Joanne O’Riordan: I’m learning how vital it is to shape exercise around my menstrual cycle

Absence of menstrual periods is so common among women who exercise

Bobby Clay  wins the women’s junior race during the Great Edinburgh cross-country  in Holyrood Park in 2016. Photograph:  Ian MacNicol/Getty images

Bobby Clay wins the women’s junior race during the Great Edinburgh cross-country in Holyrood Park in 2016. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty images

 

Lots of people remember my ‘New Year, New Me’ column from way back, where I spouted how excited I was to revamp my life with exercise and love and fitness. I got a poster that said ‘Good Vibes Only’ to remind me not to moan for a while. I signed up for online pilates and added it to my yoga regime. I cut back on my binge eating and even drank more water. I know, small goals, big steps.

The month of January passed by, and I noticed minor changes. I lost weight, friends said I looked great, and with every compliment adding fuel to my workout regime and strict eating habits, externally, I was flying. Internally, I didn’t notice anything was off until one week in February where I’d noticed I didn’t have my period for two months straight. Not enough to worry me, but enough to convince me I was chosen for immaculate conception.

I was working on an event for The Shona Project’s SHINE Festival, an online festival for teen girls to learn, grow, and explore. Tammy Darcy, the founder, trusted me enough to build a virtual sports stage, and one area I wanted to tackle was the menstrual cycle, performance and exercise, especially since I saw how high the dropout rate was for teenage girls in sport.

One in two girls drop out of sport before they reach the age of 20, according to the Women’s Sports Federation. In theory, if the population was 50-50 in terms of men and women, 25 per cent of the population wouldn’t be active.

So, I designed my sports stage and watched every day as my FitrWoman app, a menstrual cycle tracking app for active women, sent me a notification saying I had been late. I hated getting that ping simply because I thought my body was failing me.

I organised a call with Sinead Brophy, a certified personal trainer, modern pregnancy and postnatal exercise, and wellness trainer who is also trained in female physiology and nutrition. Sinead’s particular focus was on using your menstrual cycle as a training guide and actually getting the most out of your exercise with your cycle.

I’m 24 years old, and I learned things that day.

I learned how each phase, which there are four of, meant different things for exercise and performance. For example, in the follicular phase, aka phase one and two, oestrogen is rising, meaning your mood can go from poor during your period to pretty decent and upbeat. Phase two is also the best phase for muscle build-up, but, and this is with minimal research, ACL tears are a possibility if they haven’t been warmed up.

After taking diligent notes throughout the presentation, my lightbulb moment appeared. During phases one and two, I pushed training too hard, and the stress suppressed my oestrogen, causing me to skip my period. Add to that my new-found diet, and with that culmination, my body was stressed out and did not want to play ball.

Gradually, through fiddling around with my diet and regime, I’ve learned so much. During phases three and four, my asthma gets triggered as my body ovulates and prepares for a period, so my breathing is erratic, causing me to reach for my inhaler more.

Again, these were all things I just thought I had to deal with. Nobody taught me in school about the differences and how to maximise my life by actually knowing what’s going on internally. More importantly, what I learned from Sinead and Orreco on International Women’s Day was your menstrual cycle is a unique compass. If your body is off due to stress, over-exercise and under-eating, your menstrual cycle will notify you, one way or another.

Another thing was learning I wasn’t alone in accidentally messing my cycle. Secondary amenorrhoea, the absence of menstrual periods, is so common among women who exercise and yet, next to nobody talks about it. Bobby Clay was tipped to be UK athletics’ next big thing, but she was diagnosed with osteoporosis at 18 due to over-exercising, under-eating and secondary amenorrhoea going undiagnosed.

Sure, it will not get that bad for the rest of us, but without Sinead Brophy and FitrWoman app, I could’ve just as quickly gone down a dangerous road and caused myself some harm. Everyone is different, and everyone’s cycle is different. But the mere basics will get the majority of us active women through, fuel properly, listen to your body and don’t push yourself.

For actual athletes, be aware, encourage conversations with other athletes and coaches and don’t sweep any problem under the carpet. While I’m definitely not an expert or a doctor, I can definitely understand being shy and awkward. But sharing is vital. The menstrual cycle shouldn’t be taboo. It should be one of many ways to learn about our body and ourselves.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.