Lydia has long been a lover of running. Having grown up in New Zealand, she spent so much of her childhood in the picturesque outdoors, where she found not only a passion for running but a skill. The success in the sport came quickly for Lydia, but even so it wasn’t without its challenges. As a young woman competing in the high level of sporting competition, Lydia was constantly made aware of the negative ideas and connotations around the menstrual cycle. Then, it was seen as something that would only hinder performance, with some athletes inclined to take the contraceptive pill simply as a means of avoiding it for lengths at a time. For so long, Lydia absorbed the belief that to perform at her best, she needed the perfect running body; one that she would need to fight the female physiology to achieve. It wasn’t until much later that she managed to distance herself from such attitudes. In learning to appreciate her body and its physiology, her training thrived.
The experience is one that led Lydia to create Femmi, a platform that offers guided coaching to female athletes looking to not only improve their own performance regardless of ability, but also empower them within their bodies through education. Through Femmi, women learn to not fear the menstrual cycle but embrace it as something that can be used to their advantage. It’s something Lydia has maintained through her position as a Nike Run Coach. Even now, with the Nike Melbourne Marathon Festival taking place on Sunday, October 10, I find myself trusting in Lydia’s guidance not just in terms of running, but in how best to intuit and understand the body’s response. With the marathon just seven weeks away and training plans available online for anyone looking to tick off a half-marathon or full 42.2km run, Women’s Health sat down with Lydia to discuss how we can maximise our training by working with our cycle rather than against it.
Women’s Health: When it comes to women, how important is the menstrual cycle and what impact does it have on training?
Lydia O'Donnell: For so long, the female menstrual cycle has been disregarded in science and sport, and unfortunately seen as a taboo topic to talk about. But the menstrual cycle is such an important process that happens within a woman’s body and one we need to continually check in on. As an actual fact, our periods are now known as the 5th vital sign to know whether our bodies are optimally functioning or not.
Each month the endocrine system will go through the four phases of the menstrual cycle – the menstruation phase, the follicular phase, the ovulation phase and the luteal phase. Throughout these phases the body will produce differing amounts of the key female hormones with the two most important being oestrogen and progesterone.
Both of these key hormones have significant effects on our physical and mental health. During your menstrual, follicular and ovulation phase your progesterone is low throughout. Whereas your oestrogen starts low in menstruation, and rises gradually through the follicular phase and up to ovulation where it then drops off before rising again throughout the luteal phase. The amount of oestrogen and progesterone that is being produced by the endocrine system can obviously control the sexual and reproductive development in women but it can also impact things such as your bone health, gut health, mental health and more.
These changes throughout the menstrual cycle can have significant impacts on the way we can adapt to, recover from and absorb our training load.
During your cycle, what are some physiological changes you might experience when training?
By understanding these changes and paying attention to the hormonal fluctuations that happen throughout the month, we can use these changes to our advantage in training.
When we’re in our ‘low hormone phase’, which is during the menstruation, follicular and ovulation phases, we’re able to recover faster and hit high intensities easier. We tend to be able to push harder in our training. Whereas in the luteal phase when our hormones are on the rise, in particular progesterone, we need to focus on lower intensity training and put more of an effort into rest and recovery. About 5 days before your next cycle starts is when both progesterone and oestrogen is at their peak and this is generally when the pre-menstrual symptoms begin.
Rising female hormones can have an effect on how we build muscle through muscle cell turnover and protein synthesis. Your energy stores also change throughout the differing phases of the cycle and therefore the way you fuel should change too.
If we can adapt our training to our changing hormones and really listen to our bodies, we are able to get the most out of our training and not risk falling into a state of low energy, or what is known as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).
By training to our menstrual cycles we are not only able to become fitter and faster athletes, but also more confident and empowered in our bodies.
As an athlete, what has been your experience with training and understanding the female cycle? Was it something you were always conscious of or has it been a time of self-discovery led by your own learning?
I grew up struggling to love my body. As a young female I was constantly fed negative ideas and connotations around my body and the way it functions, in particular my menstrual cycle. It was like having a period was a bad thing, that it was a nuisance and that we should do anything we can to get rid of it (such as taking the oral contraceptive pill). This feeling, alongside societal pressures on how the ‘perfect female body’ should look, made me constantly want to control things and prevent things from working naturally so I could have the ‘perfect running body’.
