Jump 4.2 – Week 4

I’ve reached the half way point of Jump.

This week was a tough week – work, people, my period; you know those weeks where you aren’t feeling it- I’ve had one of those.

But the great thing I’m finding about this programme is that doesn’t matter. Life doesn’t need to be going perfectly to be able to work through it. Even though there’s been frustrations I’ve not felt down about it – I’ve used habits already practiced on weeks 1-3 such as writing down what I’m grateful for and what I have done well to stop myself getting down about what hasn’t worked and to stay upbeat and keep working to get things done nonetheless.

Training has been ok – I’ve not completed everything but I’ve had some good sessions. My food intake has been ok – I haven’t hit a calorie deficit this week – mainly because I’ve craved chocolate. Again what I’m pleased with here is how I feel about that. Sometimes these things would stress me out and make me feel like a failure because I haven’t done things perfectly. Right now I feel like perfect isn’t a necessity and although I’ve things I’d like to improve in week 5 I don’t feel like not being perfect so far has meant my experience on this programme hasn’t been useful so far.

This week’s message from my experience would definitely be that it’s worth changing your mindset towards yourself and your training / nutrition when want to improve how you feel and train.

I’m Talking About Periods Again I’m Afraid

We pretty much accept that our hair, skin, bowel movements, mood, mental health, headaches, sex life and more can be affected by our periods.  It isn’t just our period itself that affect us however, how we feel can be massively affected by all the various stages of the menstrual cycle, and as our cycles are continuous we essentially go through a never ending series of physical and emotional changes for a large part of our adult life.

Whilst we all know this we often tend to try and eat and train in pretty much the same way throughout all stages of our cycle and expect the same level of performance from ourselves.  Now I’m not suggesting that we should adjust what we do on a daily basis, none of us have time to do that; but an awareness of how your own cycle affects your mood and body will allow you to approach your nutrition and training with more awareness that sometimes those feelings of being fat or weak are not what they seem.

Most cycles last between 24 and 38 days (my cycle is roughly 25 days) and the cycle starts as your period begins.  Effectively your cycle has two stages 1) preparing for an egg to be released from the ovary and the re-building of the lining of the uterus and 2) preparing the uterus and body to either accept a fertilised egg or start a new cycle if you are not pregnant.

Stages of your cycle (these overlap so it’s not always clear cut)

Menstruation 

Shedding the uterine lining.  This lasts on average 5-8 days but with dramatic variation.  During this time oestrogen and progesterone levels are low and you may find your tolerance to pain increases and also that muscle recovery times improve.  Due to feeling like your womb is being tortured you may find it mentally tough to generate the motivation to workout, however whilst gentle exercise is often recommended there is no reason you cannot carry on your normal training if you can motivate yourself to do so and you may find your body actually reacts well to it.  This is the time when you crave comfort foods so it may be beneficial to give yourself some leeway with your diet and eat more to make yourself feel better (chocolate in moderation won’t hurt) although eating iron rich foods may also be beneficial to how you feel.

I teach classes so have no choice but to continue to exercise pretty much as normal in this period.  It doesn’t always feel great at the time but does tend to make me feel better afterwards so I also make the effort to train as often as normal during my period, albeit I try to go a bit easier on myself depending on how heavy my flow is that day.  Equally I now purposefully let myself have chocolate every day whilst I’m on.  I’ve realised that I’m going to crave chocolate more this week so I’m better off telling myself in advance I will have some as that way I’m less likely to binge and eat 5kg of  Dairy Milk in half an hour.

Follicular phase

Lasting between 10 and 22 days this is the time between the first day of your period and ovulation.  Oestrogen levels rise as your body prepare for egg release.  During this time the uterine lining is also rebuilt following your period (the Proliferative phase). In this stage there is evidence that women are at greater risk from musculoskeletal injuries but may also find their strength increases due to the increase in oestrogen meaning you may find you are able to lift more during this phase of your cycle.  Therefore this is a good time to focus on your lifting and enjoy it.  This stage ends with Ovulation.

Whilst some women will feel good about training in this phase because you can feel pretty strong this isn’t always the case.  For me the week after my period is often my worst week for training and nutrition.  I put this down to a less documented stage of some women’s cycle (not everyone will experience this) – Post Menstrual Tension.  Pre Menstrual Tension is widely accepted but some women often find they experience similar symptoms (moodiness, feeling flat, feeling teary, feeling useless and clumsy) in the days immediately after their period as well.  This can make training and eating well difficult during this period as you feel much the same as just before / during your period.  This is possibly due to a surge of Oestrogen and there is some suggestions that a Magnesium supplement may help ease this.  Much like during your period there is no reason to not train but motivation may be something you struggle with so go easy on yourself.

