Female Cycling Series: Training with your cycle

As athletes, it is part of our job to be hyper aware of and in tune with our bodies. When racing, we want to show up as physically well prepared as we can so that we can carry out the task required of us on that day. We often neglect exhaustion in favor of pushing past our limits. On race day there are no compromises with fuelling or recovery. I like to say, ‘the race is the reward’.

Reward for what? All the training we do. Good training, to me, is synonymous with consistency. To remain consistent, I believe you need to respect your body’s balance between stress and rest. It’s critical to be aware of fluctuations in form, fatigue and…hormones. This last point is more specific to female athletes or athletes that menstruate. Unlike our male counterparts whose hormonal cycle operates largely on a circadian rhythm (24-hour clock), the female hormonal cycle is infradian, that is, operates on a 28-day schedule. There is quite a spectrum of changes that occur in our bodies throughout a month, so we can’t expect our training to deliver the same feelings and adaptations if our hormones are not consistent. They affect our sleep, appetite, recovery, mood and more. How can this help or hinder our training and performance?

While I am by no means an endocrinologist, sports scientists or dietician, what I can share are personal ‘lessons’ and mistakes I have made and corrected both under the guidance of experts and by reading and researching evidence based information around female athlete health. I will include resources I have found helpful in understanding my body at the end of the blog. I am a huge advocate for employing qualified experts in their field, in order to filter out influencers who often share anecdotal information which can end up being more harmful than helpful if taken out of context.

Author: Brodie Chapman

FIVE LESSONS I LEARNED AS A PROFESSIONAL FEMALE CYCLIST

1. Reckon with your monthly cycle, don’t resist it.
The more you resent or give heaps of negative energy to your cycle, the more it will affect your performance and feel like a massive disadvantage when it’s actually not. It’s natural, healthy and a reality, and there is a freedom that lies in learning to work with, not against, it. Talk with your coach, team or dietician; do not participate in solidifying the stigma by suffering in silenceIf it feels uncomfortable at first, remember that being an elite athlete is all about stepping into the uncomfortable because you know it will help you reach your goals. For example, I now know that the week before my period is due, I feel a bit fatigued, my efforts feel harder and my body feels heavier. I used to be angry that I had to experience this and feel like I was failing my training if I didn’t hit the numbers I usually could. Now, (and my cycle is regular) I take note, check in with how I am feeling and take more naps, eat more food (because I feel like it) and ensure I am really fuelling correctly so I can be sure my body isn’t given a reason to be feeling flatter than I already do.
2. If you don’t get a regular period, make sure you know why and work with a health professional to work on getting it back.

It is old news now, but you will reach your highest potential long term as an athlete if your body is in homeostasis. A lost period is an indicator of poor health, and a clear sign that other systems are likely under stress too. It compromises bone health, mental health, and ability to recover and adapt to your training. I lost mine for two years when I first started racing at an elite level due to under fuelling and overtraining. I was naive to the demands of professional cycling and the energy requirements that came with it. I thought it was normal to feel tired and hungry all the time as a pro athlete – it doesn’t have to be this way!

3. Body image stigma is real.

Many of us hold an ideal of what a ‘professional athlete’ looks like, and social media and women’s sports magazines don’t help. Bottom line: how your body looks on the outside is not conducive to how your muscles work, how your metabolism operates, your V02 max, your balance, precision, focus, peak power or your ability to recover quickly. Certainly, other people love to share their opinions on how you look as if it indicates performance. It doesn’t. I had someone tell me recently after I told them I had good form at the moment, and they indicated that they thought so as I was ‘more lean,’ but actually my weight hasn’t changed at all since I saw them. Not one bit, but my repeatability of my FTP efforts had. That is something you cannot see by looking at me! We also tend to have a bias towards noticing the success of athletes that do fit ‘our ideal’ and ignoring that success of athletes who don’t look match the stereotype. Check your bias and check in with yourself as well. Compare on race day. Not on Instagram.

4. The role of contraceptives.

It was, and remains, difficult to get any information about contraception for athletes on the internet, save for the horror stories. I initially had a copper IUD which didn’t work for me because I bled so much I ended up with low iron. I ended up asking other women in the professional peloton and many of them shared positive experiences with the Mirena IUD. It releases a small amount of hormone directly into the uterus so it doesn’t enter the bloodstream. For the past two years I have had it and had no negative side effects to report on. It is a good idea to discuss with your health professional and be honest and open about your concerns so they can help find the right option for you. Many of my colleagues and teammates take the pill with no issues, others have had a host of different issues due to their unique physiology.

5. Portion size stigma.

As a female presenting biological woman, other people will often openly express shock at the portion sizes I eat. Waitstaff at cafes and restaurants will tell you what they think is ‘enough,’ and I rarely see my boyfriend get the same comments. Athletes do not need to eat less; we need to eat MORE. Female athletes: don’t get persuaded to order the salad while your male partner enjoys the pasta. It’s okay to simply assert what you need/want without justifying it or making fun of yourself. Do all women a favour and normalise eating as much/more if needed than your male counterparts.

MY FAVOURITE RESOURCES

The below resources are easily found on Instagram where you can find links to websites/books

Compeat Nutrition @compeat_nutrition – also with an excellent podcast of the same title. I have personally worked with Alica Edge and find her approach outstanding.

Professor Kirsty Elliot-Sale

Dr Stacy Sims and her app Wild AI

Dr Rene McGregor @r_mcgregor and her book More Fuel You

Female Athlete Podcast

Instagram @periodoftheperiod

I also like to listen to podcasts/read books about female athletes and their experiences, and their mindsets, and how they approach life are often things I can relate to.

Note: I haven’t commented on motherhood here, as I am not a mother! I do see other professional women thrive as both a professional athlete and a mother, and I am sure there is an abundance of resources out there for athletic Mums as well.