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Tell Me Tuesday: Dealing with Your Period on Race Day

What we--and the Boy Scouts--recommend for dealing with your period on race day. (Get it..."be prepared.")

One of my favorite anecdotes in Run Like a Mother: How to Get Moving--and Not Lose Your Family, Job, or Sanity is from Megan, who tells of getting her period on marathon morning. She was so ticked off, she pushed hard enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon. (Nicely done!) It's happened to us all: You train your butt off for a race, then Aunt Flo shows up for the ride. No fun.

Given that we are pretty much in the height of training and racing season, I figured it was time for some tips for dealing with running on the rag--or how to avoid it entirely. (An obvious warning: TMI ahead!)

-Shorten the string. Women have complained to us about chafing from a tampon string. (Yeah, we hear it all--we love nothing better than a good overshare!) One mother runner, Christine, told us cuts it shorter so that no string hangs outside her body. I took to knotting my OBs and snipping the string--then wondered why it took me 20+ years to figure out that simple trick. Another chafe-avoiding tactic we've read about online: Liberally apply BodyGlide to the string hanging outside your body.

-Investigate the Diva Cup, a menstrual cup used in lieu of a tampon or pad. One can hold the flow for up to 12 hours so bring on that ultra or 70.3 race. (Like the next option, this one isn't for the squeamish.) Another mother runner Christy Zuzelo is a fan; here's a post she wrote about it.

-Go with the flow. Monica complained about the discomfort of wearing a tampon on a long run (we didn't ask for any more details--had something to do with, um, drying her out). So when she runs long, or races, on lighter flow days, she pulls the plug right before she starts running (and wears black bottoms so any spotting isn't visible). Not an option for neatniks, but when you figure your capris get pretty nasty with sweat, little blood isn't going to make that much more of a mess.

-Consider changing the timing. You can't rejigger the day of a big race, but you can alter the date of your period, if you're on birth control pills (or the patch or the ring). Instead of taking the placebo pills for a week, start a new pack instead; this will make you skip a period. Our favorite mother runner OB/GYN, Amanda Hurtubise, recommended this one, saying, "Any nurse at your trusty OB/Gyn's office is an expert at this--call her for further instructions if this doesn't make sense." For a longer-term solution, you could also look into Seasonique, a birth control pill that makes a woman only have four periods a year, or an IUD.

-Pop pills. Dr. Hurtubise gave us this news-to-us suggestion. "For women who are not on hormonal contraception a great trick is, 'scheduled ibuprofen.' Take 600-800mg three times a day, 1-2 days immediately prior to and during the period. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) constrict the blood vessels to the uterus and can significantly decrease menstrual flow. The key is to take it consistently 3x daily prior to and during bleeding. It won't work if just taken haphazardly. This trick will also help with any cramping."

-Don't forget supplies. Pack some spare tampons in a baggie and stash them in a pocket or hydration belt. Also, learn from a gross-out tale from Jennifer, who got her period as she jetted off for the Goofy Challenge at Walt Disney World. In the excitement of back-to-back races, she "lost a tampon in my innards." (Yikes!) She visited the doctor, who told her the case of the wayward tampon was not uncommon. Lucky for Jenn, it emerged on its own nearly three months later. (If tampons could talk....)

Now, it's your turn to overshare: What are your tips for dealing with your monthly visitor during a long run or race?

55 responses to “Tell Me Tuesday: Dealing with Your Period on Race Day

  1. Has any one used a medicine to delay period? Not the birth controls but a specific medicine which when taken doesnt let the period happen but when you stop taking it, the period starts 2-3 days later. I have a HM coming up this sunday and thats the day im supposed to have my period too. Wondering whether to take the period delaying medicine but worried abt it side effects as havent taken it before! Running while wearing a pad ain’t an option cos of chafing and not too comfy with tampons either. Any suggestions???

  2. Recommending anti-inflammatories before racing is a very bad idea. It can lead to kidney failure and is extremely dangerous at the levels you suggest. Research it a bit more.

  3. Woah this blog is magnificent i really like studying your articles. Keep up the great work! You recognize, a lot of individuals are hunting round for this information, you could help them greatly.

  4. I have PCOS and don’t ovulate at all. So I don’t have periods at all. Is this the pay off for the struggle I went through to be a mom?

  5. I’m glad some of y’all spoke up about ibuprofen and its dangers. I strongly urge people to avoid it before running for several reasons. Besides the systemic risks it carries, anti-inflammatories may mask or delay symptoms of injury/stress-related pain. Pain management should come after a hard workout. Also, I found that ibuprofen magnified depression and/or fatigue. I no longer take unless it’s my only option and it’s for a headache. Never during my period.
    I have to say the tampon discussion is very disconcerting to me, who still remembers the toxic shock syndrome outbreak. I have only used them for swimming and very rarely for that.
    I think if pads didn’t work for me for a race, I would use Poise pads or Depends.

