Hormones and female athletic performance have become a huge topic over the last decade.
If you’re a woman, sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone play a crucial role in female athletic performance.
They influence many aspects of an athlete’s physical and physiological capabilities.
Despite the well-known repercussions of female sex hormones, few studies have investigated the specificities of female athletes.
The fact is, women have been performing at the international level for just over half a century in most sports.
But knowledge specifically on elite female athletes has lagged behind when compared to the literature available on elite male athletes.
So what exactly do we know when it comes to female sex hormones and female athletic performance?
In this guide we’ll look at:
- What are hormones?
- What impacts hormone levels in the body?
- Are hormone levels the same in female athletes?
- 7 hormones that impact female athletic performance
- How to train during the menstrual cycle
Let’s get started!
Hormones and female athletic performance
What are hormones?
You can think of hormones as chemical messengers in the body.
They are produced by various glands and tissues in the human body and then released into the bloodstream.
Once released, they travel to cells and organs, where they affect the physiological processes and regulate various bodily functions.
Hormones play a critical role in maintaining homeostasis – a self-regulating process in which the body maintains internal stability while adjusting to changing external conditions.
They coordinate growth and development, responding to stress, and controlling a wide range of functions, including metabolism, reproduction and immunity.
Female sex hormones in particular – estrogen, progesterone and testosterone – are those that play an essential role in sexual development and reproduction.
What impacts hormone levels in the body?
Your hormone levels can be impacted by both internal and external factors.
Internal processes like your age, genetics, menstruation, pregnancy and menopause all play an important role in sex hormone development.
External factors like your lifestyle, training routine, diet and nutrition, stress levels, sleep habits and overall health can all impact your hormone levels.
When hormone imbalances are suspected, it’s important to consult a healthcare provider for evaluation and potential treatment.
Balancing hormones is often a complex process and may require medical intervention and lifestyle changes.
Maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced, healthy diet, exercising regularly, managing your stress and getting enough quality sleep can all help to balance hormones.
Regular exercise in particular can help to improve hormone balance, especially if you suffer with conditions like PCOS, endometriosis or menopause.
According to Dr Haleema Sheikh, “A regular fitness routine suited to your physical ability can positively impact all of your hormones – not just your sex hormone levels, but also others such as serotonin and dopamine – which means that you can improve both your physical and mental health and wellbeing from the get-go.
You can also use exercise as part of a preventative measure for hormone imbalance, or in preparation for the menopause.”
Related: Running while pregnant: Is it safe?
Are hormone levels the same in female athletes?
It’s important to note that individual variations in hormonal levels can significantly affect female athletes.
These hormonal fluctuations make it challenging to make broad generalisations about how hormones impact female athletic performance.
Genetic factors, training, nutrition and overall health all play a role.
Athletes and their coaches often monitor these hormonal fluctuations to optimise training and competition schedules.
Some female athletes choose to manage their menstrual cycles and hormonal imbalances.
The Guardian newspaper reported in 2021 that the English Institute of Sport (EIS) is seeking to level the playing field through the rollout of regular saliva testing to track the rise and fall of two key drivers of these monthly changes: estrogen and progesterone.
The article adds that Chelsea Women became the first football club in the world to start tailoring its players’ training to their menstrual cycles, although there’s little evidence that this is effective.
In consultation with healthcare professionals, the aim is to enhance performance and minimise potential disruptions.
Ultimately, understanding how hormones affect performance can help athletes (both amateur and elite) to better tailor their training and competition strategies.
7 hormones that impact female athletic performance
Here are the hormones that impact female athletic performance:
Female sex hormones
#1 Estrogen and progesterone
During the menstrual cycle, the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone rise and fall which results in many physical and physiological changes in the body.
During menstrual phase (this is when you have your period), estrogen and progesterone are low so you may experience increased endurance and tolerance for pain.
Whereas during the follicular phase, as estrogen levels rise, you may experience improved muscle strength, agility and aerobic performance.
