Interview: PhD researcher on why women need to train to their cycles

Ladies, we've been training like men. Learn to train to your cycle and be smarter with your health, training and fertility.
Natalie Hardaker
Nat Hardaker: Triathlon queen and completing a PhD in women’s health.

Women. Have. Periods. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, can we talk about them? Natalie Hardaker says that the menstrual cycle is the 5th vital sign so women must understand how to train and eat to their cycle for happier, healthier lives.

The menstrual cycle is the 5th vital sign

Nat is one of those special people you meet in your life that completely changes everything you thought you knew. She represents New Zealand in triathlons, leads injury prevention programs at ACC and she’s doing a PhD on women’s health. I love absorbing all her knowledge like a happy little sponge.

I took some of what I learned from her in my training and nutrition for a half-marathon. I trained less than ever and got my best time. My skin cleared up, I slept better and my body felt wonderful. I even learned that during our periods, a women’s physiology is most like a man so this is the best time for the heavy lifting…wow.

Herein lies the problem she is trying to solve: as women, we see male-led training programs and aim to follow them, or beat them. But we have different bits to them – completely different physiology. It’s kind of like putting antlers on a dog and asking it to be a deer. It will give it a good shot but it’s never going to be a deer because it doesn’t have the same bits. Women have a lot going on internally and if we play to our own cycle then we stand to improve our overall health, look after our fertility and get better results in fitness/sport.

I interviewed Nat to understand what her study is about and the importance of women playing to their cycle in all facets of life. Prepare to have your mind blown.

KB: Hey Nat, tell us about your PhD:

NH: The underlying theme or topic that was the catalyst for my PhD is sex differences and how the female physiology impacts on all aspects of health, fitness and general wellbeing; from training and preparation to recovery, injury risk, rehabilitation and nutrition.

KB: Wow, that sounds amazing. And full on. What made you want to study it?

NH: I have been involved in sport in a number of roles for most of my life (participating, coaching, clinical work, administration) and like most researchers I increasingly found that my own lived experience didn’t always match up with the science and recommendations out there. At times, it was the exact opposite.

In my day job I found myself writing generalised recommendations for the masses across various aspects of sport and injury prevention that I didn’t even believe in myself; even though the evidence seemed to back it up.

This led my curious mind to ask more questions so when the opportunity came up to study for my PhD and explore those questions, I took it. Before, I was one step removed from the literature, now my PhD has allowed me to dig a little deeper.

KB: A woman after my own heart! What have you found so far?

NH: There is a real lack of studies across the sports science and biomedical research that have been done on women in a way that considers their unique physiology.  It all really comes down to the menstrual cycle that makes us quite physiologically variable across a month.  There is an increasing network of researchers leading projects focused on all aspects of women’s health including training and performance.  One science review in particular clearly outlines what I had started to find in the literature.  Women are most often studied in the pathologic state; when it comes to being fitter, faster, stronger the work has for a long time only really been done on and advanced in men.  The potential for us as women is huge.

KB: Such an exciting time for us ladies. What is the most surprising thing you’ve found?

NH: Puberty is a really pivotal time for girls (not surprising); but an alarming 70% of girls do not take part in sport/physical activity due to having their period.  We also see a much bigger drop off in sports participation in adolescent girls compared to boys. Although there will be other factors that go along with that – this is something that needs to change.  We need to teach our girls a different way.  If they own their physiology and understand it, they’ll feel good and make decisions that are right for THEM.

On the flip side of that, the general attitude towards not having a period being a good thing is problematic.  For women and girls there are so many essential health (and performance) benefits from the rise and fall of sex hormones throughout the menstrual cycle, we really need to be more tuned in.  We live in a world where everyone wants to track everything with digital technology; calories burned, calories consumed, steps walked, average pace; if women and girls could redirect that effort to tracking their menstrual cycle then the other stuff would start to take care of itself.

KB: This is important stuff I wish I had known it earlier! Why do you think this isn’t more widely known?

NH: Periods have been a taboo topic for a very long time. And societal norms have conditioned what we expect to see.  Women and girls didn’t always participate in sport and physical activity and from the outset exercise science research was carried out to make military recruits as fit, fast and strong as possible.  But the world has changed, the research is starting catch up but we still having some way to go in getting the information out there.

KB: What are a few things that women can do today to improve their health and fitness?

NH: Get to know your menstrual cycle! Download the Fitr woman app and start tracking today. Forget what your male counterparts are doing – it is likely not going to work for you; you too can achieve your health and fitness goals and feel good on it but the path to get there will look quite different.

Thank you Natalie! x

❤ Your questions

Nat and I are pretty passionate about this and we’re keen to do more science-based articles on womens health if helpful. Let us know what topics you would like to know about and we’ll get to sharing!

Side note: I’ve been using the Fitr Woman app and it is incredible! Get into it fam.

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