Train Like an Athlete by Listening to Your Cycle
Back in May, we teamed up with Naomi Van den Broeck, a Belgian sprinter who represented Belgium at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. When we spoke, Naomi mentioned that she wished she had learned more about her menstrual cycle at a younger age as it would have helped her be kinder to herself, especially when she was feeling low or not performing well in her training. Today, with help from her coach and teammates, Naomi is more informed about her menstrual cycle and adapts her nutrition and training needs based on her cycle.
We caught up with Naomi to talk about:
- How she prepares for important moments in her sports career
- How she eats according to her cycle
- How she changes her training plans around her menstrual cycle
- The role of the female cycle in sports
What are you training for right now? What’s your next big athletic goal?
My next big goals are the European Indoor Championships in Istanbul in March and then the World Championships in Budapest in August. After that, it’s the Paris Olympics in 2024, and that is the main goal. We’re back in training after four weeks off, so now all focus is on these upcoming events. It’s busy, but I’m just taking it step-by-step.
What do you do to prepare for important moments in your sports career?
One of the things I’ve implemented recently is having a sports psychologist. As athletes, we’re so focused on the physical aspects of what we do, but we often don’t think enough about the mental part of it. My psychologist helps me through mental preparations for competitions, training and how to handle different situations better.
When it comes to training, I try to track everything, so I can look back and see what worked and what didn’t. Having open communication with everyone on my team, my trainer, family members, and friends – it’s really important to feel like you can talk to your community about anything.
How do you eat to feel good every day? How much do you think about your cycle regarding what you eat?
For me, the first step is hydration. Whenever I start to feel the symptoms of my period approaching, I start increasing my water intake. I really focus on ensuring that I am not dehydrated during the day and during training, especially in the days leading up to my period.
Guud to know: Your hormonal fluctuations during your cycle also impact how your body processes water. Some people notice they are more dehydrated than usual just before or during their period. Your body will tell you when it needs more water by making you feel thirsty and many women report increased thirst before or during their period. It’s important to listen to your body because dehydration can also make PMS symptoms worse! So grab an extra water bottle and drink up!
When my period starts, I try to have a lot of different kinds of fluids, including isotonic, which is water with sugar and salts. Usually, when I have my period, I have 3-4 different bottles each day, each with a different fluid. One is water, one is isotonic and the other is a protein shake for after training, and the last one is a juice I like to have.
Did you know: Protein is extra important in the days before and during your period. You actually need more calories in the days before your period (about 100-200 more calories), so having protein can not only help you recover, it can also help you feel more full and satisfied which can help you avoid eating too much when cravings hit!
When it comes to food, I am not quite as strict. If I do have cravings, I don’t hold back. As athletes – and as women - we often have this tendency to be quite strict when it comes to our diet. When my period is approaching, I try to increase the amount of food I eat. Once you start holding back, it can lead to physical and mental consequences. Nutrition is even more important when I have PMS symptoms like cramps, sore breasts and mood swings. You need to fuel your body. Your body is working hard, and these symptoms can take a toll on you, so eating enough is important. If you are constantly in a calorie deficit, it can cause you to skip your period or for it to go missing altogether
Guud to know: Amenorrhea is the absence of menstruation, often defined as missing one or more menstrual periods. While there are many causes of amenorrhea, low body weight, excessive exercise, and stress are common lifestyle factors that contribute to the condition which is why it often impacts elite athletes.
In the lead-up to my period, I crave comfort food like soup or meals containing cheese. I also want carbs like pasta. I don’t restrict myself at this phase in my cycle. It’s a sign from my body of what I need. To ensure my diet is balanced, I simply cut back on things like cheese and pasta when I’m not on my period.
For more on eating according to your cycle, check out our blog post, Hack Your Cycle with Food.
And what about training? How do you change your exercise routine in line with your menstrual cycle?
