If you’ve ever had a period you will know that it can affect everything. Every. Damn. Thing. From your mental health to the oil in your skin, from your appetite to your sleep quality – where you are in your cycle has a big impact on how you feel. So it’s no surprise that it can change the way you workout.
Two days ago I was happily baking a sugary, caramel, banana cake; last night I was annoyingly pissed off with the world and frustrated by my fatigue in the morning’s training session –and surprise, surprise! Today I sit here in bed bloated belly and all on day one of my period funneling junk food down my throat! I had all the intentions of going for a run earlier but settled for interval training between the fridge and my bed instead!
As a female trainer of 99% women, I am often asked for guidelines around training when menstruating. As a female athlete, competing both on and off birth control, I have experienced first hand the ebbs and flows (pun intended) of hormone dips and how this impacts by output in training.
Just like anything in the world, our bodies and hormones go through cycles, which can be monitored and adjusted accordingly. While I recognize that every woman is different when it comes to her period, there is some science to back up how to adjust training to suit your cycle.
First comes the menstrual phase, when a woman gets her period and her levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone drop. This typically lasts 3-7 days but can vary between individuals.
Menstruation, approximately days 1 – 5
Best for: Yoga, Pilates, stretches, meditation, walking, slow and controlled bodywork (e.g. tai chi, balance and flexibility exercises), low impact cardio.
This is all because you may feel crappy-Having said that though, studies have shown that because your hormone levels drop so low when on your period, that this is when you are the most capable from a strength perspective. If you can get past your cramps and get infront of some heavy weighs, you may surprise yourself with what you can lift at this stage.
During the first stage of your cycle – when you’re actually on your period – hormones are at their lowest levels for the entire month, so it’s okay if you feel sleepy this week or less inspired to make it to the gym. Low-impact exercises like walking or gentle stretching can help to alleviate period pain and discomfort. Avoid strenuous exercise that pushes your body to its limits, especially on those first heavy flow days. Listen to your body and give yourself permission to rest when you feel you need to.
Pre-ovulation, approximately days 6 – 12
As your period comes to an end, you’ll likely notice a surge in motivation to work out. As estrogen and serotonin (the ‘feel-good’ hormone) steadily increase, you may feel less inclined to hit the snooze button and more inspired to book an early morning HIIT class. Channel this energy with exercises that will wake you up and give you a big boost. Your ability to build muscle increases in this stage too, so throw a few strength training sessions into your routine this week.
Ovulation and post-ovulation, approximately days 13 – 20
Best for: Hitting the gym with a friend, group classes, combat training, team sport training (netball, football, rugby, hockey, kickboxing), running, resistance training Keep up that strength training.
The combination of estrogen and testosterone at ovulation can help to increase motivation, confidence, and energy levels, so you might feel more inspired to work out with friends, your partner, or in a group workout class. After ovulation, estrogen dips and progesterone increases, so it’s normal to feel a change in energy and motivation. Track your cycle and make a note of when you feel this dip (around day 17 in a 28-day cycle), so you’re aware and can be prepared.
Pre-menstruum, approximately days 22 – 28
Best for: Bodyweight training, water aerobics, active stretching, yoga, kettlebells, rowing machine, TRX, elliptical machine, Pilates, swimming
Finally, we enter the luteal phase. This is where we see a rise in progesterone and a slight bump in estrogen levels, followed by a drop in both hormones and the restart of the cycle (barring pregnancy). Progesterone is the dominant hormone after ovulation and this soothing hormone is less interested in early morning boxing classes and more into candlelit yin yoga. Progesterone increases your core body temperature, so if you feel more puffed than usual, don’t stress – it could just be hormones affecting your heart and breathing rates.
The luteal phase is when we experience those *lovely* PMS symptoms, like bloating, headache, weight changes, food cravings, and trouble sleeping.
