Perhaps you’ve just started your adventure with cycling and want to keep riding during your period. Or maybe you've been cycling for a while and some menstrual symptoms tend to keep you off the bike for a few days. Or you simply want to know how your menstrual cycle affects your performance. Whatever the case, even if you're a male cyclist, make sure you read this article on cycling while menstruating, as in addition to tips and recommendations, we have prepared a guide on how to take advantage of the hormonal roller coaster in the menstrual cycle and make the most of your workouts.
Before we begin, we’d like to stress something we always repeat: every cyclist, male or female, is different. What works well for one female cyclist and solves her problem, might not work for another. The same happens with menstruation and its symptoms. In Siroko we simply try to provide solutions from our own experience and information we get from female cyclists.
Every woman knows what a menstrual cycle entails, but let us summarize it briefly. The "typical" cycle lasts approximately 28 days, however, its length might vary from 21 up to 35 days on average. The ovarian cycle is divided into three phases:
- The follicular phase: day 1 of menstruation until day 13.
- Ovulation: occurs around day 14.
The luteal phase: from day 15 until the first day of menstruation (day 28).
The follicular phase:
It involves the bleeding period itself, lasting about 4-6 days (up to 8 days), followed by a proliferative phase of the uterine cycle.
When Aunt Flo is visiting, the most common symptoms are abdominal cramps and lower back pain, but there are a whole bunch of other aches and pains that can affect your performance.
Strange as it may seem, it is a good time to hop on a bike, as leg movements stretch and relax the pelvic muscles responsible for pain in the abdomen. In addition, exercise helps increase blood flow and produces endorphins, a natural painkiller. This hormone is part of the "quartet of happiness" along with oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine. All four are released during physical exercise. According to many cyclists, once they get on the bike, the aches and pains often go away.
At this time the estrogen level and metabolic rate are low which makes the body consume fat rather than glucose. Strength or high-intensity training is not recommended during menstruation but as soon as the bleeding stops, estrogen and testosterone levels rise, the metabolic rate increases and the body consumes glucose. It is preparing to generate a new egg and this hormonal growth helps to build more muscle, bone and tissue structure. That means faster recovery - a perfect moment for strength or high-intensity training.
It occurs in the middle of the cycle. Estrogen and testosterone levels peak just before the egg is released from the ovary. The body maintains the high metabolic rate by using glycogen (carbohydrates) instead of fats. It's time for a change in the workout plan and schedule endurance training with long, gentle rides, or rest for the next few days.
The luteal phase:
Once the egg is released, estrogen plummets and progesterone rises to become the dominant hormone. Its job is to prepare the body so that if the egg is fertilized it will implant in the endometrium and pregnancy will occur and proceed safely. This hormone increases body temperature and, together with the drop in estrogen, triggers what is known as premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
The symptoms are varied like a box of chocolates, which consumption actually makes perfect sense as it helps produce serotonin, a much needed hormone due to its low levels in this phase. However, as mentioned before, exercise also produces serotonin so you can tackle the PMS by riding your bike. Just remember not to get carried away and overtrain as your body is now vulnerable and more injury-prone.
Tips to ease period aches and pains
Hydration at all times, especially during menstruation. Water and water-rich foods to avoid dehydration and cramps when cycling. Fruits, vegetables and raw nuts as a good source of water, vitamins and minerals. All this combined with limiting salt and sugar intake, plus doing physical exercise, and you get a good combination against water retention, a very common symptom during menstruation.
We have already mentioned the important role of exercise in releasing the "happiness quartet" but it also activates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that helps us relieve pain and improve our mood.
Indoor cycling on a bike trainer is always a good option to keep training even if you don't feel like riding outside.
Anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers can help you reduce the symptoms and get back on the bike.
Just as you use new mobile technologies, GPS, smarts trainers, you can also try period tracking apps that predict menstruation, track the symptoms, record the best solutions, monitor weekly training sessions, etc.
Cycling product recommendations for women
Let us stress this again: these are only recommendations, just as there is no perfect bike or equipment, there is no right product for every woman. We’re simply offering advice to help you find what works best for you.
A pair of good bib shorts with a proper chamois is essential. Bib shorts designed specifically for women would be ideal, although a unisex model that fits well would also work. DO NOT WEAR UNDERWEAR.
The saddle is very important. Menstruation is already painful and uncomfortable, so look for a female-specific saddle that fits you. Hip width is irrelevant. What you have to measure is the sit bones distance. To do this, put a piece of paper on a cushion, place it on a chair, sit on it and raise your legs so that your knees are higher than your butt. Position your body as if you were on a bike and stay like that for 30 seconds. Stand up and you will see two holes. Measure the distance between the center of each one and you will get the sit bones distance.
Reusable or disposable menstrual cups. The most popular product among female cyclists. Made of silicone, they are placed inside the vagina and collect the menstrual flow for about 8 hours. There are many different brands, sizes and designs for easy insertion and removal. Easy to clean and the most ecological and hygienic method available.
Tampons. Choose the most suitable size for the amount of menstrual flow. Ideal for some cyclists but not for those who experience vaginal dryness or other problems. Carrying one or two is always a good idea in case you're going on a long ride. As with energy bar or gel wrappers, don't just throw them anywhere.
Sanitary towels and pads. Not the most advisable option as they can move around, chafe or bunch up while cycling. They are not breathable and therefore generate more heat, but they can be a solution if you don’t like the internal protection. Find the model that suits you best by trial and error.
Birth control pills. They are an option to relieve pain and control or even avoid having periods completely. Contraceptives are medications and thus can have various adverse effects, so talk to your gynecologist first.
Free bleeding. As bib shorts absorb sweat and moisture, they can also absorb menstrual flow. Use the chamois as a built-in sanitary pad. It won't show on the outside unless you bleed a lot, and if it does, then so be it. You won’t be the first athlete who does not hide their period. Just wash your shorts as soon as you get home to make sure they're perfectly clean.
After all, menstruation is something completely natural and, like many other things in life and in cycling, we have to find a way to get used to it in every situation and handle it correctly so that it does not stop us from doing what we enjoy. We hope that this article helps!