I always ask riders on their consultation calls if they have a healthy menstrual cycle. Often at the start of a journey that question gets met with a look of confusion, it is something I never considered before I became a trainer and understood just how much your cycle affects your performance.
There are so many things around a fitness journey that can influence your rate of progress and result. For women, the menstrual cycle is a huge consideration that should be taken into account throughout your training journey. Understanding how your period and cycle affects your body, knowing when it is safe to push hard and when you need to back off is absolutely key to working with your body, getting results & not injuring yourself.
For many of us, we all know we can feel a bit crappy when our period begins but do you ever wonder why just before your period every month your hunger cravings increase? Or maybe your mood takes a turn for the worse and you can't help but snap at everyone. Maybe you find your knackered at this time of the month or you can't complete your normal intense workout routine, sound familiar?
This is where understanding the changes that your body and hormones go through during the 28 day cycle period is absolutely essential. As females we should be looking at our training from a 28 day cycle, so for instance if we want to try and lift a personal best in the gym we should be comparing week 1 to week 1 not say week 1 to week 4 as week 1 you will be at your strongest as you've just come into the follicular phase whereas week 4 you'll be in the luteal phase approaching your period and this is when you're at your weakest strength wise.
If you don't understand or consider how your hormones affect your performance then you may find the rate of progression will be very slow and hit a miss but equally you run the risk of causing yourself an injury. During the luteal phase, it is very common for women to pick up ACL knee injuries due to the rise in progesterone. Studies have shown that as your progesterone increase your ligaments have more laxity making an injury more likely. Back injuries can happen too due to not being able to recruit your core muscles so it is, essential you start to understand how your body works.
So let's talk about the cycle and the different phases your body goes through. Here I'm giving an example of a 28 day cycle as that is generally the average length of cycle. Obviously, this differs between every individual some of us may have longer cycles, some shorter and obviously of course depends on our own personal health circumstances. PCOS sufferers can find their cycles are much longer so please take this information and make it relative to your own cycle!
Day 1-5; Period
Depending on where you live in the world this may be referred to as your bleed/cycle/period but this is when you're period takes place. This is the beginning of the follicular phase starting & begins with your cycle. For many of us, we think of this time as the bad time where in actual fact we're approaching our best!
You may find that you experience PMS symptons or fatigue is increased. Your body during your period actually requires more energy so maybe for those who struggle with hunger levels increasing your calories at this time is a great way to manage these cravings.
This is individual for every female, for myself I know I can pretty much train as normal when I'm on my period but I never go heavy due to being unable to recruit my core muscles safely because of cramping. However if you know that you feel really rough or you struggle on your cycle then the most appropriate thing to do training wise would be to scale right back focusing on more circuit based training, lighter weights & higher intensity. If you find that is too much then just take things right back to super low intensity doing some yoga, stretching & walking would be the best bet. You need to listen & adapt to your body depending on how you feel. We're all different so just because I can train hard on my period does not mean that is right for you!
Hormone wise oestrogen is your predominant hormone during your period. This does have a positive effect on mood, energy and strength but actually, during your period you may not feel those benefits. The most important thing and the best advice I can give is that you listen to your body and you do what is appropriate, do not push beyond what you're capable of because you run the risk of having an injury.
Day 6-10; Post Period Follicular Phase
So your period has been and gone and now you're in your follicular phase. This is the best time for gains in muscle mass and strength so if you want to achieve a PB in the gym now is your time to push on!
As I said oestrogen is still the dominant hormone and it has a positive effect on your body so now is the best time to improve your physical strength & peformance. Your follicular phase is as your body starts to move towards ovulation and your testosterone hormone will begin to slowly rise hence why now you can lift some heavy weights.
As oestrogen is high it also means that you have a better ability to recover from a greater training load and volume than during your luteal phase towards the end of the cycle. As we approach ovulation this gives us a big increase in hormones so it's time to push on but you may also experience a big increase in sexual drive or libido.
This happens as your body is preparing to make a baby so it makes sense that this causes an increase in your sex drive naturally! It's important to understand how your hormones and cycle affect you from a sexual point of view so you know why you feel like you do at certain times of the month.
In this follicular phase & as we approach ovulation your pain tolerance is high, you have optimal performance and now it's time to work hard. You should be feeling good, mood high, energy high and find it is much easier to also stick to calories! This is without a doubt the time to make the most of.
Day 11-18; Ovulation
Ovulation occurs around day 14 typically. This is when your eggs are released and your body as I said is preparing to conceive. For some, we may need to reduce training intensity a little and focus on more endurance or circuit-based training. Oestrogen is still the dominant hormone as the female body is ready to conceive but testosterone is also high. During ovulation, your training shouldn't be affected too much but if you find you notice these different symptoms then scaling back and focusing on more metabolic conditioning rather than heavy lifting would be the better option.
Day 18-28; Luteal Phase
Your luteal phase is the time between ovulation and your next period beginning. After your egg has been released during ovulation it then waits to be fertilised and this is the luteal phase. Initially, you'll probably have a drop in oestrogen levels and progesterone levels rise.
This can cause subtle changes to your energy, your mood may shift and can give some a compromised ability to recover from hard training. During the luteal phase, your exercise must match your energy, your capability and your mood. Again this is personal to everybody but if you find the luteal phase affects you then you want to reduce the overall load you are using, shift towards more circuit based training & focus on hypertrophy training rather than strength.
Cognitive function and coordination may also be lacking, this is a typical symptom for many in the luteal phase and it's important that we respect this and stick with low skill lifts during this time. You can also focus on cardio work and more form specific exercises if you find that you suffer in this time to keep progressing. The number 1 thing is that we must ensure loads are reduced especially as we get nearer to the end of your luteal phase.
It's important to remember that if you're suffering from bloating, cramping or any other PMS symptoms your ability to activate your inner core unit will be impacted, which therefore leaves you vulnerable to injury if you're lifting heavy weights and unable to engage your core.
Research has also shown ACL injuries in the knee are common for women during the luteal phase, so it is important to remember this & why you shouldn't be trying to lift super heavy squats at this time!.
You might find as well that your ability to stick to your calories is much harder during this phase, that is because the body has a higher energy requirement during the luteal phase and your period. So if you need to, bring your calories up to maintenance & this should help you to manage your hunger cravings. If you get cravings try to increase calories by 200 to 400 per day, adding some sweet berries in and hopefully that will help you handle sugary cravings & avoid overconsuming processed, sweet foods at this time!
The most important thing here is that you honour how you feel. Typically your mood will be low, your energy will decrease and it's important you think about your emotional and physical state and apply training that is appropriate.
For some of us, we might feel strong and able to lift relatively heavy whereas others may feel awful & might just need to do a light bodyweight session. We want to focus on supporting our bodies not working against them and this is also a great chance to work on skills or techniques at this time!
If you really struggle during the luteal phase and approaching your period then rest may be the best option. Relaxing or super light training such as yoga, light runs, swimming will keep you progressing in your training but making sure that you don't overdo it. Then once your cycle finishes you will notice an increase in mood & energy and that is the time that you can start to push again. If we all learn to work with our bodies we are more likely to have improved, consistent results and keep I ourselves injury-free.
We often hear trainers saying "Oh it's not the same training men to women" and absolutely it is not the same and this is one of the biggest reasons why! Educating yourself on how the menstrual cycle & your period affects you is absolutely essential if you're serious about getting results. The better you know your symptoms, how your body handles your hormones then the easier it's going to be to work with it. I hope that was helpful and if you require any more information on the menstrual cycle please feel free to DM me.