Have you ever managed to lift really heavy one week and then the next, struggled to complete the same exercise using the same weight? It’s really easy to get frustrated if you don’t understand the changes that occur to your body during your menstrual cycle.
So often, this topic is not even on a personal trainer’s radar, I can say that during my qualification this was completely overlooked. Considering females represent almost 50% of the population and can have 300-400 or more periods in a lifetime, the conversation needs to change.
Understand your cycle – tune into your body
Tracking your cycle, helps you become more aware of symptoms and can be an incredibly valuable tool.
There are free apps which can be useful to download and I would recommend regular tracking to examine any variations. This will help recall details you might otherwise forget.
Female phase training – cycle syncing
Female phase training or cycle syncing is the term used to describe adapting your strength training programme around the different phases of the menstrual cycle.
Hormone fluctuations can affect energy levels, mood, recovery and pain threshold to name but a few. So let’s start by understanding the different phases of the cycle.
For a female of reproductive years, a normal cycle length is between 21-35 days. There are two phases of the menstrual cycle:
- Follicular phase – this is the first day of your bleed (menses) and lasts until you ovulate.
- Luteal phase – begins the day after you ovulate and lasts until you start your next period. At this stage progesterone levels increase.
Both of these stages are separated by a short ovulation period which occurs around mid-cycle. Ovulation is when the egg is realised from the ovary and at this stage oestrogen levels increase.
Based on an average cycle length of 28 days, the phases can be further sub-divided into the following stages:
Early Follicular (approx. day 1-7)
Some females can feel bloated and sore for the first few days of their period. At this stage PMS symptoms usually start to reduce (although this varies from female to female).
Physiologically, both female sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone levels are low and this is when we are most similar to males.
This stage is sometimes referred to as “period strength” because for some women, they are able to lift really heavy.
If you fit this bracket and feel good then go for it. However, if you need a few more days to recover, then respect where your body is at.
Increasing iron and vitamin C is a good strategy to ensure your nutrition needs match your training needs at this phase.
Late Follicular (approx. day 7-14)
Oestrogen levels are high and progesterone levels are low. Oestrogen improves muscle strength, growth and force production.
It also helps reduce the breakdown of muscle tissue caused by exercise, meaning you are able to recover quicker.
Mood and energy levels are improved, so this stage is one of the best times to focus on strength/hypotrophy training or high intensity sessions.
Carbohydrates are also used more effectively by your body, at this stage which is great to fuel your performance.
Ovulation (approx. day 14) generally when energy levels are at their highest so it’s a good time to push yourself here too.
Early-mid luteal (approx. day 15-25) –
The luteal phase comes after ovulation, both oestrogen and progesterone levels are high and this is when PMS symptoms can start to appear.
Think about how all these chemical changes are effecting your energy needs.
Increases in progesterone are also associated to an increase in Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) by 10% – meaning you need more energy at this stage.
An extra 100-250 Kcals per day is needed, though for some women it can increase to 500kcals a day!
This is the time to use moderate loads with less intense workouts. You could also think about reducing your training frequency and volume.
Interestingly, risk of injuries also increase at this stage, especially knee injuries so exercises can be adapted to put less pressure on joints.
Late luteal (approx. day 25-28)
PMS symptoms start to get worse as a result of both oestrogen and progesterone levels falling. Insomnia, cramps, irritability, poor concentration and low energy levels are just some of the symptoms.
Cravings can kick in and this is down to an increase in Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). To meet the increase in energy needs, we seek out high energy foods like chocolate.
However, at this stage we become more insulin resistant which means, our body has difficulty storing glucose (carbohydrate). What a time to get sugar cravings!
Instead, it’s a good strategy to increase protein and fat, which will help keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Additionally, if you experience cramps, bloating and lower back pain then it’s a good idea to reduce the load of your training.
Ideally, more recuperative activities like walking, yoga and swimming are all great low-intensity alternatives. Adding in foods high in magnesium can also help relax muscles.
The take-home message
The advantage of tracking your menstrual cycle really allows for better planning of our nutrition and training, so we can learn to embrace it and improve our health.
In a simplified view, we have a two-week window of opportunity where our body is geared up during the follicular phase to train harder due to oestrogen being high.
Then we have a two week period, to de-load, rest and recover, during the luteal stage, before we move back into the next phase again.
As you can see, nutrition and exercise can seem simple but there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.
If you’re in need of help around female health, nutrition and exercise then why not book in for a consultation with me?
This article was first published here at ClaireG PT on 5th February 2021.