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Cycling on your period: Nutrition, training and navigating symptoms

Robyn Davidson
25 Nov 2021

Understanding cycling and the menstrual cycle: should you ride your bike on your period?

Menstrual cycle. Periods. Time of the month. Whatever you want to call it, those with uteruses experience a shedding of the inner lining every month that inevitably impacts on everyday activities including cycling. 

A month is an average, of course – it changes for everyone, as do the symptoms that go with it. 

Some might experience a light flow, able to continue riding with ease, others might be forced to stay in bed. Or, people with endometriosis might ride through their cramps as those experiencing the menopause have hot flushes.

Let's contribute to breaking the stigma with advice, tips and tricks on cycling on your period from coaches, health nutritionists, hormone experts, personal trainers and sports scientists.

The importance of talking about the menstrual cycle

Heidi Blunden, lead coach for the Invictus UK Cycling Team, who also worked with British Cycling on programmes addressing inequality, believes discussions surrounding the menstrual cycle are important so that there's value placed on it.

'It feels like a normal conversation to have as a coach because it's a big part of that person's health and lifestyle, and it affects how and when they feel like training.'

Esther Goldsmith, sports scientist at Orreco, discusses why emphasis may not have been placed on this previously.

'Historically, females have been trained like males, because a lot of the sports science research and the research that lots of protocols are based on has just been done on men.

'We need to appreciate that men and women have different bodies, and therefore have different physiologies. That might mean then we need to have different considerations around everything that encompasses being a female.

'We're always talking about marginal gains in sport, but actually, it's kind of a maximum gain.'

Cycling through the menstrual cycle: should I ride my bike on my period?

So why ride on your period? You certainly don't have to. Lucy Gornall, PT and Head of Wellness at Puresport said exercise is great to combat bad moods or feelings of stress and anxiety. Endorphins released during physical activity such as cycling can leave you more relaxed and in a better mood, as well as having potential to help period cramps.

She is also a big advocate for adapting training to your menstrual cycles – if you need to.

If you have or are a coach, it's important to have discussions about the menstrual cycle. Blunden goes through screening questions with her female clients.

'This is to establish whether they have a regular period and what is normal for them. The absence of a period indicates overtraining, and this is alarmingly common, particularly in younger athletes and those competing at a high level.'

Blunden places a lot of emphasis on the rider as an individual. The menstrual cycle is unique to each person, so forcing yourself to fit into advice found on websites can be detrimental.

'Whether you're looking at menopausal women, or women who are having a regular period or an irregular period, or haven't yet started their periods, the approach is the same and you need to look at the person that's in front of you, and treat them as an individual.

'The biggest tool that I have as a coach and they have as an athlete is a pen and a piece of paper, and writing it down. And if they aren't tracking their symptoms, that's something that I really encourage them to do. Generally it's three months really before we can start to build a picture of anything and try to kind of fit things in around how they're feeling with period symptoms or going through the menopause.'

On the topic of menopause, hormone expert Dr Martin Kinsella says that hormone fluctuations during this time can affect women drastically and in many ways. When hormones become off balance, it can result in a number of symptoms.

These include spots, weight gain, mood swings, infertility, lack of energy, poor sleep, depression, vaginal dryness and hair loss.

'I can't emphasise the importance of progesterone enough for balancing hormones. Progesterone is gold for most women. It works an absolute dream.

'Although exercise hasn’t been proven to reduce menopause symptoms, I would argue that it can certainly help to address a lot of changes that occur as a result of the hormonal imbalance during menopause… I would advise that cycling is an excellent sport for those experiencing the menopause.'

Clothing through the menstrual cycle: What should I wear on my period?

Clothing can be an important consideration when riding through your period. The different kinds of products used for the menstrual cycle can vary, just like personal preferences.

Pads and tampons are a common solution for bleeding, but might not be ideal for longer rides – or even those without a toilet at the cafe stop. Should you have to pull over to answer nature's call, pads, tampons and even menstrual cups can start getting tricky.

That doesn't mean none of the above work, but there are alternatives or items you can incorporate into your current routine out there – with more becoming available all the time.

Absorbent knickers

Absorbent period clothing does exactly what they say on the tin, the movement towards using them being driven in part by a desire to reduce consumption of single-use plastics. There's more variability with this option too, as knickers come in a range of options.

From classic briefs to high-waisted and boxer shorts, there are numerous options to order online, from places such as Flux Undies, whose products absorb up to five tampons' worth of liquid, or Modibodi – whose technology extends from everyday moisture to flow equivalent of 10 tampons for hours in the saddle.

Absorbent shorts 

Thinx has launched an activewear line that contains absorbent sleep shorts, training shorts, leggings and cycle shorts. The cycle shorts are a light absorbency – one pad's worth, so not for heavier days or flows – and do not come with padding inside like cyclists are accustomed to, so are best for leisurely cycling or wearing under padded shorts.

