Men! Listen Up! Women, Surfing, and Hormones
advocacy & empowerment health & fitness resource

Men! Listen Up! Women, Surfing, and Hormones

As a professional stand up paddle boarding and SUP surf athlete I try to dial in everything about my mind, my body, and my health to a perfection. If I eat, sleep, and train well, then I will be a strong competitor. Almost two years ago in January of 2021 I experienced my first over-training session. I never would have suspected that this major event was going to teach me so much more about my body than just eating, sleeping, and training. 

I was sitting on my stationary bike trying to go for an 80 minute ride at level 2 HR zone. I felt dizzy, and nauseated and could barely make it through 20 minutes. I got off my bike, laid down on my floor, and completed some breathing exercises. I took the rest of the day off to decompress and regain my bearings. The next day I tried to complete a strength workout. The reps were slow and I felt weak. My athletic therapist stopped me halfway through the workout and said “you’re done and you’re taking the week off”. I remember after my recovery week when I described my over-training symptoms to my paddling coach he had said to me “huh that seems odd, those usually aren’t the symptoms of over-training but taking a rest is always good”. How could that be possible? I questioned what actually happened to me during my “over-training” scare.

A month before these events, one of my good paddling friends had bought a book for me for Christmas called ROAR by Dr. Stacy Sims. The book was all about female athletes and how women cannot be viewed as small men. The book broke down previous exercise research and how it was all based on male evidence, and how important the phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle are and what happens in a woman’s body during each phase. I remember reading the book in awe of all of its information specific to women. I had never learned any of this information growing up, and that is simply because… the research had not existed yet. No one before Dr. Stacy Sims had investigated women-specific exercise, training, and health research.

My training journey continued by working with other paddling coaches, athletic therapists and chiropractors (massive thank yous go to Seychelle, Any Choi, and Dr. Emily Younes) and after re-reading ROAR five times, I was able to come to the conclusion that my hormones were the biggest factor I had not yet considered in my training routine. Since taking paddle training seriously for the past two years I had all of the pieces of the puzzle, but was not able to put the whole picture together until I considered my hormones. I learned later that my “over-training” scare was not actually a result of over-training… it was a result of imbalanced rest periods and de-loading in sync with my menstrual cycle specifically in the high hormone phase. Since then, I have kept track of each phase of my cycle, how I’m feeling, and plan my training sessions in accordance with my hormones. Most especially I give myself more rest and grace when I need to in the high hormone phase of my cycle. 

Essentially this is what happens to a woman's hormones during each phase of her menstrual cycle: 

  • The follicular phase, which can be divided into early-follicular (or menstrual phase; days 1-6) and mid-follicular (days 7 to 14). This is the low hormone phase of a woman's cycle. When estrogen and progesterone levels drop this is when women have higher levels of energy, and higher body temperatures.
  • The ovulatory phase, which is a small window where ovulation occurs (days 13 to 15). This is the high hormone phase of a woman's cycle. When estrogen and progesterone begin to rise again this is when women begin to have lower levels of energy, and lower body temperatures. 
  • The luteal phase, which can be divided into early luteal (days 15 to 21) and the mid-luteal (days 22 to 28). This is also the high hormone phase of a woman's cycle. This is when it's harder for women to build muscle, GI issues can occur, as well as mood swings. 
From "Effect of Estrogen on Musculoskeletal Performance and Injury Risk" by Nkechinyere Chidi-Ogbolu and Keith Baar; NCBI 2019.

For a post-menopausal woman this is what her hormones look like: 

 From "Effect of Estrogen on Musculoskeletal Performance and Injury Risk" by Nkechinyere Chidi-Ogbolu and Keith Baar; NCBI 2019.

There is a lot of information that we can dive into here based on these charts. It is important to note that every woman is unique and there is lots of valuable information from Dr. Stacy Sims that we can each take away to better understand how to work with our physiology to be strong and healthy. For my case, with the help of my coach Seychelle, we were able to schedule my rest weeks the week before I bled, as well as take extra rest when needed. This allowed me to be in prime shape for training when I menstruated since research shows women have a higher amounts of energy when she’s bleeding because her sex hormones are at their lowest. Dr Stacy Sims calls this “Period Power”. Dr Stacy Sims also mentions that “it’s important to acknowledge that our hormones don’t go on and off like a light switch and they’re not the same for everybody. The rate your hormones drop may be different from the rate another woman’s drops. Some women may feel like a superhero when their periods start. Others may need a day or two in the transition before their low-hormone status kicks in and amps up their recovery and performance”.

Listening to my body (and more specifically my hormones) instead of fighting them has given me the strength to train at an elite level consistently. It's also provided me with more happiness and wellbeing throughout each day which has allowed me to feel more empowered, and overall a better, kinder, person.

You’re probably wondering… what does this mean for surfing? About a year ago I read on an online forum about a female surfer who asked “You ever look at the surf forecast and your pile of gear and think it's too cold, too lazy and too busy? We do here and there, and when we do we soon realize that our periods are fast approaching. Anybody else get like this? When the stoke is low and the body says no?” She was referring to surfing on the Great Lakes and had posted in an all-female lake surfing group about how she just simply didn’t feel like surfing. Many women commented on the post explaining how usually around their time of the month that they also experience lack of motivation to go outside and surf as well, and that it’s okay to not want to chase waves. At the time, when I read this post I understood what every female was saying. In Canada it's hard to surf here, especially on the Great Lakes. We surf in negative degree weather with LOTS of wind while wearing lots of neoprene. On top of cold weather, and neoprene, we surf wind swell on the Great Lakes which means that we don’t always get waves. Another woman on the post commented “it's hard to honour the body when our surf is so sporadic” and that is true! 

What this essentially means for both sexes and surfing, is that there is evidence and science to prove that women are built differently. This requires both men and women to understand women's bodies better. If there are moments when a woman feels low energy and lacks motivation to surf, even though she may not always get the chance to surf around here, she needs to find grace and respect her decision to not go. Research like Dr. Stacy Sims’ proves that during the high hormone phase in the menstrual cycle a woman's body temperature regulation is harder, metabolism shifts, as well as an increase in cramping and GI issues, explaining why she might also lack motivation even more so to surf in the cold, all while her estrogen, and progesterone levels are rising.

Photo by Samantha Makin. 

Women have to be more in-tune with what their bodies are telling them. I stand with the women on this forum and support whatever their bodies are telling them. Surfing on the Great Lakes is hard and if a woman doesn’t feel like going even when the surf is pumping I condone her for being strong for listening to her body. My “over-training” scare that I mentioned earlier happened because I was working with health care professionals who were men, and had no clue about women's hormones. I do not blame these men for my “over-training” episode, but it could have been easily avoided if we all knew more about women's bodies. This is why in the surfing community this is an opportunity for men and even male coaches to better understand how to cater to women’s needs both in and out of the water so that they can succeed and feel good while doing so.

Words by Maddi Leblanc. Cover photo by Lucas Murnaghan.

Madeline Leblanc Portrait 

Maddi Leblanc is a Niagara born, Toronto-based stand up paddling athlete for Team Canada, SUP instructor, and lake surfer. Maddi is also the new General Manager at Surf the Greats. She has been paddle boarding for nine years, competing in SUP for six years, and surfing the Great Lakes for six years. She recently just completed her Masters at Brock University in Recreation & Leisure Studies. Find her on Instagram.