  6. Wow, these are all awesome tips…I’m gonna consider the diva cup too. However, will it effectively deal with heavy bleeding and (totally yucky TMI) lots of large clots? I think my endo is causing this for me and it is totally out of control when I run as little as 3k!!

  7. I got Aunt FLo on Friday am before a Sunday am race. I was relaly upset, but dealt with it (Sunday would ahve been the heavy day) It was only a 8 mile race, but AF disappeared during the race and dind’t come back. WHERE IS SHE? When will she appear again? will it be amonth or next week???

  8. I also became a divacup convert…and will never ever go back. I was unable to use tampons after having children-almost immediate chills and cramping upon insertion. I’ve been using mine for 3 years now, and just ordered a second (they do stain no matter how well you clean them) but will keep my older one in an emergency location (my running bag? my desk at work? not sure yet) I DID have issues when I got my period during a bout of the stomach flu (I was also not at home…stuck in a hotel room. NOT awesome) and had to send my husband out for pads. I was just too ill to get the diva cup in. I initially chose the diva for use while running, but have since fallen in love with the way it doesn’t interfere with my body’s natural process, or the environment. It’s a fantastic choice! And, although it might seem pricey at first, I calculate it’s saved me a couple hundred dollars over the past 3 years!

  9. Ibuprophen Ob/Gyn here: Thanks for all the astute runners out there who pointed out the possible complications with ibuprophen use. You should not use high dose NSAIDs if you have a history of renal insufficiency, chronic kidney problems or are prone to severe dehydration. The vast majority of healthy young female runners can take ibuprophen without trouble. This day in age all medical information should be completely qualified with all the rare possible downsides, and I was remiss when I did not originally include this when asked for “tips” to share. Bottom line ladies: Know your body, talk to your doctor.

  10. I don’t take any kinds of pills to deal with cramping/pain. I’m already in pain at Mile 22, who knows if its marathon pain or womanly pain. Who cares at that time except that I feel that my life as I know it is coming to an end? – True story at New Orleans Marathon this past March. Heaviest flow day on race day.

    I also slather bodyglide on the string of my tampon before using it. I keep a couple extras in my skirt pockets, and will carry the tiny bodyglide for reapplications if needed. I didn’t need to on race day. And I learnt about string chaffing the hard way on a 16 mile training run last summer in the humidity.

  11. To be clear – NSAIDS (Ibruprofin/Advil) are harmful to the Kidneys and can be dangerous if you are dehydrated at all. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be dangerous to your liver if used in abundance.

  12. OK, I might get arrested by the tampon police for sharing this, but I have learned to use TWO tampons at the same time. My period started the day before the OKC Marathon so marathon day was a heavy flow day. I picked up the new “sports” tampons that are supposed to work great for a moving body. After inserting the first one I just held onto the string and inserted a second one. Removal was just as easy and I was as clean as a sweaty newborn baby at the end of the race!

    1. Oh, and I forgot to clarify…the 2nd one goes in right in front of the first one because you allow the 1st one to slide in further . There is absolutely no discomfort and it feels exacctly the same as just one!

  13. I like to use a mooncup, but found it horribly uncomfortable when running. No matter how well placed it was (and no matter how long/short the run was), during my run it felt like it was “crowning”. Yeah….

  14. I’m another diva cup user. it definitely takes some getting used to. I ran a 10K last weekend with my period, and had a slight diva cup failure. nothing terrible, but ended up with some blood on my thighs. Thank goodness for black shorts! And a good clean bathroom to put myself back together after the race

  15. I ran my first half this March and was having really light bleeding (using Mirena but it hasn’t quite stopped everything yet). I used a panty liner and got a very, very bad burn on my inner thigh. It wasn’t until after the race that I was told I should have used vaseline or body glide on the egdes of the liner. Lesson learned. If my period doesn’t stop I am defintely doing a Diva Cup next time.

    1. Maggie, I too had very bad burns on the inside of my thighs due to a pad rubbing, (Cringe, TMI I know), wish I had known about that tip, shall definitely remember it for next time….cos we all KNOW there will be a next time! 😉

  16. I’m also a Diva Cup girl, and I agree with the first Lisa – there IS a learning curve! Give yourself a few cycles before running any distance in your cup. Once I figured it out, I wondered why I never used this before!

