April 2016

Sports-ing and your hormones

Having done this sports-ing sort of thing for a while now, I know a lot of things about the way my body works; I can pick my heart-rate within about 5 beats per minute, I can sense very rapidly when explosion is imminent, and I can pick—roughly—when I will be good to back up from sessions and when I will be useless on the couch.

One other thing I have noticed in all my worldly oldness, is how the menstrual cycle impacts on performance. It’s pretty noticeable, for me at least, and can definitely impact upon riding and racing.

But a basic rundown…

Day 1 is your period. This is the start of the follicular phase. It usually lasts 3-5 days but, like anything, there are outliers.

Around a week (5—7 days) after your period starts, estrogen levels rise and then around day 10-14 estrogen surges along with lutenizing hormone triggering ovulation. This is the most variable part of your cycle.

After ovulation progesterone levels rise, the ‘luteal’ phase. This is the high hormone phase and that which is the most fixed in time-span (beginning around the day 15-period). Hormones peak around 5 days prior to your period, often coinciding with all the other associated symptoms of PMS: tender breasts, skin changes, fluid retention/bloating and general malaise.

Most of the female readers here will know all this, however what is less common knowledge is how your hormonal factors impact your bike time.

The menstrual cycle affects our thermoregulation, metabolism, blood volume and mental focus. During your high-hormone phase (luteal, PMS), your body is more efficient at using fat as a form of fuel, conserving those glycogen stores. For ultra-endurance events this could have potential benefit (yet unproven). It can also mean that topping up the carbohydrate stores can be more important in order to perform well at higher intensities, and is certainly something to be aware of when racing at this time.

Also, at this time, core body temperature has a mild increase which can lead to reduced heat tolerance, a higher respiratory rate, and a potential for earlier onset of fatigue, especially in warmer climates (hello Australia!). Fluid needs are also increased.

Furthermore, many women report feeling less focussed, less motivated, more risk-averse and as having more difficulty with skill-based sports. I certainly know that when I have PMS I feel about as coordinated as a blue-footed booby-bird (hello my ride at the Golden Triangle Epic…jeepers corners much?). I struggle with fluid retention/bloating and more difficulty focussing on the task at hand. Hence, at this time being super-positive (in spite of what I may be feeling…) is really important if I am to finish a race strongly, as well as not being too self-flagellatory when I ride like a nana on a step-through frame in the singletrack.

Feeling like I was riding like s$%^ at the Golden Triangle Epic. I blame PMS. Still, a switched-on brain can schlepp you to the end. 4th with a 30sec gap to 3rd after 5hrs racing proves that pushing through can have great outcomes despite how you feel.

Ideally, if I could race every race with my period or shortly after, I would, I would take the inconvenience for the mental clarity, feeling lean and fast that comes with being out of the high-hormone phase!

In conclusion, despite all mentioned above, Olympic gold has been won at every stage of the menstrual cycle and despite having explanations and physiological understanding of hormonal changes, jury is out on whether this effects race outcome at all.

Someone needs to hold me and sing me soft kitty after 5hrs of pain.

A non-race report. OK it’s a race report. Sorry.

Please note: there will be swearing.

I hate race reports. I used to write a race report after every race, not so much for others but it seemed to really assist in laying my thoughts out and figuring out what I did well and what could have been done a bit better. Last weekend was Australian XCM (Cross Country Marathon) Nationals in Derby in Tasmania, and it was a goal race I have had for a while now. Not only because the older I get the more flexible I am with the sort of racing I want to do, the challenge of XCM has always been tougher for me personally than XC due to the slow burning, prolonged pain associated with it as opposed to lung busting ‘watts now, recover now’ that defines XC and i’m good for a challenge.

I know when I race XC exactly how deep I can go and recover repeatedly for 1hr40-ish. So deep. Marathon racing is a bit more tactical, there are many more opportunities for people with different skill sets to rise to the top, and it’s a lot longer so maintaining focus is a harder task.

My race report then, is not so much a blow-by-blow account of every painful pedal stroke, but a look at what getting to a race like this takes for the average person (aka: me).

Three weeks to go: I wake up in excruciating pain with L4/5 back pain, I have been used on the dual stretcher transport unit at work and have lifted one too many obese patients, carried too many people from their houses. (NB: If you have mobility issues get yourself a fucking single level home). I consequently fail to race an important (in terms of lead up to XCM) local race and feel sorry for myself. Two days off work the back’s no better. I miss almost two weeks of training as I putt around feeling grumpy and impotent with a sore back. Lucky I had done a 4hr ride previously, and I managed another before the race but seriously, I was underdone AF. Still feeling sorry for myself.

Take home: Preparation is almost never perfect. What the legs may lack with improper preparation can be mitigated (not necessarily overcome, training results in physiological adaption after all!) by stubbornness and will.

