Swell period: can tracking your period change the way you surf?
I love the ocean.
It’s the one place that makes me feel both totally free and completely at home.
But the sea here in Maine is massively different to the the sandy beaches I'm used to.
Maine is all rocky coastlines and Rosa rugosas, East coast Australia is white sand and crashing waves.
It’s the waves I miss most of all.
In truth, I didn’t think anyone really surfed here.
But over the past few years I’ve been hearing whispers, of cold water women who surf in the snow.
I thought "No frickin way!"
"That's waaaaay too rugged for me... too gear intensive and too damn cold."
I might have let it go, except that the sea never stopped calling me.
I needed a way to get back in the water, for more than just a quick ocean dip.
And last week, the stars aligned - and I suddenly had all the borrowed gear I needed.
After four years without waves, I heard of a women’s surf meetup.
And my final roadblock was gone - I could paddle a new break in a supportive circle.
Photos by @juliette_films Water temp 41F/5C!!!
In such a bro-heavy sport it can be hard to get a wave.
Paddling out with a group of women brought that up for me again.
Despite a sea change in the last 30 or 40 years, with some incredible female surfers leading the way, there’s still a lack of diversity in the ocean.
Male-dominated surf culture can and has been anything from intimidating to downright harmful for those of another gender.
The paradigm of patriarchy runs deep and on a professional level - sports science is overwhelmingly based on male-bodies.
Those techniques and training regimens are then applied to everyone else, creating a culture of sexism and misogyny, that has dangerous and harmful implications.
But things in sport are shifting - in 2019, the Women's U.S. Soccer Team started tracking their menstrual cycles and switching up their training programs.
Building a relationship with their cycling bodies meant they understood their needs and trained accordingly - and they won the world cup!
Understanding the needs of your cycling body is the key to nurturing your goals, tapping your creativity and thriving in the water.
Women's empowerment is essential.
But if we only work to empower some kinds of women in the water, we're repeating the wounds of the patriarchy.
Let's keep going until we have representation that includes people of color, trans and queer folks so we can truly create a supportive and empowering culture around surf.
How does your menstrual cycle affect the way you surf?
Where you’re at in your menstrual cycle on any given day - can have massive impacts on your energy levels, mood, hunger and motivation.
If you’ve ever had the pre-menstrual aggressions, depressions or “I just don’t care anymore!”s you know what I’m talking about.
One day everything’s rosy, the next you want everyone to just "LEAVE ME ALONE!”
Ever have a surf when nothing goes right?
During some phases of your cycle you’ll feel full of energy - a paddle out will go smoothly and catching waves feels easy.
Surfing’s effortless - you’re energized, feel confident and could paddle all day.
But another day, under the same conditions - you’ll feel lethargic, bail out consistently and have a hard time feeling motivated.
What’s the deal?
Your menstrual cycle is well, a cycle!
Your body moves through four distinctly different hormonal phases each cycle.
Your hormones shift DRAMATICALLY before, during and after ovulation.
Let’s think about these phases as a wave.
A wave starts out flat, builds up over time, forms a peak and then crashes - returning back to the sea.
Your hormonal cycle is a wave:
Flat water (no wave) - your period - all your hormones are low.
Building wave - pre-ovulation - estrogen is on the rise.
Peak wave - ovulation - Lh, FSH and Estrogen are high.
Crashing wave - pre-menstrual - Progesterone is high, Lh, FSH and Estrogen decline.
So here’s the thing - your mood and energy levels shift according to where you’re at on that wave:
Flat water (no wave) - Your period - low energy.
Building wave - Pre-ovulation - energy increases.
Peak wave - Ovulation - peak energy and motivation.
Crashing wave - Pre-menstrual - energy slows.
What does that mean for your surfing practice?
First of all - having a menstrual cycle doesn’t make you any more or any less capable than anyone else, and it shouldn’t disqualify you from doing the things you love.
Secondly, understanding your cycle isn’t about productivity or performance.