How we can work these phases into our exercise routines for endurance workouts
Your pre-exercise heart rate will be higher, and peak heart rate lower during the luteal and menstrual phases, respectively.VO2 max and other measures of endurance are significantly lower in the follicular and menstrual phases. Because of this,try to save your higher-intensity workouts until the luteal phase is over, as this is when your heart is working slightly harder than normal; you’ll reach a higher heart rate more quickly, especially when training in warmer temperatures. If you exercise according to heart rate zones, expect higher heart rates to be more of a challenge to reach during your menstrual phase. You might also see decreased endurance here, so if you’re training for an endurance events, try to opt for shorter workouts during your menstrual phase.
For strength workouts
While fluctuations of steroid hormones occur during the menstrual cycle, they have not been found to have a significant impact on muscle fatigue and strength.3 The takeaway: carry on as normal! Of course, though the science shows no significant impact on your ability to perform these sports at any phase in your cycle, only you know how your body is feeling. Consider taking a step back and opting for more recovery if you’re feeling the symptoms of PMS such as fatigue, irritability, and mood changes.
Hydration and your cycle
Your fluid status will change throughout your cycle and can have an impact on your ability to exercise, especially in the heat. During the mid-luteal phase, there is a marked decrease in time to exhaustion, which is believed to be a result of increased body temperature, so pay extra attention to your water intake those days.
Increases in fluid retention can be a secondary effect of estrogen and progesterone, peaking from ovulation through the first half of the luteal phase. This fluid redistributes throughout your body during the luteal phase, creating a drop in plasma volume, which can compromise the amount of oxygen delivered to the muscles.
This drop reduces sweat rate, and since sweat helps the body cool down, it can also result in an increase in body temperature. Due to these changes, women should be more aware of their hydration and fluid intake during the mid-luteal phase, especially if in hot and humid environments.
Changes in macronutrient needs
The way our bodies metabolize macronutrients, particularly carbohydrates and protein, can change through our cycle.
In a fasted state, women were found to perform better in the follicular phase than the luteal phase. But when fueling with carbs, luteal performance caught up.
Why the difference? Estrogen and progesterone, both of which peak during the luteal phase, have been shown to suppress gluconeogenesis, a cellular process necessary to utilize energy stores in the body. External carb sources, therefore, become critical for energy during exercise, especially when over 60 minutes long. The take-home here: female athletes preparing for an endurance event in their luteal phase should make sure they’re eating adequate carbs during the event to meet increased needs.
Protein catabolism, the breakdown of muscles and other protein stores for cellular processes, has also been shown to beak with progesterone levels in the luteal phase, increasing protein needs during this part of a woman’s cycle. The takeaway; consider upping your protein intake during your luteal phase, especially if in a bigger or higher intensity training cycle.
When and how to optimize training around your cycle
For women whose performance is based on muscle output or VO2max, extra time planning your competition schedule around your cycle probably isn’t necessary. But women who participate in endurance exercise should consider adapting your competition schedule around your cycles, especially if in hot and humid conditions. The shifts in fluid, body temperature and metabolism can make it more challenging for women to undertake big training efforts and ensure adequate recovery in the luteal phase.
Start by tracking your cycle! Doing so can help you understand when your body enters each phase, any resulting symptoms, and how to adjust accordingly. Every woman’s cycle is different and a multitude of factors can play a role including the use of oral contraceptives, eating disorders, and medical conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or uterine fibroids.
IUDs can cause the lack of a monthly period. But your cycle, and the accompanying hormone changes, is still working behind the scenes! IUDs prevent pregnancy by either the hormone progestin (hormonal IUD) or with copper (non-hormonal IUD). Hormonal IUDs can also stop ovulation. Tracking your cycle can be a helpful tool for women with an IUD, but maybe more challenging without a period.
Food journaling can also be helpful to assess for adequate macronutrients and fueling, especially when needs are higher. Performing sweat tests during your cycle can also be a tool to note any significant changes in fluid requirements to ensure adequate hydration and replenishing between sessions.