Two weeks to go: Sleeplessness sets in. In the two weeks prior to the race my average sleep hours would be lucky to be a paltry four per night, one night I had a big fat zero which made for a fucking horrible day at work, but I got through with coffee and a cheesymite scroll. This insomnia maybe related to the race, the back injury and other things. It’s balls. It also meant that I had zero appetite, I lost weight, which isn’t such a great thing because it was purely muscle mass I was losing. A cheesymite scroll, though delicious, is probably not enough for a 12-hour shift after training.

Take home: Get some sleep, it’s so important for recovery. I don’t know that sleep would have changed the outcome but I would have definitely been a fuck-tonne less grumpy in the lead up.

Race week: The legs can still come good, right? After feeling awful since Toowoomba, the Sunday prior to XCM Nats I raced a local crit; I crept around, my back hurt, there was general listlessness. I wasn’t the usual aggressive, spritely AB trying to mix things up, just surviving. There were feelings of impending doom and trepidation for the Derby race; form was not on point. Then, my last hit out prior to race day, I managed to push myself into a vomitty abyss with some VO2 efforts, collected some tidy times and realised, ‘hey, those hill reps were pretty freaking quick, maybe there is some hope after all’.

Take home: Prep isn’t over until the day of the race. What you think may write you off may indeed by a small blip in the radar.

Race Day: This is it. The one thing I had been focussed on for a while. With my dodgy lead-up, I knew that getting myself right in the head was the key to racing well, so I pledged to make no bargains with myself just to get through it, try not to blow up and ride smooth. I knew I had missed key endurance/hill rides due to aforementioned back and I would just have to do what I can, that my climbing light would likely not be flashing. I don’t want to go into every boring, laborious detail about the race so i’ll annotate it in dot points for those who want the abbreviated version:

•The gun went off we rode the start loop: up a hill then down.

•We then rode two laps of a course with about 1hr15min pretty consistent climb followed by a 45min long descent (still featuring climbing!) that was in parts wet, rooty and squirrely AF. Total of 70km.

A rockstar field. With 1st and 2nd likely to be Mullens and King in whichever order, the rest of the race was pretty wide open. #glorifiedbuttshot #hydrapaknotonpoint Pic: Jo Rowell

That’s pretty much the gist of it, the amazing thing about this race is that where I was in the field, the positions changed so many times. I have never been in a race, XCO or XCM, where there was so much variation in position. I suppose a lot of this was to do with the course itself, those with lots of roadie climbing miles would ride well on the long fire-roady climb, some people would pass me on the long lower-gradient section, then there was a rocky, harder punchier climb and I was like ‘yessss I’m baaaack bitches’, this was followed by yet another roadie fireroad climb and I would be snivelling again before the descent, which really claimed my heart for the free places it brought me, surprising because I thought I was really average but was riding quite well technically. Except for those flat uphill switchbacks. They sucked.

After the first lap descent, passing about 4 riders on the way down, I realised I needed to really get in a good position at the top of the climb for the second lap, or at least be near any threats in front of me to try and mow them down on the descent.

Slack-jawed, near-death focus with Stevie Nicks on repeat in my head. Pic: Russ Baker.

It was all going well, a rider passed me just before the ‘i’m baaack’ climb, which was fine because rocks…punch…that’s my bag. Unfortunately there is still about 10ish mins of snivelling fire-road and a few girls got a gap as my legs started to say ‘fucking nope’, I think after being fourth for most of the lap I was in about 7th at the top of the descent. The same song line was playing over and over in my head, keeping the legs turning over. My only hope to get back in the game was to ride like the clappers down the hill, keep it upright (unlike the lap prior, i’m still tasting that dirt) and hope for the best.

Bilateral leg cramps (thanks adductors!) on the uppy part of the descent certainly didn’t help but I told them to go away and they did. Power of the mind! Every time a negative thought flew into my head about feeling like I was dying, my leg cramps, needing to have a vomit, I would think ‘be kind to yourself, go go go’ or something similar. By shutting the door to negativity you can do a lot of awesome things. I rode conservatively but smooth and flowy through the mud-pit, then wound it up gravity-style passing some riders on the super fast final 8km.

With about 3km to go I spotted Eliza Kwan, by about 1.5km to go I was almost on her wheel but there was no chance to overtake, third was just in front of her. It wasn’t quite close enough for a sprint, but somehow I managed to pull a swift 5th for 2016 National Marathon Champs. With 3rd to 5th about 30sec apart, having changed position all race, it was a pretty cool experience to have had.

Take home: It ain’t over ’till it’s over. Have a plan, foster self belief and use your skills to your advantage, whether they be awesome roadie-climbing skills, a bit of anaerobic punch on the climbs, squirreling around in a snake pit of mud or the fast flicking descents. Most importantly have fun.

Woohoohoo i’m fucking cooked, how about you? Pic: Jo Rowell

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