  17. What timing!!! I just completed my first 1/2 marathon this weekend and, yes! Aunt Flow came along for the ride. Joining the festivities the night before!!!!! At first I freaked but I was prepared and thankfully it was still early otherwise I would have been a mess because I wasn’t wearing black.

    I was really concerned in Miles 3-5 but after being so sweaty and hearing the encouragement of the spectators..I just didn’t care.

  18. I ran a half last month during AF after pulling my tampon just before the race. (They don’t stay put the way they did before I had my son!) The drying blood in the tights caused some chafing, but, more importantly, it was a post-race mess. If you’re going to go without, make sure you have a post-race plan that includes a plastic bag for your tights, some wet wipes to clean up, and some pads/tampons for immediately after the race– and BEFORE you sit down anywhere! Totally embarrassing.

  19. Well this is the one thing I dont have to worry about. not that I recommand this to anyone and actually I regret following Dr advice on this but I had an hysterectomy in 2009.

  20. Great info ladies! I am learning a lot. Now I wish I could get my period to be regular so I could implement them. One word on the ibuprofen. Taking large doses can be harmful to your liver, so don’t use the trick if you have liver problems and do not do this every month (save it for the big race)

  21. I have learned a lot from this post and the comments. Thanks. I have been intrigued by the Diva cup and now I think I will take the plunge.

    One note on the ibuprofen to lessen flow. I have recently read that endurance exercise and NSAIDs do not mix well because of the way they are processed by your kidneys. Wait until you are rehydrated before taking ibuprofen.

    My cycle is very regular so I am going to try this sometime – just not half marathon day (which is less than 2 weeks away – and the day before my period starts – sorry for the TMI).

    1. Yes!!!! Please take caution when pre-medicating with NSAIDs. This can lead to very serious kidney damage. The drugs constrict your uterine vessels AND your kidney vessels! It is not a new phenomenon and I am surprised and disappointed that the MD recommended this. Please be careful!

      http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-241-286-289-13116-0,00.html
      http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/phys-ed-does-ibuprofen-help-or-hurt-during-exercise/

      These are just two of many articles out there about the dangers of NSAID before activity.

    2. I read that too, Jana, I think in Runner’s World magazine that it was bad advice to take ibuprofen while running long distances.

  22. On a sort-of-related note, does anyone out there who had a c-section have pain around their incision site after a race. Every time, it seems like I am sore for several days in that area. Like tender to the touch. Just wondering.???

    1. Yep! Anytime that I do a hard, hard run or major ab workout. My c-section was almost 3 years ago. Hope that helps.

    2. That’s interesting to read, given the location of my cramping this past weekend. Normally, I cramp in the side but this race I cramped super low…and yep – close to my c-section scar. It took hours after the race for it to let up completely.

      Off to research. but am seriously hope I am not drawn up short like that again…

  23. Aunt Flo came to visit the very morning of my first ever marathon. I was totally ticked off and to make matters worse, I was in a hotel and it was a surprise. I used some toilet paper in my panties and right before race start ditched the “wad” and ran. I figured my body wouldn’t have enough fluids to make the flow too heavy and everything went just fine. I’d love to not repeat the process though!

  24. I have definitely learned alot today. Thanks for the info. I have heard great things about the diva cup and I have also heard about women who have designed their own pad…yeah, it sounds weird but with the super soft fabric and body glide I could see using a combination of the two. Also, I like using the anti- monkey butt powder and boudreaux’s butt paste. Yes, it is a real product in both cases.

  25. I just skipped a period here or there cuz I was on birth control but after our second child i didn’t want to take them anymore so since then I stash an extra tampon and some baby wipes (even with kids 6 and 8) in a lunch baggie. We camp a lot, primitively, so I have learned how to switch and go pretty quickly…you don’t want to get caught with your pants down in the wildernesses :-D.

  26. I have a Mirena and lucky me it’s stopped Aunt Flo in her tracks. I only have about 2.5 more years left with it, but I would seriously consider having another one because I really really love being without my period. When it comes back, I would definitely like to try the Diva Cup.

  27. OK trying to skip your period doesn’t always work. I skipped the placebo pills, started a new pack, and still got my period, just about a week later. :S But my flow is usually medium, low so I don’t really have that much trouble with it. I have leaked a time or two in my (black) capris.

  28. Learning from my BRF, I always pack some toilet tissue to help deal with changing tampons mid race (yes, we are that slow) – she missed a PR looking for a port-o-let that had paper in it as she really needed to change her tampon.

