I specialise in training female Equestrians so female health & the menstrual cycle is something I like to educate all of my clients on. Often it can be coined as an embarrassing or taboo term to talk about but understanding the changes your body goes through within your monthly cycle is so important to fully get the most out of your riding & training.
I spoke previously about how your cycle affects fat loss but have you ever considered how your period may affect your training or performance at home or in the gym?
First things first, it’s good to get into a habit of tracking your cycle, if you don’t know your norms then it’s going to be really hard for you to work around your body. It’s so important you begin to understand what is normal for you!
You might find that each month a few days before you’re due on you get bad cravings, become very fatigued compared to usual, suffer from high levels of tiredness & find that your strength or ability to do high impact sessions is reduced. That would be clear signs of you being in your luteal phase & your period about to arrive but if you weren’t aware of what this meant how would you know if it’s time to push harder or scale back?
Everyone is different, from the length of their period to their cravings or emotional being around their cycle & that’s why it is crucial to get to know your body for yourself. If you use contraceptives then you’re adding extra hormones into the body which complicates things further but you may find you don’t suffer from these changes as your period is no longer regular. I would suggest you do your own research to find out more information about how contraception can affect you, Dr Stacey Sims is a great place to start!
This is one of the biggest reasons that training females vs males is different as we women HAVE to consider the monthly cycle & the effect it can have on our progress. Yes, it can make progress or gaining strength harder but once we know how to work with our bodies you’ll probably find that progress & training is very fluent.
Within your 28 day cycle you have several phases;
Phase 1; Menstruation; this is when you have your period & tends to occur for 4-7 days
Phase 2; Follicular phase; post-period when you have stopped bleeding you enter the follicular phase
OVULATION; this occurs around day 14 & is when our bodies are at their most fertile ready to become pregnant
Day 14-28; Luteal phase; post-ovulation as we start to head back towards the beginning of the cycle & start all over
During your period & the follicular phase, the hormone estrogen is at its highest. This has a positive effect on your mood, energy & strength & is the best time for physical performance to be at its best. As estrogen is the dominant hormone it means this is your time for peak performance in terms of lifting PB’s, strength gains, hitting big runs, or achieving times. Now is the time to push hard & this is when your body will work with you.
When you are on your period you may find that you have to scale back your training if you suffer from cramps or discomfort or find your energy levels are generally decreased. Focusing on lighter intensity & keeping moving is the best option here if you find you suffer. Doing more mobility & yoga work or circuits-based classes can be a good focus here & allow your body to take it a little easier whilst your strength is not at its highest.
Once your period has finished you’ll likely find your mood increases, you feel good & you feel lighter. You’ll feel like you have plenty of energy & will be able to push harder in training & workouts. So this is when you want to push on & see if you can hit those PB’s.
As your estrogen levels are high your body is going to recover faster from a larger training volume too so you want to make use of this! You should find too that your pain threshold is increased due to your hormones.
Your training sessions want to focus on hypertrophy & strength during this phase. If you find that you don’t suffer from PMS during your period then you can focus on strength here too. Adding in some high-intensity intervals in this period would also work well as you can push harder & recover from the higher training volume. Carbohydrates will be your primary energy source here & your body's calorie needs are slightly less at this time.
When you hit ovulation this is when your body is at its most fertile & you may well find your sex drive is high! This isn’t surprising considering it’s your body telling you it’s ready to make a baby. During ovulation, your body releases eggs from the ovary & when released it may be fertilised by sperm & then develop into a pregnancy. Estrogen rises rapidly during ovulation & your progesterone levels slowly start to incline. As well as estrogen being high this is when testosterone is at its highest so you may actually find that this period is the best time to hit PB’s & push yourself more due to the hormonal increases.
So for some females from day 1 of your cycle you may find you have to knock training back & little & decrease the intensity to back off but then once your cycle has finished you feel far better & are good to go & push hard again as above & that is because you’re at your strongest here.
If you tried to PB on say your squat you’re far more likely to have a better lift on day 12 as opposed to trying to PB on day 24 of your cycle when you’re in the luteal phase, that’s why it’s important to understand your cycle so you can train around it & work with your body not against it.
The luteal phase occurs straight after ovulation & lasts until the start of the next period. As much as people joke that being on your period is the worst time for many the luteal phase can actually be far worse. Your estrogen rapidly drops after ovulation has occurred & your progesterone rises. You may find with these changes that your energy or strength drops too both in strength & cardio training.
You may find that you start to struggle with mood swings as PMS starts to kick in, your recovery may become a little worse, your stability & coordination is reduced, your strength decreases & your energy levels may drop. This happens due to all the hormonal changes going on & again everyone is different so it depends on how much this phase affects you.
Hunger levels can increase during this phase too as your body has a higher metabolic rate/needs more calories in this period-adding in an extra 300-400 calories per day through fruit can help to handle sweet or hunger cravings. Your body also utilises more fat in this period so increasing your dietary fats may help you to keep to maintenance calories in this time.
Reducing the overall load & weight used is a good idea here, using moderate weights & focusing on more metcon style workouts or circuits. You can still follow a similar programme to your strength work but you want to make sure the load is reduced especially around your first day of bleeding.
If you suffer from abdominal cramps & pains it means your ability to activate your inner core unit is impacted leaving you vulnerable to injury if the weights are too heavy, so leave heavy work at the door for now. It’s important you honour both your emotional & physical state & apply training that is appropriate to how your body feels within each phase.
Some females may have the ability to lift hard & push on through the early part of their cycle all the way through to the luteal phase whilst others have to back off. What is important is you find what works for you. You want to be comparing your performance in the gym & in cardio sessions month to month not week to week, so you’re comparing Week 1 & week 1 for example when you’re in the follicular phase not week 1 to 4.
If you need to reduce training focus on supporting your body weight, reduce the load & complexity of the task so less cognitive demand is required too. You can go lighter with the weight, use circuits & focus on more skill-based tasks here or corrective exercises.
If you find your period & cycle hits you hard then rest if you need to. Sometimes allowing your body to rest & relax is the best thing to do & can improve your overall month of training. Once your cycle ends you’ll notice a marked increase in energy & mood so you can push on again. If you work with your body you’re far more likely to have better results!
So to recap;
(approx)Days 1-14; First 2 weeks focus on strength & hypertrophy; if you need to reduce the load during your period & focus on moving rather than strength. Light loads, yoga, walks reduce the intensity
(approx) Days 14-20; Focus on more metabolic conditioning or circuit style training
(approx)Days 20-28; Preparing for your period, lighten the load, keep yourself moving. If you suffer then scale the intensity right back & just go for light walks & do some yoga
I hope that helps you to start to work with your body rather than against it! The female body is fascinating.