Introduction to the menstrual cycle
A woman’s reproductive years are marked by the regular occurrence of her menstrual cycle. In most literature a cycle length of 28 days, with a period lasting 3-5 days, is the commonly used description of a ‘normal period’. This pattern makes it convenient to fit into a 4 week calendar cycle. As a result this ‘norm’ has been adopted as general knowledge but it is important to note that cycle length may vary between women. It is highly individual and the length of a woman’s cycle can vary between 21-35 days and may also vary in length from cycle to cycle.
This type of variation is common, and if a woman happens to have a cycle that falls within the 21- 35 day range there is no cause for alarm. Particularly if this has been her lifelong pattern and she is asymptomatic of other health issues or there is no evidence of serious disease.
The purpose of a menstrual cycle is to prepare the woman’s body for fertilisation. It is driven by the highly co-ordinated relationship between the endocrine glands, the hypothalamus, pituitary and ovaries (HPO axis) (1,2,3) Each month, if fertilisation does not occur, the Endometrium, which is the lining of her Uterus, sheds off. While this shedding looks like blood loss, it is also composed of other tissue and secretions. A woman’s cycle provides a useful ‘snapshot’ into the status of her overall health.
Asking a client about her menstrual cycle, her menstrual cycle history and how she feels month to month is not conventionally included in PAR-Q or screening forms. Within society it is still a ‘taboo’ subject, although many women are publicly normalising the menstrual cycle by openly discussing it on various platforms.
Considering that a female’s hormonal profile has the ability to affect all aspects of her health and performance (including her ability to achieve physique and performance results) it seems naive to ignore this crucial part of a woman’s biology. Different women have a different attitude to their menstrual cycle and questions about it may be met with indifference, shock or confusion as to why it is important. This is where education is necessary and relies on the skill of the coach to be able to convey the importance and relevance of this topic to the client in a compassionate way.
In the past exercise professionals, coaches and educators have declared that a female’s menstrual cycle has no effect on her ability to exercise or results. The recommendation has been to continue training in a normal sense or as others have said in informal situations “tell her to ‘Harden up’ and push through even when she has her period”. It is this ‘push through’ attitude that is stopping women from experiencing their full physical capabilities. While some woman may not experience any negative physical or emotional changes over the course of her cycle there are some woman who are sensitive to it and so just like in every other area of our role; we need to look at the individual rather than simply going by a given protocol.
Appreciating that some women are more prone to being affected by their cyclic changes than others is the cornerstone of individualised coaching and programming. Understanding how an individual woman responds to her cycle makes it easier for fitness professionals and coaches to alter their exercise and nutrition prescription in order to work with her cyclic changes rather than against it.
Lesson aims • Understand the physiology of the menstrual cycle • Understand how hormone fluctuations may affect her mood and fuel utilisation • How to apply basic female phase training • Increase confidence in discussing the menstrual cycle with client • Understand the basics of birth control
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