In the days leading up to my period, when energy is a bit lower, we reduce the amount of running and instead focus on strength training. The reason is that when it comes to running, especially interval training, it’s very easy to go overboard, and we’re particularly vulnerable during the pre-menstrual phase of our cycle. So, it’s important to have a bit more control over the intensity of my training during this part of my cycle. The important thing is that even though I’m increasing my weight training, I’m not increasing the intensity of it. Before and during my period, I will only do 80% of my maximum lifting capacity. This gives me more control and even at 80%, you still gain a lot while lowering the risk of burnout or injury.
Want to learn more about how to train according to your cycle? Read our blog post, Period Power, for tips on harnessing the power of your hormones!
When we first spoke to you on World Menstrual Health Day in May, you mentioned you suffered from cramps and mood swings when you had your period. What do you do to alleviate symptoms?
I rest a lot! I’m very used to pushing myself, so when I have menstrual symptoms, I’ll reduce the number of training days in a week. During training, I listen to my body. If anything hurts, or I start cramping, I stop. That’s why it’s so important to communicate with my trainer and the people around me, so they understand what’s happening. If I need to stop, I don’t feel like I’m giving up. I feel like I’m taking care of myself.
I also like to increase my intake of foods rich in healthy fats and magnesium. I love to eat bananas. With their high magnesium content, they are great at helping to relieve cramps naturally.
In our first video, you mentioned that you might not have been so hard on yourself if you had known information about your cycle earlier in your life. Tell us a bit more about that. What do you do differently now?
Now that I understand my cycle, I am a lot kinder to myself. I’m not in the dark anymore when I have menstrual symptoms. I know what is happening and why, and I know that I need to take time to listen to my body. I now know that I can't perform well if my body is not functioning well. I think it’s important to be kinder and speak positively to yourself. Speak to yourself as you would talk to your best friend. Also, know that you’re not alone! So many women experience these same symptoms, and it helps to talk about them.
Do you suffer from mood swings when your period is approaching? Learn how to manage mood swings in this blog post.
How did you learn about the importance of your menstrual cycle?
I started reading more books. A book called Roar by Stacy Sims was extremely helpful. It talks about how to match your food and training to your cycle, specifically for athletic performance. I started trying different things to see what worked for my body and talking more to my female teammates on my relay team. This helped so much because as we started talking more, we started to feel closer to each other. We shared our stories, and they were so similar. No one talked about their menstrual cycle before, and it felt good to know that other people were experiencing the same thing as me.
Do you think the female cycle in sports is talked about enough?
No, definitely not. We all feel in the dark about our cycles. It’s not talked about enough. Even from a young age, we’re uncomfortable talking about our periods and it remains taboo as we become adults. I think it’s so important to normalize conversations about your cycle from a young age. It’s important for everyone – not just athletes - to share knowledge about our cycle and harness it positively. I think that one of the reasons it’s not talked about as much as it should be in sports is that women don’t want to make excuses, especially if they are not performing well. We don’t talk about how we’re feeling; we just try to ignore our symptoms. We could be a lot kinder to ourselves if we gave ourselves some grace at certain points in our cycle.
What would you say to someone who is struggling with menstrual complaints?
I think it’s important to have places like Guud Woman where you can get more information in a safe, supportive environment. If you’re struggling, it’s not easy to go to a male coach, or even a mother or a sister for help. It can be uncomfortable! Taking the first step is easier if you have places like Guud Woman where you can easily access information and support about your cycle. And, once you’re armed with more knowledge, it can be easier to talk to people. It’s a good stepping stone to feeling better and I wish more people knew about it!
If you could give a message to your younger self, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help and information. It took many years before I found out what worked for me, and I wish I knew more about different lifestyle changes and supplements that could have helped me sooner. If I could go back in time, I would say be more proactive and don’t wait so long to get help. You don’t have to suffer alone!
If you have questions about your cycle, get in touch. We have a team of experts ready to help answer any questions you have.
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