I actually struggle to train more during this week than when I’m on my period.  I think I accept that I will feel crap during my period so I’m more accommodating of my own feelings whereas the emotions the week after always catch me unaware (and someone has to actually remind me that this is that week of the month where I always freak out about being fat and unfit – like, every month without fail, it’s probably getting boring for them now but I always need that reminder that it’s my hormones and my world is not actually falling apart, and because I’m a moody cow this week I will also always tell them they are wrong even thought they aren’t).  I rarely feel like training this week, not because I have any physical symptoms just because I’m a bit of an emotional wreck, however not training is the worst thing I can do as I beat myself up for being lazy.  I therefore have to force myself to go do something just to not fall to pieces, because quite frankly if I do during this period I know I can stay in a slump that goes straight into PMS.

Ovulation

The release of an egg (mid cycle).  Oestrogen peaks just before ovulation and then drops (this tends to be 13 to 15 days before your next period).  As oestrogen peaks you may find this is the best time to work on a PB, however good form is vital as you are still at greater risk of injury.

Luteal phase

The time between ovulation and your period (lasts around 9 to 16 days), this is where the body prepares for pregnancy and Progesterone is produced, peaks and then drops.  The Secretory Phase also means the uterine lining produces chemicals that will support a pregnancy or, if there is no pregnancy, break down and shed.  It is this shedding that can cause the cramping feeling as the muscles contract to allow the shedding (this is where exercise or movement can help).

During this time you will potentially (probably) experience PMS.  Mood changes, breast tenderness, bloating, headaches and so on.  This gets stronger the closer to your period you get.  For many this is the ‘I could kill everybody’ phase.  Try not to actually kill anyone of course because that is frowned upon.  Here you might want to move your training away from performance based sessions and do things you enjoy and which improve your mood.  A rise in body temperature may mean you feel a drop in endurance levels so being aware you might not hit max lifts or feel as good training is worth being mindful of.  Water retention can make you feel heavier and sluggish so weighing yourself or measuring your progress in this time window may be counterproductive to your mindset.

Whilst the above is a basic outline of the different stages of a cycle all women know that your cycle is a very individual things and not only are our cycles of various lengths we are all also affected differently by the various stages with some feeling the impact more acutely than others, not only that but our own cycles can change over time.

Something which helps me is tracking my cycle.  I use the Fitbit App (which I believe you can still use even without a Fitbit).  You can log when you are on your period along with the more common symptoms you may feel or notice.  As time goes on the app allows you to predict when your period will be allowing you a greater understanding of what stages of your cycle you are in, as well as allowing you to record and therefore potentially see a pattern in your mood and behaviour.  Once you are aware of the pattern of your own cycle it makes handling the changes easier and can help you feel like you are training and eating better rather than reacting to your hormones.

Quick disclaimer to finish – I am not a scientist – I literally just about passed my GCSE.  The above is based purely on my own experience and how I understand my cycle so I’m at no point saying this is gospel as there are definitely people out there with greater knowledge on this topic than me.

Post Natal & A Fitness Instructor

About a month ago I wrote a blog about how periods affect my teaching of group ex classes.  Turned out I’m not alone in this, it’s just we don’t really talk about it.

The blog also bought to attention the numerous other changes the female body goes through that also affect how we train, how we teach classes and how we feel about our bodies.

I decided I wanted to explore this a little more, because I do believe that the first step to improving understanding on issues which are rarely spoken about is to start talking about them.  I have no personal experience in some of these changes however, and this blog has always been about my personal experiences.

So I reached out to a friend who is both a group exercise instructor and a new mother to try and understand what effects on training and teaching giving birth has had.

Jo gave birth to Jasper in October.  She remained active throughout pregnancy, still teaching Pump until close to the birth and continuing to lift weights and train in Crossfit during pregnancy.  She returned to teaching last week (Pump again to begin with).

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I know from conversations throughout her pregnancy she was very realistic about getting back into training and teaching after the birth, she wasn’t expecting to be back to pre – pregnancy shape within days or weeks and was always going to approach things sensibly.  Her experiences post birth are therefore helpful in appreciating how, no matter our knowledge and realism, there are numerous effects which impact instructors returning after giving birth that we might not give a second though to.

Physical Effects:

“Your alignment is WAY out and no muscles are connecting or firing up so your joints hurt”.  Effectively a new mother has to start again in terms of movement, re-learning how to walk is a reality for some mothers.  No matter how much someone might want to get straight back to teaching within a few weeks, giving birth isn’t something your body can just bounce back from.