It is during the luteal phase, when estrogen and progesterone levels are elevated, when you may experience increased core body temperature which may affect athletic efficiency and endurance performance.
At the end of this guide, you will find some tips for exercising during your menstrual cycle.
Although typically associated with males, females also produce small amounts of this hormone.
Testosterone plays an important role in muscle mass, bone density and overall strength.
Athletes with higher levels of testosterone may have advantages in power-based sports such as weightlifting and sprinting.
#3 Human growth hormone (HGH)
Growth hormone stimulates the growth, regeneration and repair of tissue, muscle and bone.
It contributes to muscle development and recovery, which can impact athletic performance.
#4 Thyroid hormones
Thyroid hormones, including thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), regulate metabolism and energy production.
An imbalance in thyroid function can lead to fatigue or difficulty in maintaining energy during training and competitions.
Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” can impact athletic performance.
In moderate levels, it helps regulate metabolism, blood sugar, and inflammation.
However, chronically elevated cortisol levels due to stress can negatively affect recovery, muscle building, and overall performance.
Prolactin is primarily known for its role in lactation, but it can also influence bone health and the menstrual cycle.
Elevated levels of prolactin can lead to irregular periods and potentially impact athletic performance.
Insulin regulates blood sugar levels and glucose uptake by cells for energy.
Proper insulin function is essential for sustained energy during training and recovery.
How to train during the menstrual cycle
Exercising in sync with the menstrual cycle is a strategy that some women find helpful for optimising their fitness routine and performance and for managing potential hormonal fluctuations.
According to one study, 50% to 80% of elite female athletes they studied claimed they were affected by PMS in the week prior to menstruation, and about 80% of the them by menstruation.
Most perceived their worst performance as being close to bleeding and scored highest for perceived fitness and performance in the phase following bleeding
The menstrual cycle typically consists of four phases:
- Menstruation phase
- Follicular phase
- Luteal phase
Here are some general guidelines on how to adapt your exercise routine to your menstrual cycle:
Menstruation (Days 1-5):
During your period, you may experience fatigue and lower energy levels.
It’s a good time for rest and recovery.
Gentle exercises like yoga, stretching, and walking can be beneficial.
Listen to your body and avoid high-intensity workouts if you feel too fatigued.
Follicular phase (Days 6-14):
As estrogen levels rise, you may feel an increase in energy and strength.
This is an excellent time for more intense workouts, strength training and cardio exercises.
You’ll likely have better endurance and improved muscle recovery.
Ovulation (Days 14-15):
Ovulation is the midpoint of the menstrual cycle.
You may still have high energy levels, making it a good time for intense workouts.
However, some women may experience bloating or discomfort, so listen to your body and adjust your routine accordingly.
Luteal Phase (Days 16-28):
In the luteal phase, progesterone levels rise, which can lead to increased body temperature and potentially decreased exercise efficiency.
You may find it helpful to focus on lower-intensity activities, such as Pilates, swimming or cycling.
This phase is also a good time for flexibility and mobility training.
Tips for exercising with your menstrual cycle
Here are some additional tips for exercising in sync with your menstrual cycle:
- Keep a menstrual cycle journal to track how you feel during each phase. This will help you tailor your workouts to your individual needs.
- Stay hydrated and pay attention to your nutrition, as nutritional needs may vary during different phases of your cycle.
- If you experience severe menstrual symptoms, consult with a healthcare provider. They may recommend modifications to your exercise routine or medical treatments.
- Be flexible and adjust your exercise plan as needed. Not all women will experience the same energy fluctuations, so it’s essential to listen to your body and adapt accordingly.
Remember that these guidelines are general and may not apply to every individual.
Each person’s experience of their menstrual cycle is unique and you should prioritise your comfort and well-being.
Consult with a healthcare provider or a certified fitness professional if you have specific concerns or questions about adapting your exercise routine to your menstrual cycle.
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