciated by coaches, and female athletes hopefully feel they too can speak up regarding symptoms (e.g. cramping, headaches, nausea) or simply changes in mood that no doubt impact their performance.
Secondly, the menstrual cycle is not something to be generalised across females. Everyone responds differently, as their body is going through drastic changes in hormones across the month. Oftentimes, these changes happen overnight, creating daily fluctuations in preparedness and adaptability.
Further, although much of the research supports a personalised approach (see HERE), there are still some who aim to over-simplify the menstrual cycle into two or three distinct phases and that seems far from appropriate as we continue to learn more through research and application.
Ultimately, the goal of this review paper was to help coaches appreciate the impact the menstrual cycle can have on females’ daily psychophysiological readiness, paying special attention to the individual nature and fluctuations across the entire process, and how it interacts with athlete preparation and performance.
The authors outlined and addressed the topic of understanding the menstrual cycle by first highlighting the gaps in an overly basic, ‘two phase’ model (follicular and luteal phases) or even the commonly researched ‘three phase’ model (menstruation, pre-ovulation, and luteal) – both ignore hormonal shifts between phases, leaving practical application for athletes incomplete.
The authors encouraged a more complex focus – recognising menstruation, the early and late follicular phase, ovulation, as well as the early and late luteal phases – that appreciates the transitions and fluctuations in hormone levels and the psychophysiological impact it has on a female athlete on a daily basis. That said, symptoms associated with these hormone fluctuations vary between individuals and even between cycles in the same individual. Regardless, at some point, interference with psychophysiological readiness is very likely, and identifying ways to navigate them are important.
Therefore, learning and discussion need to be constant between coach and athlete regarding a female’s menstrual cycle and symptoms. This hinges on the appropriate concern (e.g. language, empathy, and respect), as well as actions, identifying sustainable interventions or modifications. Not to mention, research into various means and methods that allow females to continue to train or compete at a maximal level throughout the month without sacrificing long-term health.
“The research and practice around menstrual cycle education, research, and openness is changing for the better for female athletes. Most importantly, it should not be dismissed, and cannot be generalised. It is not a binary cycle of menstruating (having a period) and not. For coaches and athletes alike to be most successful in optimising training, they need to make an effort to learn, understand, and adapt to the psychophysiological state of the athlete.
“The menstrual cycle is a very real, constant, and ever-changing physiological state that is difficult for a male to understand. Therefore, the best thing that any coach can do (male or female) is to create a safe space for the athlete to be honest and open (transparent) about their mental and physical state. The menstrual cycle is not everything, but it is a component that at times, regardless of sleep, nutrition, or recovery, is going to interfere with performance.
“A coach should aim to build a trusting relationship with every athlete, be educated so you can shed light on what is happening inside their body, but most importantly, be ready and willing to simply listen. If you do that, performance and productivity are limitless.”
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