Dealing with challenges- Menstruation & Swimming!

Throughout my years as a swimmer, I’ve learnt a lot. Not only about swimming in the practical sense but also how to deal with all sorts of challenges thrown at you as you progress through your teenage years. One of the main struggles being menstruation and the hormonal fluctuations that come with it!

Going through adolescence as a swimmer isn’t easy by any means, and it takes a lot of ‘figuring it out as you go along’. That’s why I want to share some of my experiences and talk about a topic that quite frankly, is rarely spoken about! The journey through adolescence isn’t straightforward for any teenage girl, nevermind being in the water twice a day, pushing your body to it’s limits day-in day-out. That’s why we need to know our body and our cycle so we can work with it rather than against it. Some days you aren’t going to feel your best, purely down to the hormonal changes your body is going through and that’s completely normal. It’s easy to wonder why we’re not hitting our targets, or why even though you don’t feel tired, you’re swimming much slower than last week. There’s a million reasons why this could be, but I’m going to break down a few of them in this blog.

Firstly, dealing with menstruation during a training session isn’t fun. Constantly feeling self-conscious when getting out the pool soon becomes a regular feeling as a swimmer! Some of us have it easier than others but unfortunately this is something we all experience, and can’t do much about. But it’s completely normal and nothing to ever be embarrassed about, and dealing with things like this just makes us girls even tougher. 

When it comes to the hormonal challenges, it’s a complete minefield. This is where it gets really difficult..

Always make sure you’re tracking your cycle. The more details you can make note of, the better! I used to track my periods on an app where I could document how I felt in terms of tiredness, mood and cramps, as well as how heavy my period was and how many days it lasted. This made it so much simpler to see patterns and know what to expect. It soon became clear to me that at a specific time of the month right before I was due on my period, I would really struggle in training. I felt lethargic and slow, and very rarely could hit my target times. When I knew what to expect it made things much easier and I stopped beating myself up for having a bad session, because I knew that my body was going through a lot! Even if your period seems light, never get annoyed with yourself for not swimming your best during this time, as there is so much more going on than just what you can see. Hormones can do all sorts of things that can affect your performance as well as make you feel down and emotional, it’s completely normal!

If you need a night off, take a night off. It’s not going to affect you that much! Pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion is going to do you no good in the long run, so make sure you’re giving your body time to recover and catch up. I never used to allow myself to miss a session unless I had a physical reason- but struggling mentally is just as, if not more of a reason! When you can’t ‘see’ the problem, it’s easy to overlook it. But it’s important to look after your body, and proper rest and recovery is a massive part of training!

Make sure you’re fueling yourself properly! During menstruation it’s proven that the body burns around 100-300 calories extra per day, so make sure you’re eating a little bit more. This should help with your energy levels throughout the day and make training a tiny bit easier! Also make sure you’re drinking enough as during menstruation, hormones can affect your hydration levels and make it more likely you become dehydrated. When training, staying hydrated is key (which you’ve probably been told a thousand times), but it really does make a difference to how you perform.

Even if you manage to stay on top of all of this, sometimes you just feel rubbish. And that’s okay! Every female athlete has to deal with it, and over time it becomes easier to manage when you learn how your body works for you. 

You may consider contraception to help manage your periods, which can really help. However unless you’re really lucky, it will probably take a while to find something that works right for you! I would only recommend using contraception to manage your periods if you really struggle with them, as I’ve found that it can cause even more problems such as weight changes and mood swings. Throughout my years as a swimmer I tried many different contraceptive pills, some of which seemed to do nothing, some made my periods fluctuate and some made me very, very emotional. It’s all about giving different versions a go and making note of what works and what doesn’t work. Which can be very stressful! But if you do find one that works for you, it can help you keep track and manage your periods better. Which is great when it comes to competitions and planning around them!

So here’s the next challenge, competing. No one wants to be on their period when they race, not only practically but mentally too. It’s a massive distraction, nevermind making you feel bloated and tired. So what’s the best way to deal with it?

This is why it’s so important to track your cycles, so you know when you’re due on and can compare this with your competition schedule. If you’re taking oral contraception, I would try to plan a least a month ahead to make sure you’re at your best time when you compete (normally you can take an extra week or so of your pill so that you won’t be on your period when you race- but always check with your doctor first!) This just means you won’t have your period to worry about when you compete and can also help time your hormone fluctuations with your race day. Usually, the follicular phase (around days 1-13) is when I always felt my strongest and fastest, and the luteal phase (after ovulation, days 15-28) is when I felt fatigued. But this can vary slightly for everyone!

But what if you’re not on hormonal contraception? Well here’s the problem, there’s really not much you can do- it’s just one of the challenges of being a woman! For the majority of my swimming career I wasn’t on contraception, and I just hoped that I would be lucky in terms of my cycle at competitions. But you won’t be on your period at every competition, so make the most of the ones when you’re not! I know this isn’t much help, but there really is no magic fix. Make sure you make note of how you performed and the rough time in your cycle at the time of competition. This can help things become a little clearer and hopefully make more sense. At smaller meets, practice how you will deal with your period when it comes to a more serious competition, such as making sure you’re hydrated, doing full race warm-ups and warm-downs! This will prevent any surprises and mean you’re more prepared when it comes to a meet you’ve been working towards. 

And just remember, everyone’s in the same boat. Although it might not always be fair, the female body is capable of incredible things and we as women have a lot to deal with, so cut yourself some slack and do your best. At the end of the day it’s never going to be easy, but all these little challenges make the successes even more special.