Estrogen And Performance

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less content with the idea of thinking “that’s just how I am” and more curious about why I do and think and feel the things I do. In particular, trying to understand the many hormonal changes I go through during each month (a.k.a., hormone poisoning ) is endlessly fascinating.

A few years ago, I read a book called 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals About Your Love Life, Moods, and Potential, which is basically like a hormone horoscope, designed to help us predict how we might feel and behave on a particular day based on where we are in our hormone cycle. It’s the book that prompted Dave to say something like, “So… when you have a relationship with a woman, you actually have a relationship with roughly 28 different women in the same package.” Exactly! And it’s no piece of cake on this end of the experience, either.

The NYTimes has a good read today on recent research into athletic performance and female monthly cycles. Overall, athletic performance wasn’t hampered by estrogen levels (hooray!), but there were some other interesting findings. Here are a few quotes to get you started; read the whole piece here.

A study published this year by scientists at the University of Melbourne in Australia, for instance, found that when women’s estrogen levels were at their highest, around the time of ovulation, they landed subtly differently while hopping than at other times of the month.

The women also seemed, to a small degree, wobblier. “We contend that the changes in foot biomechanics may be due to the effects of estrogen on soft tissue and/or the brain,” said Adam Leigh Bryant, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne and lead author of the study.

I’ve noticed definite patterns in my abilities and emotions each month. I try not to use them as an excuse for bad behavior – it’s not a free pass to be a bitch on wheels every three weeks – but knowing why an otherwise sunny day turns black or understanding a sudden slap of sluggishness goes a long way toward a peaceful mind.

On days 23, 24, and 25 of my cycle, I get the dropsies. It’s why I can’t use glass storage containers in the refrigerator. On my way to reaching for the jicama, I inevitably knock the grilled chicken, sauteed cabbage, and homemade mayo to the floor. I also often bash shins against table corners and drive shoulders into doorframes. (I also, somewhat oddly, become obsessed with the need to cut my bangs, which explains the jiggy-jaggy fringe brushing my eyebrows right now.) It’s all part of the wonder of being a girl and why I keep an eye on the calendar when planning adventures, big project deliverables, and other stress-inducing milestones.

Happily, on days 26 and 27, my strength seems to increase. Two months in a row now, I’ve hit PRs on those days. I’ve also discovered that I have a rush of feel-good hormones on those days, too. I find myself laughing and singing along to the radio and saying in happy wonder, Man! I feel great today. It’s short-lived, however, because it’s usually a sure indicator that on days 28 and 29, I’ll be visiting Tired Town and Camp Cramps.

The Times piece also said this, which I love:

None of which should suggest that female athletes are in some indefinable way more fragile than their male counterparts. Quite the reverse may in fact be true… after they reduced or stopped their workouts, women did not, in subsequent studies, lose their training benefits as quickly as men did.

Estrogen makes women stronger in adverse conditions, [a researcher at the Institute of Sports Medicine in Copenhagen] concluded.

The next time the hormone roller coaster takes me for a ride, I’ll try to remember that estrogen is making me tougher. And if you can’t get enough of stories about me getting snippy and bashing into walls, you can read more about my adventures in Hormone Poisoning here.

Have you ladies – or men who live with/love/train with ladies – noticed that your strength or stamina is increased/diminished during different parts of your cycle?



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  • emz says:

    I find that my joints feel more flexible, slippery even, when I’m at days 27-28. I also feel pain a little less. Since I hyperextend at the knees and elbows anyway, I actually need to be more conscientious at that time to avoid injury. Deadlifts always get me!

  • emz says:

    I never really noticed until I started CrossFit and kept getting tweaked every month. Also, we always seem to have deadlifts around that time!

  • Ronnie says:

    Definitely! Around day 20 I feel like my brain goes on vacation.
    Days 21-25 I’ve got headaches and backaches including what feels like sciatica flare ups.
    Day 26 I’m EXHAUSTED
    Day 27-28 I feel like SuperGirl.

    During any or all of those days, my sleep is bad too. Working out is one of the main things that helps me feel in control of myself during this time. I eat better, I have a goal to stay focused on and even if I’m dead on my feet, I feel energized by the exercise for the rest of the day.

  • Jess says:

    Weird, apart from the inconvenience of actually bleeding, I don’t notice a thing. No mood swings, irrational anger, fuzzy headedness etc. But I am on the contraceptive pill, not sure how that affects things.

    • Mel says:

      That’s really great, Jess. The book 28 Days that I referenced in my post explained that some women have no adverse symptoms at all. Good for you!

      I’ve noticed that my symptoms are far less pronounced now that I eat paleo and get enough rest.

  • Stacey M says:

    I’ve noticed that I have better days than others and I have the dropsies frequently. However, I have never paid any attention to the days of my cycle in relation to when these things are happening to me. I’m going to have to keep better track so I can see how I relate. I may have to pick up that book too!

    • Mel says:

      After I read the book, I started keeping track on our household calendar in the kitchen. When I first started, my dates were all over the place, but as I’ve cleaned up my diet, it’s gotten regular as a clock. Crazy!

      My calendar has great notes on it like “spotting” and “doorframe”. Lovely.

  • Liv says:

    I envy you ladies who have an exact 28 day schedule! I am roughly at a 35-40 day schedule and it can be hard to pinpoint emotions/abilities to an exact time frame which makes trying to figure myself out a constant challenge.

