Riddle me this. The surf is the same size as it was at the start of the week. Two to three feet. Nothing overly big. Perhaps there is a bit more wind on it, something you are capable of dealing with. But why, on this day, do you feel too chicken to get out there?
How about the days where you feel entirely un-coordinated? As if your legs belong to somebody else and you are back to the beginning, learning how to surf again. Is it really that you are suddenly incompetent, or is there another explanation for your jelly leg detachment?
Our menstrual cycle affects our performance
Over the years of working with competitive and non-competitive female surfers as an Exercise Physiologist and Scientist, I have become familiar with the symptoms and challenges women face during different phases of their cycle. So familiar that when a female client tells me she has no surf mojo, I predict she is likely premenstrual. When I turn up to train a client, and she is in tears without knowing why, I happily scrunch up my training plan and adapt.
You see, unlike men, women fluctuate. We ebb and flow to a rhythm that is uniquely ours. If historically sports science and the patriarchal medical model have facilitated a reductionist view of our hormones, the fact is that our hormones do affect our performance. Period.
Our sex hormones go far beyond our uterus and ovaries. They impact other physiological systems within our body, along with our mind, behaviour and emotions.
From the onset of puberty, our sex hormones allow us to have children. We are designed for it. However, it is easy to reduce sex hormones to contraception, pregnancy and reproductive organs. The truth is, though, that our menstrual cycle is a biological rhythm. A clock, if you like. It has a regulatory role, and for this reason, our sex hormones go far beyond our uterus and ovaries. They impact other physiological systems within our body, along with our mind, behaviour and emotions.
Premenstrual pain aside, our sex hormones can impact important performance variables, such as fitness, how we use our food as energy, and how we cope in hot and humid conditions. To understand how your sex hormones impact your surfing, look at the performance variables it involves. Surfing asks us to be strong, fit, courageous and good decision-makers. It requires balance, strength, power and muscle coordination to turn water energy into spray and lines of our expression.
Hormonal changes can affect 5 body functions
So how exactly can your menstrual cycle influence your surfing performance? If you look at body functions, there are 5 ways the impact of hormonal changes can be felt.
Believe it or not, women are primed to be endurance athletes, often outperforming men in ultra-endurance events. It comes down to how we use energy from our food. Surfing fitness, though, is more accumulative bursts of short effort over a longer time. Yes, it requires endurance, but the explosive efforts are the ones that will make us feel “unfit” during different phases of our cycle.
Because of cardiovascular changes resulting from increased estrogen, we can experience an elevated rate of perceived exertion. That is how hard we feel we are working. So for the same paddle distance, in similar conditions, you can feel unusually gassed, lethargic and wondering where on earth your paddle fitness went.
The research is inconclusive on strength fluctuations throughout our cycle. However, the counteractive effects of estrogen and progesterone on our protein metabolism mean that to maintain our strength throughout our cycle, we need to consider different nutritional requirements. This is particularly true when it comes to refuelling post-surf and even more premenstrually.
Power requires an additional level of movement coordination, so that force can be coupled with speed. Strength is not the only factor here. Movement coordination and timing are as well. When our bodies are ramping up with progesterone and estrogen, preparing for a potential pregnancy, another hormone ramps up alongside them, called relaxin. Relaxin is important for softening the cervix and vagina to prepare for childbirth and relaxing ligaments around the pelvis to help birth.
Research suggests that while relaxin is circulating in our body, there is an increased potential for joint laxity at other major joint structures, including the knee. Our proprioceptive abilities (knowing where our joints are in relation to one another) rely very strongly on joint integrity and information. So, suppose this integrity is reduced due to an increase in joint laxity. In that case, we may experience a disruption in movement coordination. We can leak power, and our limbs can feel detached from our bodies as if they belong to someone else.
The potential lack of movement coordination would have obvious repercussions for your balance. However, there is an additional factor that can impact our wobbles, and that is fatigue. And it takes a lot of energy for our body to produce hormones.
As humans, we do not have an infinite amount of it available to us at all times, and this energy needs to be shared and distributed amongst a myriad of bodily functions. Therefore, when hormone production begins to pull on our resources, energy will need to be taken somewhere else. This can often be from systems critical to our balance, such as our central nervous system.
Mood and cognition are key to making good decisions in the surf, but during their cycles, women very often experience increased anxiety and mood fluctuations. This is because both estrogen and progesterone can impact our emotional and cognitive processing, along with a response to environmental stimuli. So pick a time when both estrogen and progesterone are high during our cycle, and suddenly the emotional symptoms of “PMS” make sense (premenstrual syndrome).
Research suggests that over 90% of women experience PMS symptoms. It includes anxiety, confusion, depressive symptoms, memory and concentration challenges, increased irritability, mood swings, and reduced self-esteem. A more extreme form of PMS is Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), and symptoms can begin 1-2 weeks before menstruation.
Train in a way that appreciates your ebbs and flows
It is essential to note that every female is different. Plus, our hormonal profiles change across our lifespans. So you may or may not have noticed any premenstrual impact on your surfing when you were 25, but if you are 40 and approaching perimenopause, that could change. You may feel hormone fluctuations more acutely, just like if you were riding a new board every couple of weeks.
Keep in mind that the performance impacts mentioned above are based on a healthy, regular cycle. Not all of us experience good hormonal health and balance. Environmental stressors, your diet, and your emotional well-being can have significant short and long-term impacts on your hormonal balance. And hormonal contraception? That is a whole other story…
Historically the impact of our sex hormones on our global performance has been downplayed. Culturally, it means that women are often left feeling isolated with their symptoms, unaware of how their hormones impact their performance and not knowing what on earth is going on with their bodies.
There may be a perfect biological explanation for why some days you are just feeling too chicken to surf.
It is important to understand that YES, sex hormones can impact our performance. You are not going crazy. There may be a perfect biological explanation for why some days you are just feeling too chicken to surf. It also allows you to be kinder to yourself and know that sometimes, the training plan just has to go out the window.
The best way for a woman to train and surf is in a way that appreciates and respects her ebbs and flows. Each one is different, and our journey is one of continuous fluctuation. However, we can achieve an empowering level of autonomy with our performance, despite hormonal fluctuations. It requires clever training, appropriate nutrition, stress management strategies and an understanding of ourselves as women.
As I tell my female surfing clients, you are capable far beyond what you think.
Want to learn more about how your menstrual cycle impacts you specifically? You can book an individual consultation with Candice Land from The Female Surfer, whether in-person or online. To get 15% off, use the promo code JOYCE15 valid across all of her services.