Sync Up: How Menstrual Cycles Affect Climbing and Training
Life cycles, Arthurian cycles … biological cycles. The menstrual cycle is one of the most important. So why had I never heard anyone talking about it?
Last year, I took part in a qualitative research study about the menstrual cycle at Lattice Training, a climbing coaching company in Sheffield, England, where I am a coach. I was shocked at how little I knew about my own body. Yet, looking back, I could spot related patterns in motivation, performance and recovery.
I started to think that many of the experiences female climbers talked about could be related to their menstrual cycles and set out to educate myself on the complexities of the topic. Could this be a missing piece of the puzzle for getting the most out of our training?
For me, some simple changes have helped to maintain my training and climbing, but the most important step was understanding the process. For every climber, understanding our individual experience is integral to being able to recognize the cues our bodies give us.
The menstrual cycle is usually 21 to 36 days long, with day one as the first day of menses (bleeding). A period is just a small portion of the menstrual cycle, throughout which hormone levels are constantly changing.
2. Follicular phase (overlaps with 1): from day one of menstruation to ovulation.
3. Ovulatory phase: around day 14 of a 28-day cycle (may vary).
4. Luteal phase: after ovulation to menses.
A period is a marker of health for a female climber, and it is a misconception to think it is normal to miss periods if you are athletic. In its simplest form, tracking the menstrual cycle is a way of being able to spot deviations. Shortening or lengthening of the cycle or missed periods can be a sign of low energy availability, if other medical diagnoses have been eliminated (e.g. polycystic ovary syndrome or pregnancy). When the body is in a state of low-energy availability and downregulating hormone production, both performance and adaptation to training may be impaired.
Hormonal contraceptives disrupt the natural variation in hormones, so the bleeding experienced is not a natural period, and is not covered in the scope of this article.
Day one of the cycle is the onset of bleeding, and for the first few days, symptoms such as cramps, bloating and fatigue are common. Focusing on technique, movement efficiency and mobility can be a good way to mitigate symptoms. Not all females experience symptoms during menstruation, and in the absence of symptoms, your period is no reason not to schedule high-intensity training sessions or climbing days, and the advice given for phase 2 can apply.
Karin Magog, a British climber who has climbed 8b+/5.14a, made first ascents of 8b/5.1d routes and climbed E8 (5.13X) on gear, tells us: “I find it hard to get motivated for the first couple of days of menstruation. I feel tired … I tend to do short boulder sessions, conditioning, or a few runs up a redpoint project, just working the sections.”
Alizée Dufraisse of France, who has climbed 9a/5.14d, bouldered 8B/V13 and reached the podium in World Cup competitions, similarly says she has less energy and does not push it during menstruation. She says, “I often do some stretching, climb easy routes or even go for walks, as it helps to reduce pain.”
— Manage symptoms with low-intensity exercise, or if they are absent, start enjoying the follicular phase!
Making the Most of the Follicular Phase
The follicular phase is when physical performance is considered at its peak. Hormone levels are low at the start of this phase, with rising estrogen leading up to ovulation. This phase is linked to lower RPE (relative perceived exertion) and increased pain threshold, encouraging maximal efforts. This is generally a good time to focus on strength and high-intensity training, with potentially improved adaptations and shorter recovery times due to the role of estrogen in building muscle. In climbing, this could mean focusing on hard boulder sessions and maximal weights training.
— This is a good time to focus on strength and high-intensity training.
What to Expect Around Ovulation
For some females, the peak in estrogen leading up to ovulation is associated with feelings of high energy and motivation, and can be a good time to continue high-intensity training from the follicular phase (phase 2) or focus on projects. Testosterone, which may increase a climber’s competitive edge, also peaks at this time.
Magog says, “I’ve always found this to be my peak performance phase for routes and bouldering. I feel lighter, fitter, stronger and more aggressive. When I did comps, I was always pleased when they coincided with this time of the month, and I’ve started structuring more strength sessions into it.”
Just prior to ovulation, however, there may be an increase in injury risk due to estrogen increasing connective tissue laxity, as discussed in “Effect of Estrogen on Musculoskeletal Performance and Injury Risk,” by Nkechinyere Chidi-Ogbolu and Keith Baar, published in Frontiers in Physiology (2018). The majority of the research investigates ACL injury in female soccer players, but parallels could be drawn to shoulder and rotator-cuff injuries in climbers. Focusing on more controlled movements, rather than dynamic boulders, may help reduce injury risk. Increased motivation and feeling strong may play into the equation, so be aware of how long you have been trying a given problem. Stopping strong is a good approach here.
— Continue the high-intensity training. You may be capable of peak performance here. But be mindful of injury risk.
Roll with the Luteal Phase
During the third phase of the cycle, both estrogen and progesterone levels are high. This is often considered the phase where it may feel harder to push it, performance-wise. There is currently no conclusive evidence that acute performance, meaning a “one-off” performance on a given day, is affected by cycle phase. Research into this area is relatively new and the quality variable due to the complexities of investigation, as stated in “The Effects of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Exercise Performance in Eumenorrheic Women: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” by Kelly Lee McNulty et al, published in Sports Medicine (2020). Climbing is an intricate combination of physical and mental challenges, and does not fit neatly into the laboratory environment. Still, by understanding their cycle and gaining awareness of days when performance may feel harder, females may choose to postpone their hard climbing or training sessions by a couple of days.
The potential to adapt to strength training during this phase may change due to increased recovery times. By reducing the volume of strength training, we can essentially allow more time to recover. This has led to the “gain, then maintain’’ approach, where strength training is distributed unevenly between the follicular phase and luteal phase, with more in the follicular, as indicated in a study described in “Effects on Power, Strength and Lean Body Mass of Menstrual Cycle/OC Based Resistance Training” by L. Wikstrom-Frisen, Carl Boraxbekk, and Karin Henriksson-Larson in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness (2017). If recovery is still a problem, try completing strength sessions that are easier to recover from, such as isometrics or sticking to shorter sessions.
The high hormone levels during this phase may lead to “glycogen sparing,” which reduces the availability of carbohydrate. Fueling well with carbohydrates before training helps improve glucose availability and energy during training. Protein intake during this phase may be important to help improve recovery.
— Spread out high-intensity training. Be aware of recovery and fueling.
This phase, too, may be considered the one where it feels harder to push performance, and a simple way to optimize training is to sync a rest week with this phase (late luteal to early period), where the majority of negative symptoms, including those of premenstrual syndrome, occur. It is important for any climber to allow rest and recovery periods to maintain energy levels, decrease injury risk and promote response to training. Scheduling a rest week around the premenstrual phase and early menstruation can allow you to make the most of the rest of your cycle. You can climb fewer days and on easier grades or angles, make harder sessions fewer and shorter, and replace strength conditioning with mobility and stability exercises.
— You have to rest sometime. How about now? Reduce the number of hard sessions and keep them short, and use easier sessions to maintain movement.
Where to Start?
While there is clear potential for women to benefit from syncing training with their menstrual cycle, the approach is highly individual. The first step is to track cycle length and symptoms over a three-month period using a diary or app, such as FitrWoman. It can feel overwhelming to try and implement too many changes at once, so focus on a few that will make the biggest difference. The tracking information is integral to pinpointing the changes that may have the biggest impact. Furthermore, simply understanding the changes can help provide an objective rather than judgmental approach to our performance.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 266 (November 2020).
Madeleine Cope of Sheffield, England, has climbed sport 8c/5.14b and trad E9/5.13X, and is a coach specializing in working with female athletes. Neil Gresham is a longtime coach and regular author of this column.
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