I’ve run two marathons, dozens of half marathons and more 5- and 10K races than I can count, and yet I still remember each one. The miles blur together but the memories don’t, like the time I ran the Staten Island Half during a tropical storm. The winds were fierce, the air was cold and both the rain and hail were brutal. It took me hours to regain feeling in my fingers and feet. Or the time I took on Central Park seven weeks postpartum. I pumped my engorged breasts on a grassy knoll, both pre- and post-race. I also recall every location. My pale legs have carried me across the Falls Bridge and under the Verrazano Bridge. I’ve run in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Washington D.C. and New York, and I’ve taken on Disney World — the latter was a four-day, 48-mile challenge. But my most memorable race was the time I got my period minutes before heading to the start line. I was wearing pink spandex pants and nothing else, though the lack of underwear was purely coincidental.
Of course, I am not the first woman to run on her cycle. Just a few years ago, Kiran Gandhi made literal and figurative waves when she “free-bled” her way through the London Marathon. But I was ill-prepared for this moment. My menstrual cycle has never been consistent; she comes and goes on a whim. And the shock, coupled with a genuine fear of leakage and the unknown, gave me pause. Would the late race Porta Potty have toilet paper? Would I achieve my goal for the race, to run a sub-2 hour personal record?
The good news is they did and I could. Here are four things I learned from the experience.
1. Running while menstruating is safe
Despite being bloated, inconvenienced and uncomfortable, Dr. Jessica Shepherd — an OB-GYN and U by Kotex partner — tells SheKnows that running while menstruating is safe, even running long distances. “The more you move, the more oxygen delivery and decreased prostaglandin release [occurs] which helps alleviate cramping,” Shepherd explains. “Exercise can also trigger the release of endorphins which can induce ‘exercise euphoria’, an altered pain perception which can help women with menstrual pain and cramps.”
I’m no stranger to the cramp-reducing power of running on my period. Anytime I’ve hit the pavement while menstruating, I find the discomfort is lessened once I begin moving. Cramps ease after just a few minutes, and during the aforementioned half marathon, I was pain-free by mile marker one. Bloated, as per usual for the first day of my period, but relatively comfortable.
And I can affirm the so-called “exercise euphoria” is very much a real thing. This side effect has allowed me to continue after sustaining several serious injuries — I’ve run 10 miles on a busted, bloody knee and more than 15 miles on a sprained ankle. Not that I recommend trying that on your own, but exercise euphoria has helped alter my perception of pain, as Shepherd says it will.
For this reason, Shepherd encourages all of her patients continue physical activity while on their period. “I recommend cardiovascular exercise, like running, walking, elliptical, cycling,” Shepherd says. “Anything that’s going to improve blood flow to the uterus.”
2. You may want to alter your pre-race meal
While I always eat the same pre-race meal — pasta the evening prior and a lightly-buttered bagel on race morning — according to coach, certified personal trainer and owner of Run To the Finish Amanda Brooks, runners with heavier flows may want to change things up.
“Women with a heavy flow… [may want] to increase [their] iron intake to help prevent fatigue and to increase magnesium intake to help promote muscle relaxation and prevent cramping,” Brooks told SheKnows.
And according to Dr. Bianca Beldini, a physical therapist; USA Triathlon level 1 certified coach; and Pose Method run technique specialist, protein is essential for recovery. “Protein is always a woman’s friend both pre-workout or race, and especially after [the race] to mitigate the amount of muscle degradation caused by the inflammation response to going the distance and working hard.”
Of course, I didn’t alter my meal before this particular half marathon because I didn’t know I was getting my period, but as someone who is borderline anemic, I feel this extra dose of nutrition could have improved my performance. I didn’t struggle to get to the start line or across the finish line, but I was fatigued and the increased iron may have helped. In any case, it wouldn’t have hurt. I now add broccoli rabe or spinach to my pasta for this very reason.
3. You should get extra rest (if possible) and drink plenty of fluids
Going to sleep the night before a race is tough. From excitement and nerves to an early start time, many factors can keep you awake, but rest is essential. “Good quality sleep can help with central nervous system and autonomic fatigue,” Beldini tells SheKnows. Plus, sleep gives your body a chance to recover, which — in my experience — is particularly important when you are menstruating. My already low iron count zaps my energy, and when I am on my cycle, I am beyond exhausted. The added Z’s are a saving grace.
Increasing your fluid intake is also important. “Runners can prepare by drinking plenty of water and seeking out iron-rich foods to replace the fluids, iron and hemoglobin lost during menstruation,” Shepherd tells SheKnows. This holds true for races and training runs — because if you have a period, you will run while bleeding. It’s inevitable. I’ve only run one distance race while menstruating, but I’ve logged dozens (if not hundreds) of unofficial miles while training since.
But how can you hydrate if there are no water stops? Bring a bottle — or two — or run in a commercial area, where water and sports beverages can be purchased. Trust me. Your body will thank you.
4. Preparation is key
If you are menstruating or think your cycle may hit while running, you should pack a few extra essentials. Carry pads, tampons, toilet paper, and your over-the-counter pain reliever of choice. Bring a water bottle and — for longer races — a sports drink. Pack light snacks (like trail mix, protein bars, and energy gels) and consider using alternative menstrual products — many runners prefer cups and period panties.
Brooks also suggests eating foods with natural pain relieving qualities to curb cramps, as “taking pain relievers [before a race]… puts extra stress on the liver.” Instead, Brooks recommends focusing on “whole foods or options like turmeric” and ginger.
Of course, if I knew I was going to get my period before reaching the start line, I would have prepared differently. I would have packed all of the aforementioned items in my race belt, and kept extras in my checked bag. I would have warn undergarments for added protection (I usually forego underwear on race days as a matter of personal preference), and I would have chosen to wear black pants — or, at the very least, a more forgiving color.
The stains from the start of my flow were obvious. They spread from my crotch to my inner thigh.
But hindsight is 20/20. I made it through this race, with humility and help: I approached race officials and asked if they had any feminine hygiene products. I confronted several runners in my search for a tampon or pad, and eventually, I found one. A young woman heard my plight in the Porta-Potty line and passed me two — a gesture I have not forgotten.
Years have passed, and this small kindness allowed me to be comfortable and confident, in the starting corral and throughout the race.
Make no mistake: I was anxious. For 13 miles, I worried the tampon would leak, or — worse — fall out, and I altered my stride to accommodate. I thought that by shortening my steps, I may be able to keep this small sliver of cotton in place. I also reached between my legs on multiple occasions to assess the situation. To “feel” things out. But I kept going. In spite of the pain and one large, unsightly period stain, I pushed on. And I didn’t just finish, I finished strong.
My final time was 1:58:59.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. As I mentioned, I’ve logged countless miles while menstruating since. But if (and when) I do, I will be prepared: with panties, ibuprofen, toilet paper, tampons and pads.
This is a sponsored post.