Updated: Oct 17, 2022
You have two placebo pills, and two female runners.
You give runner A the first placebo, and tell her it will make her tired, weak, and will even cause her pain.
You give runner B the same placebo, but tell her it will make her more energetic, more resistant to pain, improve dexterity, body-temperature regulation, quicken recovery and will help her build muscle faster.
You tell both to take the pill the night before a big race. Who do you think wins the race?
Now let’s say that both pills are genuinely performance enhancing, but only runner B knows it. Who (still) wins?
the Cursed Week
Growing up, I (and I think, we) always felt like runner A.
I was told it was common knowledge that I never had a chance at 'winning' during one week each month, and I believed it.
Even when I felt magically (read: biologically) good during a race on my period, I’d break down mentally when deciding whether to let someone pass me.
In the heat of the moment, submission to my period woes was easier than digging deeper into race discomfort. I’d blame the 8th place on the moon to keep a sliver of my dignity.
An Aside: Young Women Need this
I wonder all the time, 'what if I’d learned about period power when I was 15? How much harder could I have pushed during key workouts or races through the years? How much more could I have developed had I understood this critical, yet somehow elusive bit of knowledge?'
I have stopped looking at my period as a five-day hibernation, and started using it to make major gains. Some of my best workouts are now during my period, and assuming I’m recovering and eating properly given the circumstances, I feel like superwoman.
What if this this is NOT you?
The long and short of this Mastering Menstruation series is that you’re actually stronger/faster/tougher on your period because of lowered estrogen and progesterone during what's called the low-hormone phase.
What if that’s not true for you? What if you wake up to the first spot of bleeding feeling weaker than ever?
There are two major possible causes according to Dr. Stacy Sims, and I’ll add a third of my own after explaining Dr. Sims’:
Heavy menstrual bleeding (HMB) which can also lead to low iron levels
1. Heavy Menstrual Bleeding
The average woman loses 2-3 tablespoons of blood during her period. 5-6 tablespoons is considered a heavy flow, and a quarter of all women fit that category. Signs of this are two or more of the following…
Passing large blood clots
Use of two period implements (a pad AND a tampon, for instance)
Changes every 2 hours or less
Flooding through clothes or bedding
Just losing 5-6 tablespoons will make you tired. But it may also lead to an iron deficiency like I often have.
Dr. Sims recommends you get your iron levels checked. It’s not uncommon in women, and I’ve found that for me personally, I’ve had better and quicker success in getting back to healthy levels by supplementing with liquid iron even though it tastes like death.
2. Birth Control
Three hormones are critical for building muscle:
DHEA, DHEAS, and IGF-1.
When you’re on an oral birth control, especially one with “highly androgenic progestin,” it’s much harder to build muscle.
A study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning compared women on a highly androgenic progestin pill, to women on a low-androgenic progestin pill, to women on neither.
After 10-weeks of a workout regimen, here’s how much lean muscle mass each of the groups gained:
High-androgen: .5 lbs
Low-androgen: 2.4 lbs
None: 3.5 lbs
(Remember, lean muscle mass is a GREAT thing - please don’t fall prey to the idea that all weight gained is only negative.)
Not only were the BC pill groups less capable of building muscle, the women on BC were also more stressed.
Progestin in birth control binds to the same receptors as DHEA, especially when it is highly androgenic, so the DHEA can’t get in there as well to build muscle.
The more androgenic your progestin-containing birth control is, the harder it is to build muscle.
Oral contraceptives are also associated with fat gain, lowered V02 max (which is one of the most critical metrics in running, btw), fluid retention and oxidative stress.
All these little things can really add up in the long term, and make you quite exhausted and beaten during your period. If your goal is raised performance, I’d recommend trying other forms of birth control, cutting the hormone-altering ones out if you can and if you really want to perform.
If you can’t cut birth control out entirely, Dr. Sims says the next best options are, in order, an IUD, and a progestin-only minipill.
3. My Worst Periods: Fueled by trash food 🗑
I'm constantly shocked at how little I used to think the quality of food I was eating had to do with my overall wellness.
It sounds so stupid now, but I used to believe calories were the only thing I needed to worry about.
'If I 🔥 burn🔥 1000 calories on this run, I can eat a full box of Mac n' Cheese and still eat some ice cream.'
All my adolescent and young adult life I just thought I was somebody who would always have Atomic Bomb periods. My workouts were shot, my runs were *meh* and my body felt like a war zone.
It wasn't changeable. It was hereditary of course. My sisters all had bad periods, my mom - it ran in the family.
It was my poor nutrition.
Getting the right nutrients in my diet has ELIMINATED my Atomic Bomb periods. I now cramp enough to give a deep, breathy *uuhhh* once or twice on the first morning, but that's it. No other problems throughout the week.
Here's how I did it slowly: prioritize getting two fist-fulls of vegetables every day, all month. Spinach is a go-to for me because it's so high in iron (great for HMB, which I used to have).
If Mixhers had existed before I found vegetables at the age of 27, I would have used them muuuuch earlier. Their product Hertime is like a springboard that speeds up the whole process of getting back to a normal period, even if you don't have one now. It basically turns down the volume on the Atomic Bomb period symptoms by getting you a blast of the nutrients you need in a powder drink.
Helps Balance Mood
Helps Reduce Bloating
Mixhers is great, try it if It appeals to you, but DON'T FORGET THE VEGETABLES. I'm a huge believer (now) that diet is not just calories, and that getting the nutrients your body craves is the one thing that would make everybody's lives better.
The Grand Takeaways:
If you're sluggish or feel terrible on your period, you may want to get your iron levels checked, make sure you're on the right birth control, or eliminate it entirely, and start eating vegetables twice per day (easy rule) to make sure you have all the right nutrients.
Your time in the low-hormone phase is much too precious to let a full week pass you by without progress. Nail down what the issue is, then make the changes you need to make.