  29. I do use the Diva Cup as well, it’s about as good an invention as you can get for a purpose you’d rather not have to deal with. But I did learn something during the WDW half marathon this year I’d like to share – if you’re running through a theme park with actual indoor plumbing and sinks on the heaviest day of your period, never think to yourself “Oh, I don’t need to use the facilities – I’m sure I’ll be fine for the next 90 minutes or so.” Ugh. Just use the facilities. Instead I had to use a portapotty later on the course, and things were not good.

    I definitely did not repeat that mistake the next day for the full marathon, so there’s that.

  30. For a disposable option like a diva cup look for Instead or Soft Cups in the lady goods isle. I have a pretty heavy Flo and one of these will get me 3-4 hours. No rinsing just remove and put a new one in. You do have to be comfortable with your body to use these products tho.

    1. The instead cup – in my experience – was not nearly as user-friendly as the Diva Cup. Definitely had a “situation” with the instead cup repositioning and leaking. On the up side, you can have sex with an instead cup in, but definitely not with the Diva Cup.

  31. I have taken the pill to delay my period until after race day. I’ve only done this for half and full distances. This past weekend was the 1st race, I have run with my period. Thank goodness it was day 2 so the cramping was minimal and I had enough time to buy the super plus tampons so I could make it through a 10 mile course without changing my plug. I also used a baggie to keep them dry in my fuel belt. PRed by 15 min:)

  32. I’ve used something similar to a Diva Cup called The Keeper for about 8 years. It does have a learning curve so at least 3 months practice is advisable!
    When we were going hiking for a day and I knew I’d’ be using port-a-potties I brought bring latex gloves with me. Then I just dumped the contents cup and re-insert. Not ideal, but works in a pinch!

    I am running my first marathon this year and plan to run with a glove (or two) during my long runs and the race if necessary.

  33. Good Ole Aunt Flo…always there a day or two before a race… I don’t use tampons anymore, after 4 children I am worried they may get lost…lol!! (TMI???) So a pad it is, with lots of body glide and dark skirt/shorts!!!!! 🙂

  34. The Diva Cup is seriously the most amazing invention ever–I’ve used it in a half marathon, a 2-mile race, and a 5K (because of course my period was completely synchronized with the races I wanted to do for 3 months in a row!). It does take awhile to learn how to use it, but once you do, it’s amazing.

  35. Great TMI post!
    About the ibuprofen: is it 600-800mg overall during the day, or 600-800mg three times a day which is about 2400mg a day in total?
    Here in Australia the don’t sell tablets of more than 200mg each, so if I want to have the 2400mg I’d be taking 4pills x 3times/day = 12 tablets in a day, sounds a lot to me!

    If I get my period on a long run or race I normally use a tampon and a pad. Normally they will keep me good for about 4-5hours, so pretty good for a full marathon. Also have with me an extra pad and tampon for immediately after the run/race. The bad thing is that I have to break the rules about going commando, so **over sharing** it’s pretty disgusting the mix of all body fluids. But nothing that Body glide can’t help with 😉

  36. One note about the Diva Cup: it is possible to overflow it on days one’s flow is particularly heavy. I used it for a half-marathon once and made sure to have a pad on too. By the end, the pad was also soaked and the cup was full. I’d expected that though, given my flow pattern. I’ve not had a problem with it overflowing during runs otherwise. Also keep in mind that the cup needs to be washed (or rinsed at the very least) after emptying, so either bring a squeeze bottle filled with water like to rinse it in the portapotty, or bring tampons and/or pads for before and after. Or find a nice single-user bathroom in a nearby store before and after the race.

    One other thought: the Diva Cup tends to have a learning curve, so interested parties should get it a few months before the race.

    1. If I am using a public washroom and my Diva Cup needs emptying, I don’t bother to rinse at all – I just empty it and reinsert. I haven’t used a single pad or tampon in all the years since I discovered the Diva, and I have been running year round for 4 years now (and have covered a marathon distance). You can always wash or rinse later, when you are in a more suitable location to do so. Skipping the occasional rinse is not a biggie, and doing so would never justify using a tampon or pad for me.

      1. I’ve never had a problem with the Diva Cup, and I’ve been using it for 6 or 7 years now. I will never go back to using tampons (which I used exclusively before), and I cannot say enough good things about the Diva Cup. It’s not nearly as gross as it might sound to empty it, and it’s way less to think about than dealing with pads/tampons/etc – while it depends on the person and the flow, it doesn’t need to be emptied THAT frequently. When I used tampons I found myself having to change them every time I peed , but the Diva Cup doesn’t have any of the saturation or wet string issues that tampons do. I think everyone should try a Diva Cup.

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