I was led to believe that I had to work against my body to look and perform to the best of my ability.
It was only until recent years that I have learnt I was doing it all wrong. As females we should be embracing our female physiology and allowing our hormones to thrive in a healthy way!
I spent a lot of time learning from the renowned Dr Stacy Sims around how we can use our physiology to our advantage and this took me down the path of fostering a much healthier and positive relationship with my body. Through Dr Stacy Sims’ work I have learnt how to approach my menstrual cycle and take into account these cyclical fluctuations in my hormones when approaching training, recovery and nutrition and I have never felt better or performed so well.
You recently founded Femmi. What inspired you to create a company founded on this holistic approach to running and tailor it towards female athletes?
Through my own experience and the way I was able to change my own approach to my training and appreciation for my body, I wanted to share this knowledge with others. There is a huge lack of education for both females and males around how to approach female athletes and their training. It is known that less than 10% of sports science studies have been done on females – with the reasoning being that the menstrual cycle creates outliers in the studies. With this limited research being done specifically on women, up until recently there has been very little advice for coaches, athletes and those working with either, around how to foster a healthy hormone cycle and how to use it to the female athletes advantage.
At Femmi we want to change this. We want to inspire and educate women all over the world to feel empowered within their bodies through movement. By teaching women that our menstrual cycle is something that we can use to our advantage, to better our performance and to use as a very obvious sign if something is not quite right, we are hoping to change the way women see their bodies and embrace the way they function in a holistic and healthy way.
From your experience as a Nike Head Running Coach, how do you go about educating your female athletes on how best to train throughout their cycle? What would be some changes you’d suggest implementing for runners during certain points of their cycle?
Through the Nike Run Club training programmes that I have put together, I try to provide specific advice or guidance on how you can adapt and change the plans to work to your advantage depending on where you are at in your cycle.
The easiest way to understand the adaptations that I make as a coach is focusing on your speed sessions each week. During your menstruation, follicular and ovulation phases these speed sessions can be steered towards interval or fartlek workouts.
It also doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of or have done any of these workouts before! You can listen to Audio Guided Runs (AGRs) including speed sessions like the ‘One Hard, One Easy’ AGR with Nike Coach Cory on the Nike Run Club app (NRC app), which will provide you guidance.
Workouts like these mean you are pushing the pace harder and reaching higher intensities in these sessions, but you are able to recover faster and your body can tolerate the high heart rate. Whereas in your luteal phase, I suggest for women to pull back on the speed work and focus on longer, slightly slower running. This isn’t to say don’t do speed work during this phase, but do concentrate more on your endurance speed such as completing Tempo workouts that aren’t at such a fast pace. An example is the 8K Tempo AGR with Coach Bennett on the NRC app.
What are the benefits to understanding your cycle and building a training plan around it?
If women are able to understand their cycle it allows them to embrace the changes rather than work against them. Knowing that these changes are coming within each cycle, it helps us to be prepared for them, to accept them and work through them. I believe that the more you can understand something, the better you can deal with it!
Without understanding why you are going through something, such as a hormone change that is making you feel more fatigued and tired, you question what is wrong with you and how you can fix it.
As a woman, by taking note and tracking these changes you’ll learn the patterns of change throughout a cycle and it’ll also allow you to do right by your body throughout the different phases.
Now a tip to help you get started.
The week before your next period is going to start, pull back the intensity of your training and focus more on recovery. This will let your body benefit more from your training and you will actually just feel better within yourself at this time too.
For those looking to better understand their hormones, cycle and training, where would you suggest they begin their journey? Are there any tools or apps you find particularly useful?
It is really worthwhile tracking your cycle. Whether you do it manually or use an app, it is so helpful to know what phase or day you are in. This will also help for you to take notice if there are any irregularities in your cycles and if potentially something is not right.
I suggest anybody, both women and men, to listen to my Audio Guided Run on the Nike Run Club app called Cycle Run Part 1 and Part 2. This is an interview I did with Dr Stacy Sims and we go relatively deep into training to our cycles. I also recommend the book ROAR also written by Dr Stacy Sims. There is so much knowledge in this book that can help anyone working with women to learn how best to approach their training, recovery and nutrition.
If you want some inspiration of how to embrace being a female head to @femmi.co on Instagram.