Training periodisation: How an all-female coaching company is using the menstrual cycle to get results

Will Harper founded Synrgy Cycling to redress the balance, open up conversations, and help female riders understand how to train around their cycles

This article was originally published in Issue 121, Close the Gap.

Like most good business ideas, Synrgy Cycling was created to fill a gap. The concept – an all-female coaching company centred around harnessing the phases of the menstrual cycle – came about after founder, ex domestic pro-turned-coach Will Harper, asked a long-time female client how her menstrual cycle affected her training. “I just asked her one day: how do your hormone patterns affect your performance? How do you feel at different times of the month?” he explains over Zoom from Synrgy’s base in Girona. “And, for me, the most shocking and enlightening thing of the whole conversation was the fact that she said she’d never been asked that before. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s genuinely quite worrying.’

“She’d had numerous coaches before me, she was in her late 20s and no one had ever asked her that question. So I thought, okay, well, let’s try to find out. And to begin with we just did it with an Excel spreadsheet. And each day, throughout her cycle, she would just tell me, very briefly, how she was feeling and what was going on physiologically for her,” he recalls.

Once he had enough information, Harper was able to see a connection between his client’s cycle and her training output: “Over time, we started to overlay that with her performances and her numbers, power outputs and maximum power output, and we started to see some pretty interesting patterns and clear inflections in terms of power and rate of perceived exertion, and also her general happiness and enjoyment in riding the bike.”

From there, he constructed her training plan around her cycle, working with its different phases. “It became really apparent that it was going to be much more productive to optimise her training around these hormone patterns, because there were clearly some small windows of great opportunity throughout the month, and they tended to fall near enough on the same days,” he explains. “That made a really significant difference.”

It seems like an obvious factor for a coach to consider, given the well-documented effect that the menstrual cycle can have throughout the month on things like mood and energy levels, but it has been largely overlooked. Harper says: “We’ve spoken to a number of female athletes over the months and years who have basically just been following copy-and-paste male training plans and just hoping for the best and it really is not the best way to maximise your physiology.”

This one-size-fits-all approach is common across many sports. It’s estimated that only six percent of sports science research focuses on female athletes which, given the myriad differences between male and female physiology – including the menstrual cycle – is a disappointingly low figure that undoubtedly disadvantages women. Once he became aware of this glaring omission within the coaching world, Harper took it upon himself to learn more.

“I just consumed everything out there: everything there is to read about the nuances of female physiology. I just had the conversations really, from that day onwards,” he explains.

He cites the American researcher Dr. Stacy Simms, a renowned specialist in this area, as an influence: “But outside of what she’s been doing, there isn’t a huge amount of research on the female physiology and female hormone patterns and how they impact performance,” says Harper.

Synrgy is Harper’s contribution to redressing the balance. However, one of the main stumbling blocks preventing female cyclists and their coaches from integrating their training with their menstrual cycle, he says, is embarrassment around the conversation itself. “I do also feel really strongly that male coaches need to start talking to their female athletes about this, because I know so many of them don’t,” he says. “Men need to be able to talk to women about this sort of thing as well. I think that is absolutely crucial, considering the male dominance in the industry.”

While he stresses the importance of normalising conversations about the menstrual cycle between male coaches and female athletes, Harper knew that Synrgy would work best if it comprised an all-female coaching team. “What I found over the years through working this way with the female athletes is that actually – and understandably – some of them weren’t that comfortable with sharing that information with me, and that’s absolutely fine,” says Harper. “I would, of course, explain the benefits, but I’d never push anything that they weren’t totally comfortable with. So actually, that was really the stumbling block. I thought, okay, well, it makes much more sense to build something which is all female.”

Enter: Alice and Hannah Barnes. For anyone who follows women’s racing, both domestic and WorldTour, their names will be very familiar. The sisters – who have multiple national titles and pro wins between them – had already been in talks with Harper about coaching alongside him, but when the idea for Synrgy came about, they, and sports science graduate Zoe Armstrong, were the obvious choices to step in as head coaches of the new female-led venture.

“I’d say I’m coming towards the end of my career and it’s something I’m really keen to do full-time after my career,” says Alice Barnes. “I think it’s the perfect time for me to still be in the sport and learn about it a lot. I think I’m quite knowledgeable in areas of coaching, I’ve gained a lot of experience and I think it’s really nice to be able to use that. It’s kind of the same reason I wanted to change teams [from Canyon//SRAM to Human Powered Health] to a team with younger riders so I can also use knowledge and pass it on. I think it’s a really nice thing to be able to do.”

Alice has been riding and racing for most of her life and has amassed eight years of experience racing as a professional. However, she says that conversations around the menstrual cycle have only recently begun to happen in women’s racing. “It’s just not something that people used to talk about,” she says. “It was always, for me personally, a secret thing and like, if you’re going into the bathroom, you’d always be really quiet with packaging and stuff because it was a secret thing. Whereas I think in the last three, four years, or even less, it’s becoming spoken about a lot more and it’s really important. I think it’s a really big development in women’s performance.

“I think now it’s more common. It’s spoken about more widely. Even speaking to the guys about it when I’m training. I’ll say I’m not at the best time in the month at the moment, or they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re flying,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s the best time of my cycle.’ Before, I’d just be like, ‘Oh I just feel really good.’ You can talk about it. Most people have sisters or girlfriends or whatever and they will know about periods. It’s just something you see a lot more.”

