Hormones and the Female Athlete

I recently picked up a copy of ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life by Stacy Sims, PhD after listening to her interview on the Rdella Training Podcast. She was also recently interviewed here on Endurance Planet. Don’t think I really need to delve into what this book is about with a title like that, but I’d like to share with you some great highlights that I took away! The following info is just a small snapshot of what is included in the book so I highly recommend picking up a copy!

The Dreaded Menstrual Cycle And Its Effect On Performance


The average menstrual cycle lasts 28 days and consists of 2 phases: the follicular phase (days 1-14, in which your period will occur for the first 5-6 days) and the luteal phase (days 15-28). During the follicular phase, estrogen and progesterone levels are low and during the luteal phase, estrogen and progesterone levels are high. Why does this matter? These changes in hormones can greatly effect how your body responds and adapts to exercise.

Changes that occur during the luteal phase:

  1. Estrogen turns down anabolic activity in muscle (muscle building) and progesterone turns up catabolic activity in muscle (muscle breakdown), which leads to higher rates of muscle breakdown. Protein intake is especially important in this phase to help reduce the muscle breakdown.
  2. High estrogen and progesterone influence the hormones that regulate body fluid. Blood becomes thicker, and less blood is pumped out by the heart with each beat, so exercise feels harder than normal.
  3. Progesterone elevates the body’s core temperature and makes you sweat more. This increases the risk of heat stress and hyponatremia (low concentration of blood sodium lost through sweating that can become life-threatening). Proper hydration is especially important during this phase to decrease the occurrence of heat stress and hyponatremia.

Pregnancy and Performance


Here are some general take-aways for exercising while pregnant:

  1. The hormone relaxin is secreted throughout the body to help prepare the pelvis for childbirth. Relaxin works by causing all of the body’s ligaments to become looser, which means that joints become less stable. Because of this, it is ideal to avoid performing exercises where the joint is in a maximally stretched position (also referred to as ‘end range of motion’). Performing exercises with the joint at its end range in motion can put you at risk for injury since your joints are not as stable at this point in time.
  2. Avoid exercises that involve lying flat on your back after the 4th month of gestation. The weight from lying down on your back may compress the vein that carries blood from the uterus to the baby, which could limit oxygen supply to the baby.
  3. Avoid exercises that involve using a Valsalva maneuver (holding your breath to create abdominal stiffness). This can cause an unsafe change in blood pressure.
  4. Avoid exercise that increases your core temperature to the point that you feel uncomfortably warm. An increase in core temperature over 102 degrees Fahrenheit can cause you to overheat.

If you want to learn more about resistance training during pregnancy check out Baby Bumps and Barbells on Athlete’s Potential.

No post would be complete without me promoting physical therapy so if you are post-pregnancy and are having trouble getting back to your normal exercise routine, a physical therapist can help with that!


Menopause and Performance

Menopause signals the end of menstrual periods. While some women might rejoice in this, it’s well known that hormone levels change with menopause so let’s delve into this a little bit more.

  1. Estrogen levels decline with menopause. This decline causes a change in body composition in which the body begins to store more fat. In addition, menopause results in it being harder for women to respond to the muscle building stimulus that occurs with resistance training and eating protein. Proper protein intake becomes very important!
  2. As estrogen levels decrease, the body becomes more insulin resistant. This means that the body does not respond as well as it used to with the intake of carbohydrates. Eating the right types of carbohydrates in the right amounts becomes very important as well!
  3. We now know that it is harder to build muscle during menopause. This is not helped by the fact that muscle strength and power decline with age, so it is vitally important that resistance training be performed in this phase of life. This should be in the form of both strength training and power training.


I’m sure most of the ladies that are reading this would agree that our fluctuating hormones can make us a little crazy sometimes, but that’s what makes us unique! Hope you’re now a little more equipped to deal with hormonal changes 🙂




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