Your menstrual cycle & fat loss
“In a 2019 study 54% of women said they stopped exercising around their menstrual cycle. Yet for many women there is no reason to stop exercising during the cycle.”
Kate Carter - Running World - 2019
The menstrual cycle & periods are definitely still very much something of a taboo subject. Women often refer to their cycle & maybe try to make a joke to lighten the subject or just wholly avoid talking about it but the fact is the menstrual cycle is a normal process for a female & it is a signal of healthy & fertility for women & a very important part of your training & nutrition journey.
If you are training for a specific event, train regularly or are trying to lose body fat then it is important to understand the physiological changes that actually occur through this 28 day period (everyone's cycle length will slightly vary) & how your menstrual cycle & hormones can affect your progress. So this blog is all about female fat loss and the menstrual cycle; definitely one for the girls today!
It is imperative that you start to have an understanding of what is normal for you & your cycle. As I touched on above everyone's cycle length will be different, no one female will have the same cycle to another but it is important to get to learn your “norms” so that you can start to understand how your period affects your performance physically & mentally & how your hormones affect you at each time of the month & also impact your rate of fat loss.
We obviously want to be working with your body all the time, not against it so this is why it’s important to get to know your norms. Then you will begin to know when is the best time to push hard or back off in training or bring your calories up.
So the first thing to understand is obviously the female and the male body are two very, very different bodies. Many females & males think that male training and female training are the same minus a couple of small bits; maybe your husband spends more time training his biceps and you spend more time hip thrusting. But they couldn’t actually be more wrong.
In many ways, training for men is far easier as they don’t have this monthly cycle to contend with & adapt their training & energy intake around. So it is actually true that it can be harder for females to get results or make progress at certain points in their journey. Sorry guys, science does indeed back us females having it harder!
When you first start thinking about how your cycle impacts your progress the first step would be, as I mentioned above, to start to learn your normal cycle. You’ll begin to get an idea of how your scale weight fluctuates around certain times of the month, how your hunger changes, what foods you crave, how your strength changes, maybe a session feels super hard & the same session a couple of weeks later feels a breeze & that is a prime example of how your hormones affect your training & therefore you may need to adapt your training & nutrition around the time of the month.
All these changes are completely normal & healthy but for some women you may find you have more of these “symptoms” than other females do so that is why it is crucial to start to get to grips with your cycle. I’d highly suggest downloading an app to track your period so you start to understand your body & know your normal.
Going back to the males vs females & differences for training & nutrition. It is important to understand that female & male bodies work differently! Women have higher levels of body fat to a man's body because our bodies are made to reproduce. So therefore we hold a higher level of body fat so that we can healthily conceive & have a pregnancy.
Men burn more calories as they work in training compared to women & that is mainly because they hold more muscle mass, but also because they have a different hormonal structure. So for any of you that maybe train with your partner, or maybe you & your partner are on similar calories but he's losing weight faster & again, that is why, because the male body works differently to the female! If you both consumed the same meal out it would take you longer to burn those calories off which is really important to understand if your goal is fat loss.
During the cycle we have different phases; day 1 of your cycle is known as “the period” or may be referred to as the “bleed”. The first five-seven days (typically) of your menstrual cycle are known as menstruation. In this phase of the cycle we are referring to the first day of your period until the day you finish bleeding. In this time this is when your body requires the lowest calorie requirement.
Many of us think of the period as the bad time but actually, it is when our bodies are usually coming into their strongest time! Oestrogen & progesterone levels are equal & this is the time that you want to work hard & push on with your training & is also a perfect time to be in a caloric deficit if fat loss is your goal. The chance of injury is lessened & your hunger cravings will be reduced at this time.
As we finish the period, typically this is around day 4-7 (everyone is different!!) we approach ovulation around day 14 of our cycle. This is when our body is at its most fertile, the body releases eggs & gets ready for pregnancy. If you're trying to conceive, this is the time where you're going to be your most fertile therefore most likely to conceive. It's also going to be at the time where your sex drive & libido is at its highest, so don’t be surprised if right after your period you feel super horny! It is normal & true & nothing to be ashamed of, a healthy libido is part of a healthy body.
After this midpoint of your cycle & ovulation, you then hit the luteal phase which is often known within the fitness world as the bad part of the cycle & sorry girls this is true! The luteal phase occurs for around 14 days happening straight after ovulation & lasting right up until your next period & this can be a bad time for us females!