“When you can walk for 30 minutes and your insides don’t hurt it could be time to start to exercise again. Meanwhile all your pregnant fitness, despite training to the end, has gone because it’s taken 8 weeks for your wedding cake sized uterus to shrink down to the size of a marble again”.

Many of use have had injuries and then had to regain our fitness following some time out.  Post birth you’re adding time where you cannot train on top of recovering from the physical trauma the body goes though giving birth.

This is of course true for all new mums, but for those who need to bounce about as part of their job, the task of getting your body moving in even a basic way again must be daunting, and having the patience to allow yourself to heal when your income is dependent on you needing to move again must add an extra layer of stress for some.

Jo highlighted the core in particular as a physical challenge post birth.  Now how often do you tell your class to brace their core in the average 45 minute class?

“Training can begin. Only nothing connects. So life is banded muscle activation. Body weight. No impact. And all the core… All you want is intensity but rowing 200 m cuts you in half – literally no core”

As instructors most of us are aware of what to advise our members: check with your doctor / midwife, wait until after you 6 week check up, lower back and core will feel weak, joints are still more supple than normal so injury is still a greater risk.

I’ll be honest until I spoke to Jo about this I don’t think I realised HOW weak someone’s core could feel to them (I’ve limited experience within my classes of members who are post natal).  Every woman is different of course but I for one feel like if I have a recently post natal member in my class having a deeper understanding from someone’s real experience will help me be a better coach.

Mental Effects:

“There’s me thinking I would be teaching at 12 weeks”

Jo was sensible and listened to her body, rebuilding her fitness over time, re- adding in new skills week upon week to build up to a point she could train confidently again.

But the side that probably gets less attention (because we all tend to focus on the physical – our jobs being to train people’s bodies) is how you feel teaching post pregnancy.

“You have no brain. Your brain has been solely focused on building a new human for 40 weeks… You can’t even think straight. Why are you in this room? Who are these people? Not to mention your mini human is here and you’ve never had one before so keeping it alive is now your sole purpose… Researching EVERYTHING 24/7. You forget to eat. You can’t even get out. You have to plan 6 hours in advance to take a new born out.”

Most people, whether they have had kids or not, probably understand to a degree that having a young baby is exhausting.  I cannot imagine learning Body Pump whilst my brain felt like this.  My brain almost explodes during new release time anyway so the pressure of learning and retaining chorey at a time when you don’t feel mentally sharp anyway must be exceptionally tough.

“Then there’s the…. I hate my body. It hurts. I look shit. I’m not me. I’m a human incubator that will never be me again depression”. 

I discussed in my recent post about periods that feeling of standing in front of people wen you are on your period and that yucky feeling that makes you want to fade into the background – not have 30 sets of eyes on you (someone described it well as feeling exposed).  Again here, this is another time when even once you feel fit enough to teach you also have to re- find the confidence to lead despite not feeling confident at all.

Practical Effects:

Apart from who will look after the baby whilst you train, prepare to teach (even teach in the early months before child care is arranged!)

Sleep has a big impact.

More specifically – You don’t get any.

“No rest in the day.  No rest at the night.  So you’re always under fatigue.  So classses seem daunting … and you can’t remember any choreo”

I don’t want to pain a negative picture of training or teaching after giving birth, personally I felt like Jo took to motherhood like a duck to water and nailed it!

As Jo says:

“Train at home . Order food to be delivered online. Join a gym to take baby with you. Gather your support network. Express milk so you can rest and partner feed. Take one hour everyday away from your baby. Plan your meals. Have a routine. Be consistent. And most importantly TALK ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS”

This plan meant that when Jo came back to teaching she loved it and felt great about it, so it’s not all doom and gloom at all, but by understanding the stresses and emotions surrounding training and teaching in the months after giving birth we make the fitness community more supportive and inclusive and allow us to also potentially understand our members better.  We can also understand so help to provide support to those who may not necessarily seem like they need much encouragement.

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There is so much more that could be written in relation to periods, pregnancy and post pregnancy and our understanding of these effects (beyond the standard what modification can I give to a pregnant lady in Pump understanding).  I’m also aware that there are PTs who specialise in pre and postnatal training and some PTs who understand the effect of the menstrual cycle extremely well on training.

What you don’t see very often is discussions of the real effects of these natural physical processes- both physical and mental.  How they affect the more mundane aspects of training or teaching.