In a society that’s obsessed with growth and personal bests and productivity - tapping your cycle in order to do more, can be a one way ticket to burn-out.
Understanding your cycle is about living aligned with your own needs.
Photos by @juliette_films Paddling out at Higgins Beach, ME.
How to align your surfing practice with your cycle.
This is a guide to working with the shifting tides of your body - I'm gonna keep saying it - tapping in is about listening to your bodies needs and no one elses.
1. No waves - your Menstrual phase:
Your energy is at it’s lowest especially during the first few days.
You might choose to rest here, hang back on the beach and take it easy.
Consider: gentle walks and restorative yoga practices.
Prioritize: rest, meeting your needs and deep self care.
If you choose to paddle out you might prefer to opt for easier waves or more gentle breaks.
2. Building wave - Pre-ovulation:
If you’re just getting into your surfing practice this is a great time to get in the water.
You’re more likely to feel motivated and energised.
If you’re a seasoned surfer - this is the best time to try out new tricks/techniques, a new break or new gear.
This phase is all about the energy returning - and it’s massively playful!
High-energy surfing or other training aligns well.
3. Peak wave - Ovulation
Your energy is at it’s peak and you are on fire.
You feel confident, capable and strong.
Spend long sessions in the water and surf as much as you want.
You have extra to give and share.
Is there a big break you’re keen to check out? Now’s the time to go for it.
Want to share your talent? Offer a class or take a grom with you - now’s when you have extra energy and patience.
I’d also say - you probably don't want to go wetsuit shopping when you're pre-menstrual (lol) that's definitely a building wave or peak wave activity!
4. Crashing wave - Pre-menstrual phase:
You pull back in as your energy shifts.
Now you have less to give.
It’s in this phase you might notice a fierce determination creeps in, you are goal-oriented and you want to ride hard.
Your energy is dropping so remember to be gentle with yourself too.
If you’re not surfing your best or you don’t have the longevity to stay in the water so long - remember that your body is slowing down and preparing for it’s menstrual retreat.
Let’s be clear.
You can do whatever you want - at any time of your cycle.
But you might find that as your energy shifts, certain activities, foods, surf styles and practices support your body in different ways.
The key is to listen to your needs and shift accordingly.
It's not about anybody else's practice or process - it's about what feels right for you.
Understanding your cycle is just a way to ride the tides of your own body.
So tune in.
PS.Period tracker apps are gaining in popularity - but many of these have predictive functions and are mis-leading about the timing of ovulation aka: when you are fertile.
The best thing to do?
Learn to read your own bodies fertility signs so you always know which phase you're in.
Check out these posts on fertility awareness and stay in touch - i'll share a guide to period apps soon.
Until then - enjoy the surf,
Gabrielle is an Aussie herbalist and reproductive health educator, pretty stoked to have found some waves in Maine.
If you wanna learn how to tune in to your ebbs and flows - drop a line, anytime!
Power and grace - women changing surf:
Leah Dawson - Surf like a woman
Rise of female surfing - Lauren Hill - She Surf
Cold Water Women, New England @cold.water.women
Maine Women Surf @mainewomensurf
Photography by @juliette_films
Surf lessons for Women - Maine
Katie Strait - Winner of 2021 AMC photo comp.
Misogyny, sport and strong women:
The following stories include reference to emotional and physical abuse.
Professional surfer Mary Setterholm founded the Women's International Surfing Association in 1975, but horrific abuse at the hands of male surfers gave her no choice but to flee the culture she was helping to shape.
Mary is now a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and has gone on to teach hundreds of women and at risk youth how to ride waves.
Mary's story is both heart-breaking and inspiring. It reminded me of how patriarchal and misogynistic surf culture has been and still is - and why we gotta keep working to change it. Listen here.
Mary Cain once the world's fastest track runner trained with Nike and experienced the physical and emotional abuse of a system that does not nurture or support female bodies. She's now campaigning to change that.
The US Women's Soccer Team tracked their periods - and won the world cup!