Understanding how the different phases of the menstrual cycle affect her performance is a relatively new concept for Alice, but one which she says has helped her make sense of how she feels throughout training and racing. “Sometimes you can literally feel unstoppable,” she says. “If I train with the guys and sometimes I’m really sluggish, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go and do my own thing today.’ Or other times on a climb I kind of just press on and I’m like, ‘I’m feeling great today, guys.’”

There are four main phases of the menstrual cycle: menstruation is the process of shedding the uterus lining; then comes the follicular phase, during which follicles form on the surface of the ovary and the uterus lining begins to thicken again; then ovulation, when a mature egg is released along the fallopian tube towards the uterus; and finally the luteal phase, when progesterone and oestrogen are released and the uterus wall thickens further. Contrary to popular belief, of the four main phases of the cycle, it is during menstruation that women are more likely to feel at their strongest.

As a professional, Alice can’t adapt her training and racing programme to suit her cycle in the same way that a non-racer might, but, she says, she can use the knowledge to predict when she will be able to perform at her best, or when she might not be feeling good.

“It’s difficult to explain actually, like if I’m in a race, and I’d be thinking, ‘I felt terrible today,’ and I look at my app and it’s like, yeah, you should be having three easy days in this next phase. But you can’t do that. But it really explains why you’re feeling like that and then it’s reassuring, because it’s just what your body is doing,” she says. “You’re not struggling and you’re not unfit and you’re not getting ill or whatever, you’re just not at the right phase to be able to perform and that’s just how it is, and there’s nothing to panic about. In two days or so you will come good. I’ve learned a lot about it.”

Alice has taken this knowledge into her own racing with her team, Human Powered Health, explaining to the DS how she is feeling and why. “I had a stage race where I felt comfortable saying to the DS, like, I feel really crap right now because it was literally the two or three days leading up to my period,” she says. “But I could say to them, I know in stage three and four I’m going to come really good. And then that’s how it was actually working out.”

Outside of shaping training around the menstrual cycle, as a current professional rider, Alice is able to harness her insider knowledge to help her clients – who are predominantly fellow racers – with tactics, team dynamics, and other elements of coaching. “I think it’s a big difference to know a peloton like the current peloton, and also the way women’s racing is evolving is very different to how it used to be, so there’s a lot more team tactics and that kind of thing that goes into it,” she says. “So I feel I can give them that knowledge and pass it on. All my riders at the moment are in the pelotons that I’m racing in, either the British or the UCI peloton. 

"Luckily, different kinds of riders,” she says with a laugh. “But I think you can pass that on and you see it and you can watch the racing or you can pass on that knowledge from the current race scene rather than what you feel it might be like, or you think it was or how it was back in the day.”

The majority of Synrgy’s current client base are either amateur or professional road racers, but one interesting new addition to their roster is pro gravel racer and 2019 Unbound winner, Amity Rockwell. “We feel really lucky to be working with Amity,” says Harper, explaining how the Californian came to find Synrgy via a Training Peaks collaboration soon after their launch.

“Amity had followed Hannah’s career for a long time and had a great amount of admiration for her.” he says. “We spoke for an hour and a half about everything: all of her training history, what she was trying to achieve, what’s gone well, what’s not gone well in the past. We worked out that she was quite a free-spirited rider and that we had to work with that, not against that, which I think some of her previous coaches had.”

Rockwell began to work with Hannah Barnes and promptly went on to win her next event, the 360-kilometre Traka race in Girona, by 40 minutes, breaking the course record along the way. “Actually, she wasn’t feeling particularly great going into the race itself,” says Harper. “I think she was in a relatively high hormone phase at the time. And Hannah was working with her with extra hydration, extra carb intake, giving some specific rolling and stretching techniques to try to ease some of the restless, sore, and heavy legs she was feeling. It was one of those classic times where the race didn’t come at the optimum time in terms of hormone patterns, but there are things you can do to mitigate the negative effects. And, clearly, Hannah and Amity worked really well on that together.”

Just a few months in, Synrgy is attracting an elite and high-profile client base, but Harper is keen to stress that it isn’t only elite racers who can benefit from harnessing their menstrual cycle. “It can be an equally if not more interesting proposition to coach someone who has a really busy job and actually only has eight hours a week to train, and it might be they were a runner in their youth but they’re now in their mid 30s and they’ve got some talent, but they’ve got these small chunks of time to train,” says Harper. “Fitting that jigsaw together can be really quite fascinating.

“It seems to be that we’re naturally gravitating towards more of the elite performance side of cycling, but we’re a very young company. And let’s see where it goes. We’re interested in having a conversation with anybody who’s keen to chat, and we try to work out whether we’re the right fit to help them, regardless of who they are, or what they’ve achieved, or age or anything like that.”

Ultimately, the key ingredients that make Synrgy work are the coaches themselves. “I couldn’t be more fortunate to have Alice and Hannah and Zoe on board and as head coaches,” says Harper. “With the multiple national championship titles and years worth of experience and Zoe’s sports science knowledge, it really is a great mix.”

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