    I believe a few days ago I was at day 33 and I had an ice hockey game (I’m a goalie). I couldn’t stop a beach ball if I wanted to, let alone a puck. Instead of the puck going beautifully into my glove, it would hit my wrist and re-directs right into my face or worse, it’d go past me. ::add in multiple swear words to mother nature here:: I was in slow motion and the puck was like a bullet.

    I have a game tonight and I FEEL like I’m going to stand on my head. I cannot wait to get to the rink and piss off every guy on the other team because I’m playing like JESUS. Yes, tonight, I hope to get that shutout. And to celebrate our potential win tonight, the guys will head to the bar and I’ll be going to Walgreen’s to get a 6-pack and a box of Kotex because YOU KNOW WHO IS COMIN’ TOMORROW.

    Also, I would like to add a little testimony to Mel’s post about Paleo-eating and symptoms. I have been hospitalized before for cramps, I used to bloat like crazy and Aunt Flow would stay for up to 10 days! TOO LONG OF A VISIT! Since I’ve changed the way I eat, I have had *Z-E-R-O* pain, bloating, irritability. I’m just a slug and uncoordinated.

    Happy Eating!
    Recommended Reading: The Female Brain.

    • Mel says:

      Oh, Liv. I’m sure it wasn’t funny for you, but your story made me laugh. Best wishes for total ass-kicking tonight!

      Interesting that your cycle us 35-40 days — that’s tricky math! There are some suggestions in 28 Days for how to calculate if your cycle is long.

      Glad to see that you’ve had good results with clean eating, too. Awesome!

      I should also mention that kicking caffeine made a huge impact, too.

  • APayne says:

    Hey Mel,

    This post reminds me of the recent link that you posted to the army girl who completed a Whole30 challenge and saw dramatically improved symptoms of her Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.

    Upon googling POS, I saw that it is directly linked to Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Crazy! Seems like in the past we’ve tried to compartmentalize symptoms or illnesses, when really they are super intertwined! I’m just thinking that previously I thought of hormones as being this mysterious force in our bodies that is either regulated or unregulated. But it seems like this regulation isn’t just genetic or left to chance, its really about what kind of control we take over our diets/lives.

    So, thanks for bringing this topic out of the dark a bit. I think we can all benefit from asking ourselves why we experience certain symptoms at certain times.


    P.S. I can’t seem to find the army girl post anywhere… I hope I’m not confusing blogs! Gah!

    • Mel says:

      Hey, Abbey. I think you must have your blogs confused — but I’m glad you commented here anyway. You make good points! Yes, there’s a genetic component, but we influence the effects of those genes by our behavior… which leads to hormonal stuff.

      Whole9Life had a post about PCOS –

      And I think Mark’s Daily Apple or Robb Wolf had one recently, too.

      • APayne says:

        So sorry!! Your blog is my fav, that must be why i assumed all good things I read come from TCMTG. 🙂

        • Mel says:

          No apology necessary. Your comments are great and being confused with one of the other great paleo blogs out there is totally OK with me.

  • Tami C. says:

    Oh yeah, I call day 27 or 28 Super Power Day. I feel no pain. I mean that literally. I can run forever and not get tired, lift heavier, do more pullups/pushups/dips, etc. than normal.

    On Super Power Day I once went to a day long Hapkido seminar taught by an old school hardcore Korean. I was partnered with a black belt all day and I blocked his strikes with my forearms for about 8 hours. I didn’t feel a thing until it was over and I changed out of my gi. A friend said “Holy X$%!, look at your arms!” They were completely black and blue and I didn’t even realize it. Best Super Power Day ever.

    The next day, not so awesome.

  • Kelly says:

    Wow, thanks for posting this. I will definatly get the book. Aunt flow is getting ready for her visit with me and yesterday I had a killer Fran workout. 3.58 with just a 45# bar and a blue band. I always knew about the tiredness and blah days but the up days I didn’t. This is so cool. Maybe now I can know when to kill the workout or keep it on the lighter side. Thank you so much Mel… 🙂

    • Mel says:

      Kelly! Nice work on Fran. That’s totally badass. The book is super cheap used on Amazon, and it can be really enlightening to keep track for a few months, just to see if there are patterns. Good luck with it!

  • Meghan E. says:

    Okay Mel- I thought I was the only one who realized that she transformed into Super Girl on days 27, 28.

    Aside: I’ve been on vacation and have missed your blog!!

    I’m not on a strict 28 day cycle… tends to run anywhere between 25-30 days, but I ALWAYS know when my friend is a’comin’ because my performance at whatever I’m doing (basketball/softball in middle school and high school, intramural sports in undergrad/grad school, CrossFit & Zumba now) is absolutely phenomenal 2 days before and ESPECIALLY the day before… even sometimes hours before.

    I’ve PR’d deadlifts, Helen, Fran, a running/box jump/TTB met con, etc most recently. I wish everyday could be a PR day, but that’d mean that the day after would be time for my Playtex Sport. 😉

  • Mel says:

    Hope you had a wonderful vacation! Glad you missed us here 🙂

    I’m loving here the stories about Super Girl and Super Power Days. It’s such a nice balance to the cramps and fuzzy head stories we usually share about being a girl.

    Thanks for chiming in! And welcome back!

    • Meghan E. says:

      Thank you for the welcome back. I’d like to think of you and I as long-lost Internet friends being reunited and picking up where we left off. Keep on rockin’, Mel. Love your stuff!