Your oestrogen levels are at their highest right before ovulation then after ovulation has happened they take a dramatic drop & progesterone starts to rise. Your energy system adapts & fat becomes more readily available for your body to use as a fuel source than carbohydrates & you may start to experience some PMS symptoms such as hunger increases, mood swings, bloating to name a few.
You may well find you need to back off & adapt your training to a lesser intensity at this time but equally, you may well need to adapt your calories & fat loss around this time of your cycle. Some women may find that they will have to adapt & work round their cycle phases whereas others may find no effect at all & could well find it easy to stick to a calorie deficit in this time but everyone is different! For many women trying to stick to a calorie deficit throughout the whole cycle is just going to be unattainable and unrealistic making you feel unmotivated & like your lacking progress whereas you just need to get in tune with your body & work with it!
To be losing body fat we know we MUST be in a calorie deficit but during the luteal phase, this is when our body has its highest energy requirements so we may well need to slightly increase calories at this time especially if you struggle to stick to your deficit. If you are in a calorie deficit the best time to be in the deficit is the first half of your cycle then if you find hunger increases bring your calories up to maintenance for the luteal phase then revert back to your deficit once this period is over & your hunger levels return to normal.
During the luteal phase, our metabolic rate increases. This can be anywhere between 1 to 300 calories approximately a day. On average studies have shown that women tend to consume about 500 calories more through this luteal phase per day & this is when you can start to feel like maybe you're going a bit off track as you struggle to stick to the diet calories whereas in fact, your body is simply requiring more energy to sustain this phase.
So for many females, the better option at this time may be to actually slowly increase your calorie intake & sit at maintenance. Rather than reaching for chocolate or whatever you tend to crave, try to swap out or add in three pieces of fruit instead each day during the luteal phase. This is going to be an extra, say a hundred calories per piece of fruit so that's going to give you a bit of satisfaction from the sugar side of things, but also give your body those extra calories that it needs without going totally overboard or “off-plan”.
Rather than trying to force yourself to stay in a calorie deficit during this period, you actually bring your calories up to maintenance and work with your body. This is not the time to force yourself to stick to your calories if you know you struggle so actually give your body what it needs and understand that this is a completely normal and healthy part of the cycle.
In the long run, you’re going to find you progress much faster & more consistently applying this approach than forcing yourself to stay in a deficit 24/7. Then as soon as the luteal phase finishes & your next period begins you can return to your deficit & continue progressing.
When looking at progress through your weight loss journey you want to make sure you are comparing each week of the month to the next month as opposed to week to week. For example week 1 of your cycle you’re going to be at your lightest scale weight whereas if you look at week 4 your scale weight may shoot up but this is due to hormonal changes so it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to compare these weeks instead you would compare week 1 to week 1 & so on. You’ll probably find during the luteal phase your weight increases, your measurements get bigger so you can’t compare the two & again this is why it is important to start to understand what is normal for you.
Equally, if you are looking to begin a calorie deficit or a diet it is important to think ok what part of my cycle am I currently in?
For many women they may start a diet in their luteal phase without even batting an eyelid or thinking about it then you find you can’t stick to it & “fall at the first hurdle” when in fact if you’d thought about the menstrual cycle & the bodies energy requirements this is when your body has the highest energy requirement & therefore not the best time to start a deficit. Making sure you time starting a new diet or deficit around your cycle is key for adherence; you’d be far better off & more successful waiting a week & going into a deficit at the start of your next cycle.
The menstrual cycle is something that seriously needs to be considered when the goal is fat loss. Starting to get to know your normal cycle & how each phase affects you mentally & physically from a performance & nutrition point of view is key. If you know your luteal phase hits you hard then actually what's probably going to be of more benefit to you is actually dieting for the first two weeks of your cycle then bringing your calories up to maintenance in the luteal phase. If you’re also competing & running around behind the horses then this may well be needed so that your body has the energy required to carry out your normal daily life. By the way, allowing your body to sit at maintenance doesn't mean that you're going to gain weight either!
It just simply means that you're not going to lose anything-you’ll maintain your weight but then the next cycle starts and you can push harder, you can drop your calories a little and work with your body again.
The female body & the reproductive system is a complex one but it is really crucial to understand how each phase affects your body & then you adjust to these times. In the long run, it’s going to mean you reach your goal quicker without feeling deflated but also that you keep your body healthy & injury-free & the whole process will be more enjoyable & sustainable for you! Hopefully, this helps you to understand why as women it is sometimes not as simple as just “losing weight”.