We can all rectify that. By talking about experiences we can empower others, both showing them they are not alone in feeling a certain way and also by educating each other in a way that we might be able to better understand both our fellow instructors and also female members.

Thank you to Jo Brickell- Haggan for providing the content for this blog and allowing me to share her honest experiences so freely.

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Another One For The Ladies

Following on from my earlier blog this week I thought I’d re post an old blog about foods that may help with PMS and some which you may want to avoid.

Now a) I’m not a nutritionist, this is all from general research I’ve done on a subject that affects me and b) I’m not saying these will stop period pain or that you should never have the things on the avoid list – just that theoretically there may be some foods you want to try and eat and others less so if you suffer from cramps etc.

Here’s the re post…

When I’m on my period I literally crave fatty, sugary, salty foods.  When you spend a lot of time trying to eat well this is pretty annoying so I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time looking into why and what I can do to try and make myself feel better (because I suffer from horrible cramps most months and bloat enough to feel like I may actually be pregnant with a baby Elephant) without giving into eating 10,000 calories of pure fat and sugar a day.

Just before and during our periods our Serotonin levels lower (less feel good hormones), our stress hormones spike (not helping in the feeling good department) and our bodies use more calories making us feel hungry more often.  It’s therefore not hugely surprising we want to comfort eat- but apart from eating too much of the crap stuff affecting your body shape aims (I won’t say weight!) eating too much sugar will also cause a spike followed by a crash and burn which also doesn’t make you feel good in the long run.

I’ve therefore been making an effort to read up on what foods will help make me feel better without having a negative affect on looking after myself in general to try and implement them more into my diet .

Foods To Eat:

  1. Water – Not really food but hydrating well helps keep skin clear, prevent bloating (the better hydrated you are the less likely you will retain water) and reduce cramps.
  2. Almonds – also sesame seeds / flax seeds- these have calcium in them and calcium (but not dairy) can help reduce cramps.
  3. Dark chocolate – A little dark chocolate can help relax muscles and so reduce cramps, it will also help release some happy hormones.
  4. Celery – Full of water but not full of calories so a good option if you feel the need to constantly graze!
  5. Hummus- This one may be a bit controversial. I have read that chickpea’s can help you sleep better and also help improve mood. I have also read however that they can be classed as a Legume and cause bloating so perhaps eat in moderation.
  6. Pineapple – Help relax muscles (less cramps) and reduce bloating
  7. Bananas – Helps relax muscles (reduce cramping) also contains Vitamin B6 which can help improve your mood. Banana’s are also good at helping to regulate the digestive system, which some women can have problems with during this time.
  8. Tea – Yes it has caffeine in it, but it’s apparently better for you than coffee (which can increase anxiety levels and cause you to and retain water). Other types of tea can also help: Green tea for instance provides a little caffine still, peppermint tea can help soothe an upset stomach, Chamomile tea is relaxing and can help reduce anxiety.
  9. Spinach / Kale- These foods have Calcium in them which assists in alleviating cramps. They are also Iron rich (our iron levels can drop whilst we are on our period hence why we crave iron rich foods).
  10. Salmon – This is full of omega 3 and Vitamin D. If you can eat it the week before you are due on it may have an anti – inflammatory effect.
  11. Oranges – Provide Calcium which can help relax cramping muscles and Vitamin D (can help regulate your mood).
  12. Brocolli – Full of Magnesium, potassium, Calcium, Vitamins A, C, B6, E – Good for improving your general mood and fighting fatigue.

Foods To Avoid:

  1. Fizzy drnks – Can cause bloating.
  2. Processed foods – Tend to be high sodium – can cause bloating. Making food from scratch can reduces salt intake.
  3. Fried foods – Can elevate estrogen levels.
  4. Legumes (I mentioned this before – some things I’ve read say hummus can help, others say avoid) e.g Kidney beans, blackbeans et.c due to their bloating effect.
  5. Refined grains – refined foods can interfere with blood sugar levels and regular control of appetite, so whole grains are a better option than cookies, white bread etc.
  6. High fat foods – Can affect hormone activity and contribute to inflammation (and cramps)
  7. Coffee – Can increase anxiety / stress levels and contribute to water retention.

Really, this list is not too different to the type of foods I’d want to eat more of / avoid at any other time of the month but if you tend to feel a bit rubbish at certain points in your cycle knowing how you can help manage those symptoms (painkillers and hot water bottles aside) thinking about your diet isn’t a bad starting point.

Note- I’m not a trained nutritionists this is simply based on my own research about something that affects me- I would always recommend you see a qualified dietitian should you need advice!