Periods and pumping iron: How to workout when you have menstrual disorders

Being a woman can really suck.

As if the patriarchy wasn’t frustrating enough, we also have to deal with periods. Ugh.

Incidents of endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, dysmenorrhea and other other menstrual disorders are steadily on the rise. And it’s time we talked about them.

You workout regularly, you eat right, you’re feeling great! And then it starts.

The PMS, the cramps, the fatigue, and the emotional upheaval. By the time your period has passed and the symptoms are gone, you feel like you’re starting from square one when you walk back into the gym.

So how do you deal when that happens?

Disclaimer : this post is not intended to be diagnostic or medical in nature. As a strength coach who has dealt with sucky periods, an ovarian cyst, and surviving a course of oral contraceptives that wreaked havoc with my system, I wanted to weigh in. Menstrual disorders run in the family (so fun!) so I’ve seen a variety of painful symptoms. Once you’ve consulted a gynaecologist and taken care of all the medical stuff, this post shares tips on working out and making progress in the gym.
Understand that just like how you can train around injuries, you can train around menstrual disorders too.

Be patient with your body

Eight months ago, I was in the gym with a barbell in my hands and ready to squat, when I broke down. I’d been in continuous pain for a week and I felt betrayed by my body. Because the pain wasn’t stopping and I just wanted to squat, damnit.

On a whim, I took a deep breath, un-racked my weights, and walked to the bathroom mirror instead. And then I listed out all the things I’m grateful to my body for. The times that it’s helped me become a stronger person. The times it’s gotten me through difficult situations and helped me come out feeling more confident.

Since then, one of my default things to do every month is appreciate all the times my body hasn’t given up on me. This makes it that much easier to accept that there are times when my body just cannot do what I want it to!

Be open to modifying your training plan

Sure Mondays may be squat days according to your plan, but not when your pelvis hurts to get into that position! Rather than push your way through pain, alter your plan to make it work for you. There are days when you may need to substitute heavy squats for some light mobility work. A good coach will guide you on the specifics of doing this, based on what kind of pain you walk in to the gym with.

The goal with every one your training sessions is to walk out feeling stronger, and ready to come back in another day. So while you may feel like you lost out on your workout for the day (something I frequently hear trainees raise concerns about!), you’re actually working to get stronger in the long run.

Budget for a light training week

The best thing I did was to plan for a de-load week to coincide with my period. So rather than break my head over not being able to stick to my training plan, I know in advance that I will be doing other kinds of activity during the week. I.e. yoga and mobility work rather than heavy lifting; walking instead of sprinting.

Make the most out of your good weeks

You know those few weeks in between cycles when your symptoms have died down and you feel like a regular fully functional human? Milk the crap out of them. Aim to attack your workouts during this time. Go hard and heavy!

If you can’t train heavy, train smart instead

When I had an ovarian cyst, my gynaecologist recommended against lifting heavy. So given that I could only work with about 75% of my max weight, I found other ways to make my workouts effective. I played with variables like tempo (slowing down exercises, thereby spending more time under tension), volume (more repetitions at a light weight), density (trying to do many repetitions at a light weight within a set time period).

Chill the f**k out and eat chocolate

….or whatever else that you’re craving.

Sometimes the hardest thing you can do is get out of bed, make it in to work and get by your day while trying not to focus on the cramps and how it feels like your uterus is being knifed.

On days like these, cut yourself some slack in terms of training and nutrition. Don’t stress about not being able to work out, or that extra portion of carbs. Do what you need in order to feel better, and you’ll only help yourself come back stronger the next week.

All said and done, dealing with longterm pain is difficult. I hope reading this has made you feel a little more hopeful about your progress.
Specific questions or concerns you’d like me to address? Comments section right below!

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