Training As A Female Athlete

Training As A Female Athlete

Navigating fitness as a female can sometimes have its troubles. Especially when we only really ever get taught what will happen on our period and not necessarily how to deal with it. So I decided to put this post together and ask some industry experts on getting the most out of your body as a female who does sport. Every female has to deal with their menstrual cycle and doing sport at some point in their lives, but it’s not something that is openly spoken about.

Who Have I Spoken To

Renee Mcgregor who is a leading Sports and Eating Disorder Specialist Dietician. With 20 years of experience working with every level of athlete up to Olympic level, as she’s a strong believer nutrition is something athletes overlook when it comes to their training. She focuses heavily on over training and REDs in female athletes and how not getting your period from over training is NOT healthy.

Nikki Brammeier is a former professional cyclist who was on the Olympic team in 2016, but is also a 4x Cyclocross Champion. 15 years as a professional cyclist, she now talks openly about dealing with her monthly cycle whilst training and racing around the world. Now a coach through Mudiiita Coaching, she makes sure her past experience results in happy, health athletes.

Bianca Broadbent runs a physio led bike fitting service. With a background in sports physiotherapy spanning 10 years, she is highly experienced in cycling medicine.

Feeling Low Prior To Your Period

When speaking to the ladies above, this was a topic that regularly popped up.

Renee “Firstly, it is completely normal to feel low in energy in the few days prior to and early days of your period. This is due to your levels of oestrogen and progesterone falling. So during this time, it is actually really important to listen to your body and do easier, more gentle sessions. Once you get to the end of your period, you will notice that your ability to train hard goes up significantly and continues to until just after ovulation, where you once again may notice that all training feels more like an effort.

Understanding these patterns means you can tailor your training accordingly which not only helps you to get the most out of your training, but also stops you from beating yourself up when you have those tougher days.”

Nikki “Yep, my periods often affected the way I raced. It was more the PMS (the time before I would get my period, which would cause the most issues).  I had never thought about it, and then once I began using apps like “Flo” and tracking my period, I began seeing patterns of how I would be feeling both on and off the bike in the 7-10 days before I had my period. Usually I would actually feel better once my period had arrived. I always struggled with heavy legs, feeling flat in my riding, tired, not sleeping and feeling light headed and not being able to hit my max in training, it often felt much more of an effort and it would literally be like a light switch, I would go from feeling great one day, to pms hitting and feeling terrible. Once I began seeing these pattens, I could accept it and work with it.”

Adapting Nutrition To Your Cycle

A question put to Renee, this is what she had to say.

Renee “Generally what we notice is that in the 7-10 days prior to our period, when progesterone is rising and reaching a peak, our need for carbohydrate goes up. This is because our body’s metabolic rate increases and the influence of progesterone means your body is more reliant on carbohydrate for fuel than fat. This is why we have cravings and an increased appetite prior to our period.

When we are on our period, it is important to provide your body with food that helps to nourish it, so wholegrains that are high in B vitamins, fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants, foods rich in iron such as red meat and eggs but also essentially fatty acids which can reduce inflammation.”

I’m currently reading Renee’s book ‘Training Food’ to help me get the most out of my training by looking at what I fuel my body with. It’s helped change my view on food by not just seeing it as something that my body uses to repair itself with, but also using it as fuel to get the most out of my training sessions.

 Nikki “Often women would lose periods due to an imbalance with training a lot, and maybe under fuelling. Maybe some women on the pill would skip a period. But I can only speak from my experience. I had a big chunk of my time as a rider without periods, because I was training a lot. I never used birth control pills as I had a really bad experience with them in my teens and never seemed to suit me so I just didn’t want anything like that going in to my body and affecting my hormones in any way.”

A Period Falling On Race Day

It’s something I still dread, even more so when I was at downhill mountain bike races and you had to face the dreaded porta-loos. Here’s what the experts had to say.

Renee “I think understanding why we are more clumsy, feel more tired and generally find training hard just before and those early days of our period can help our mindset as we know there is a physiological reason for this. Also having this awareness means you can be more prepared so knowing how to fuel appropriately to maintain good energy levels as well as preventing blood sugar fluctuations; ensuring good recovery options and enabling sufficient rest around your event will all help. If anxiety is very high, you may find it useful to use an app such as calm or breathe.”

Bianca “Hormonal changes that occur pre/during menstruation may affect pain tolerances. In addition to this we may experience pain in our lower back that is not musculoskeletal in origin – it is in fact referred from our abdomen – so managing symptoms here is key e.g. heat, oral pain relief if required.

Some individuals may also report particularly strong cramping sensations along with heavy bleeding, it’s important in these cases to consider the wider impact on your health and whether or not you need to seek professional support, like Elinor Barker did.”

Back in 2019 news stories were released about Elinor Barker suffering for years with Endometriosis. You can read more about that here.

Want More Info

Something I asked Nikki about, as it can often be the norm that coaches feel one size fits all when it comes to coaching.

Nikki “I think that a lot of male coaches don’t approach the subject of menstrual cycles, maybe they just don’t have the information to know what kind of a huge impact it has on female athletes, and its always been a bit of a taboo subject. I only know all I do, because I’m a female, I’ve been through these situations so I can relate to other female athletes and I like to be open and have these conversations when I’m coaching riders. It’s part of our make up and our physiology, we are not small men and so shouldn’t be treated that way.

I’m not sure whether it has anything to do with girls dropping out of sport, maybe they just lose interest and find other passions. But I do think that having more open conversations about these things from a young age would help both young males and females stay in cycling longer. Between the ages of 12-20 our bodies are all changing so much, you can be in one body one week and then a couple of months layer, you’re in another. Hormones are fluctuating, there’s a lot of changes going on. If young riders know this, they accept it and work with it. It could be you’re more tired from a growth spurt, or for females it could be their period. There is so much going on with young athletes. The most important thing is them having knowledge about their own body, they enjoy what they do, and they have good support around them.”

Want More Info

Flo App – mentioned by Nikki which she used to track her cycle, it is the #1 mobile product for women’s health.

Training Food by Renee McGregor – with no fads or diets to follow, it’s about seeing food as fuel for your training.

The Female Athlete Training Diary by Renee McGregor – if you want to learn more about your cycle and those pesky hormones.

You can also find Renee, Nikki and Bianca on Instagram:

Renee Mcgregor

Nikki Brammeier

Bianca Broadbent

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Feel free to drop a comment

33 thoughts on “Training As A Female Athlete

  1. Stuart Danker says:

    This is such a comprehensive and well-put-together piece. I love the fact that you’ve actually talked to professionals and it gives this article that bit more of a zing. Thanks for the legwork and for sharing!


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