Why are there days during training when everything just comes together and other days when everything feels really hard work?
Many women beat themselves up for feeling lousy or performing badly during workouts, without realising that often this has nothing to do with their overall fitness and everything to do with their menstrual cycle.
When a woman understands her how her menstrual cycle works, she can optimize her exercise and nutrition routine to work with her body, rather than against it, and studies have shown that women who synched their training to their cycle experienced greater results in terms of muscle and overall fitness than those who followed a standard training plan.
By tailoring exercise and diet to a menstrual cycle and the physical changes that come with it, a woman can make the most of fluctuating energy and hydration levels throughout the month, staying fit and healthy without feeling physically depleted and physically stressed.
Different types of exercise can have varying impacts on period pain, depending on the individual. In this post, we’ll discuss the best exercises for different phases of a woman’s cycle, and how to modify a routine to fit the bodies needs.
How does the menstrual cycle impact exercise performance?
The menstrual cycle for a woman has two main phases: the follicular phase and the luteal phase, which occur either side of ovulation. The follicular phase happens during the first half of the cycle and the luteal phase happens during the second half.
The age of a woman is one factor that can greatly affect how the menstrual cycle is experienced. And it has been demonstrated in studies that the level of pain experienced during cycles tends to decrease as a woman ages.
Each of the two phases of the cycle are characterized by hormone levels, with lower levels occurring during the follicular phase and higher levels during the luteal phase. These hormone levels have a big impact on a woman’s muscle development, energy metabolism and athletic performance – and can even predict a higher chance of injury while working out.
The follicular phase
The follicular phase starts on day one of a woman’s cycle – during this time a woman needs to up her iron intake due to recently lost blood. Since the uterine lining sheds during this phase, the woman may experience increased inflammation (which can be painful) – however, her body in general will remain more hydrated and cooler during this period when compared to the later luteal phase.
The luteal phase
During the luteal phase, a woman’s body is preparing for the next period (or pregnancy), which means she’s producing more estrogen and progesterone. These hormones decrease anabolic, or muscle-building capacity which means this is the time to ease up on strenuous activity and choose lower-intensity workouts such as yoga or stretching instead.
As a result of the body’s increase in hormones, women’s stored carbohydrates are not easily accessible as they are now locked away for use during the next follicular phase. That means the woman will need carb fuel (hello extra large pasta portion) and more calories. The luteal phase also requires a woman to drink increased amounts of water, since her body is more easily dehydrated due to hormonal activity.
What is the best exercise strategy for various phases of the menstrual cycle?
Women’s hormones set the pace for their physical well-being – and ignoring them is a recipe for disaster.
Up to 67% of elite female athletes (ie. the majority of them) say their exercise performance is disrupted by their cycle, with hormones affecting everything from susceptibility to certain injuries to how the body processes food and stores fat.
Fitbit, Apple Watch and Garmin all have tools for tracking a menstrual cycle so women can train and eat according to their cycle when they monitor the changes going on in their bodies.
Tips during the follicular phase:
If you want to build fitness or gain muscle during the premenstrual phase, focus on high-intensity workouts and resistance training such as sprints and weightlifting.
During this time the body can use stored carbs efficiently for energy, so it is ok to push the body harder during exercise.
Boost iron and protein intake by eating red meat, dark chicken meat, shellfish, whole grains, legumes, and beans.
Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines, nuts, seeds, and plant oils to reduce inflammation.
Tips during the luteal phase:
Try low-intensity workouts during this phase and allow more recovery time than usual. Experiment with short bursts of high-intensity workouts, but don’t push too much. Adjust the routine based on feedback from the body.
Fuel up before and during workouts with complex carbs like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to stay full and energized.
Don’t restrict calories – focus on nourishing the body with healthy, satisfying foods.
Keep water handy during and after workouts to stay hydrated. It can be tough to stay hydrated during the luteal phase, so drink enough liquids to maintain good health.
Though menstruation may sometimes feel like a limitation, research shows that by understanding how and when hormonal shifts occur throughout the month, it is possible to tailor workouts to prevent injury, and improve overall performance.
Whether it’s adjusting the intensity of a workout, incorporating yoga or meditation, or simply taking a few days off during the month when energy levels are lowest, by working with natural cycles rather than against them women can enjoy better health and athletic performance and overall well being.
And most importantly, as soon as women realize the connection between their menstrual cycle and athletic performance, they can realise that knowledge is power – and maybe their period isn’t so bad after all. And that’s incredibly empowering.