Pre-existing Condition

If you think pms-ing makes running harder, you’re not crazy. I ran the 25K Greenland Trail Race on Saturday, at an unfortunate time of the month. You might think that actively menstruating is the worst possible pre-existing condition to race with, but thanks to products like Pamprin and Diva Cups, that’s not actually so. Your hormones estrogen and progesterone plummet during menstruation, which is as close to androgynous as you can get. This is the start of follicular phase, when you’re slim, trim, and full of energy, relatively unencumbered by reproductive function.

Unfortunately, there are no products that effectively offset the cumulative effects of the peaking estrogen and progesterone levels in the days after ovulation and preceding menstruation. God damn the luteal phase.

Let us number the ways:

  1. Metabolism – fat preference over carbohydrate makes the glycogen from last night’s pasta less effective; increased metabolic needs at baseline make it difficult to feel adequately fueled. You’re sluggish and fatigued.
  2. Fluid shift – even though you’re bloated (which makes your sports bra so much more chaffing), plasma volume decreases. This means it’s harder to sweat, and makes it easier to overheat. Your blood is also thicker, so it’s harder to get oxygen and nutrients to your muscles in a timely manner. Lactic acid and other metabolites are more sluggish to exit the muscles. You are also at your highest weight of the month. Cheers!
  3. Respiration: progesterone stimulates the phrenic nerve, which innervates the diaphragm, elevating respiratory rate and potentially causing hyperventilation.
  4. Constipation: Thanks to progesterone, your GI tract is sluggish. Racing will probably cause some uncomfortable gas, since you’re already all stopped up. You’re welcome.
  5. Insomnia: forget a good night’s sleep; right before menstruation progesterone drops, and the sudden withdrawal can disrupt your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and experience high quality sleep. This makes early morning race times especially tough.

The good news is that women are tough. Just because you’re feeling crummy doesn’t mean a good performance is out of reach. Here’s what you can do to address the disadvantages:

  1. Metabolism: consume extra carbohydrate 30-60 minutes before your event, to ensure glucose availability for high intensity performance. Consume additional carbohydrate more frequently during your event than usual, because – remember – stored carbs are less available. Progesterone is protein-catabolic, so you’ll want to make sure you refuel with protein along with your carbs in the first hour after competition.
  2. Fluid Shift: Use electrolyte drinks (this helps with the sugar problem, too) and increase your overall fluid intake both beforehand and during the race.
  3. Respiration: pay extra attention to your breathing. Do not be intimidated by higher perceived effort than anticipated. Acknowledge that your body is working hard on multiple fronts right now, and commit to doing your best in the circumstances. Difficult breathing is one of the most common triggers of mental defeatism. Stay calm and keep trucking on.
  4. Constipation: Use an OTC fiber supplement in the days leading up to your race if you aren’t going to menstruate by race day. Hit up the restroom at least an hour before your race, conduct a brief warm-up, and visit the bathroom again 30-40 minutes before your race, just in case. Exercise is an effective GI stimulant, and if your bowels have been sluggish for the past couple of days, there’s probably more in there than you want to deal with mid-race.
  5. Insomnia: Do your best to get a good night’s sleep (cool temp, white noise, dark room, yoga before bed, etc.). If you feel sluggish on race day, don’t panic. Avoid the urge to nap or rest within an hour of the start. Stay standing. Stretch.

Of course, if it’s at all possible, arrange your big races for non-luteal weeks. Ha! Life doesn’t usually work out so neatly. In my experience, a long race is better, because you have time to run through the crud in your stiff old legs, and more time to take advantage of your heightened long/slow fat-burning capacity. In my race, the first 4 miles were by far the worst, and in the last 8 I finally didn’t feel the sore, swollen breasts, or achy back that had been plaguing me all week. Sore muscles and exertional fatigue aside, it was a reprieve!

Ironically, my timing chip didn’t register,

so it’s like I didn’t run after all.


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