They do however come with space to put a heating pad inside, and I'd recommend sizing up should you experience bloating.

Bib shorts

Bib shorts are a staple feature of a cyclist's wardrobe. Fortunately some are designed with toilet stops in mind, so incorporate features like poppers to separate the shorts from the straps.

Typically bib shorts put less stress around the waist as they aren't elasticated like regular cycling shorts, so could be a better option to test if you experience bloating or pain during your period.

Editorial assistant Emma Cole recently reviewed the Summit Classic Bib Shorts – which with Pactimo's Clip&Pit system make it easy to unclip the chest strap for a comfort break.

Practical considerations

For personal hygiene away from cycling clothes, there's nothing wrong with packing some wet wipes for yourself (and your bike). Pop down to your local shop and pick up a pack for a couple pounds before I can fit more 'p's into this sentence.

While you're there, pick up some extra sanitary products – ie, pads and tampons if you use them – and maybe some suncream for good luck.

And seeing as you're already in the shop, get me a couple bottles of red wine too? And some chocolate. Don't forget the chocolate.

Nutrition through the menstrual cycle: what should I eat on my period?

Gail Madalena, female health nutritionist speaking for Puresport, notes that good nutrition is vital throughout the menstrual cycle. Eating a varied diet can contribute to healthy hormone levels, helping make cycles more regular and lowering PMS symptoms.

While eating too little food can impact ovulation, overeating the wrong types of food can also develop more intense cravings and painful periods. If you're on your period while cycling, try packing some nuts and dark chocolate.

Madalena added that a drop in progesterone and oestrogen during periods can make you hungrier than usual, and a drop in serotonin – the feel-good hormone – can leave us wanting to seek comfort. Dark chocolate is higher in antioxidants, so bring some along for the ride.

'Pre-menstruation you want to eat foods that provide high-quality energy and that stabilise blood sugar and minimise cravings. Reduce refined carbs and processed foods, focussing more on protein sources.

'Try to eat magnesium-rich foods that can help fight fatigue. These include leafy greens, dark chocolate, nuts, seeds and spinach. During your period avoid fatty foods, alcohol, caffeine and salty foods that can worsen period cramps and exacerbate PMS.'

But after you've exerted energy on the bike, look out for food containing magnesium. This nutrient is generally lower in women who are on their period and this can contribute to muscle cramps/fatigue.

'I would recommend nut butters, brown rice, seeds, beans and legumes. Green leafy veg are also great for a boost of iron, which can dip when bleeding. Protein is also a great option to aid satiety, fatty fish high in omega-3 is anti-inflammatory and can reduce menstrual pain alongside fruits and vegetables that contain beneficial antioxidants.'

How to track your menstrual cycle

As Blunden said, a pen and paper is a great way to start. I personally use the app Clue. The free version allows you to track your menstrual cycle, your period, sleep time, energy levels, and symptoms, and gives an analysis of cycle length and variation.

Goldsmith is part of the science team behind FitrWoman, an app developed by her colleague Dr George Bruinvels, head of Orreco's female athlete programme.

'It's a free menstrual cycle app. We did a research study in Strava users two years ago and saw that lots of these women are experiencing symptoms that have a negative impact potentially on their training.'

FitrWoman helps track your menstrual cycle, provides personalised tips around training considersations and gives nutrition suggestions tailored to changing hormone levels throughout your cycle.

For coaches and training programmes, Blunden uses TrainingPeaks.

'TrainingPeaks is the one thing that I pay a lot of money for as a coach. I encourage athletes to use it as well, because it's a great way of pulling together the training that I'm prescribing, but also the athlete can make notes about their symptoms, how they're feeling, what's happening for them on that day, and I can see it, so we have this kind of constant contact.

'So I do ask female athletes to note down when their first day of their period is, or if they're expecting it, and it hasn't arrived, give me that information. And then if we're working together, hopefully over a number of months, we can kind of spot patterns together.'

Enabling conversations about the menstrual cycle

It's important to foster an environment that allows for honest conversations about the menstrual cycle. It's not something to be embarrassed about, nor is it something to shy away from.

But how can this be applied from a coaching perspective?

As Blunden notes, 'I work with male coaches who are really good, actually. Quite often they do ask, but I think it's tricky for them. If it's not a conversation that maybe happens with a partner or sister or mother, it's just kind of difficult I think on the whole.

'Don't be embarrassed about it, because they're looking at it from a scientific point of view or a point of view where it's impacting on your performance, either in a positive or negative way. So they'll want to work with you to support you in improving and that's an important part of the puzzle

Essentially, the variety in type or intensity of symptoms during the menstrual cycle means that it's not a 'one method fits all' approach. By talking to one another, friends, coaches and teammates, we can all become more informed on the menstrual cycle and cycling.