It's well known that the menstrual cycle can have an impact on exercise, and not just during your period. Hormonal fluctuations can influence your energy levels and performance all month. We probably don’t have to tell you that a menstrual cycle is so much more than when you have your period. It’s an up-and-down cycle of hormones, emotions, and symptoms that have side effects beyond bleeding.
The normal menstrual cycle can last anywhere between 25-35 days and can be divided into 3 phases:
1.Follicular phase (Day 1-14): During this phase, the ovarian follicles mature and get ready to release an egg. This phase is linked with increased pain tolerance, insulin sensitivity, and much lesser cravings. During this phase, the Oestrogen (responsible for good mood, optimism, brain alertness, pain endurance etc) and Testosterone is rising and Progesterone (the sedating hormone responsible for mental fog, cravings, bad mood etc) is at its lowest. Studies suggest that women are strongest during this phase.
2.Ovulation (Day 14): Ovulation is the second phase of the ovarian cycle in which a mature egg is released into the oviduct by ovarian follicles. The relative strength remains elevated during this period and the Oestrogen concentration elevates during this phase which can affect collagen synthesis and neuromuscular control.
3.Luteal phase (Day 15+): The luteal phase is the last phase of the ovarian cycle and it corresponds to the secretory phase of the uterine cycle. This phase is linked with a sudden reduction in athletic performance and cravings peak during this phase. The Oestrogen and Testosterone level reduces and the Progesterone levels increase.
You may not have as much endurance during your luteal phase, or be able to hit max lifts, and you may feel worse in training compared to the first part of your cycle, this is due to the significant rise in Progesterone.
Some research has found that strength training during the follicular phase (days 1-14 of the cycle) resulted in higher increases in muscle strength compared to training in the luteal phase (days 15-28 of the cycle)
So how can you optimise training throughout your cycle?
Make the most of the high levels of testosterone This phase is a great time to learn a new complex skill where good coordination is required, this is because testosterone is involved in spatial awareness.
Focus on strength training It is thought that progesterone negatively impacts the way in which a muscle builds and repairs. Thanks to the low levels of progesterone during this phase studies show that the body has an increased muscle building capability. The increase in oestrogen and low levels of progesterone means your muscles can essentially build strength more effectively. Make the most of this time and focus on strength/resistance/HIIT training.
Ensure adequate recovery. There may still be increased inflammation occurring in the body due to the rapid drop in hormones prior to this phase. It’s important to allow plenty of time for recovery, particularly ensuring adequate sleep.
Perform high volume training. The body has a recovery advantage during this time. While it’s still important to set aside time for recovery, you might find you can recover faster in this phase. Because of this, it’s a great time to schedule in high volume training and progress your exercises (increase reps/weight/sets)
Include effective warm-ups. There may be an increased injury risk due to reduced neuromuscular control. To counteract this, ensure a sport-specific warm-up with landing drills and muscle activation exercises, particularly for sports that require sudden change of direction.
Crack that PB Thanks to the high levels of oestrogen, you might notice increased alertness and more energy in this phase. Again, this will support exercise progression, but research also shows the reaction times may be faster during this phase. Make the most of this and really strive for those PB’s during this phase!
Ensure adequate hydration. During this phase, research shows some vital signs including heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature increase. This increase in temperature can be anywhere from 0.2° to 0.5° which can have a huge impact on hydration requirements. Particularly if you’re exercising in warmer weather, you should up your water intake during this phase.
Include extra recovery strategies. Due to the higher levels of progesterone, recovery during this phase of the menstrual cycle may take a bit longer than usual. As always, you should prioritize things like sleep and load management and maybe add in some foam rolling and stretching.
Focus on endurance. Although all types of training are beneficial in this phase, the higher levels of progesterone mean that it may be more difficult to build muscle. Therefore, it may be a great time to focus on aerobic and endurance training.
Ensure sufficient protein intake. Research shows that due to higher levels of progesterone, breakdown of muscle is increased. It may be a good idea to increase protein intake during this phase.
Do not skip exercise. Many women feel like they don’t want to exercise during this phase which is understandable – the body is doing some pretty amazing things behind the scenes in this phase, so you may feel increased fatigue and again, notice that recovery takes longer. During the luteal phase, the decline in hormones leads to an inflammatory response which is thought to trigger PMS, or premenstrual syndrome. The goal of this phase should be to continue to exercise, in whichever way you can. This is because exercise has been shown to be great at reducing the symptoms of PMS.
Support sleep. Research shows that sleep may be disrupted more than usual in this phase of the cycle. This is thought to be due to increased psychological stress associated with PMS, and the increase in body temperature due to higher levels of progesterone. During this phase, it’s more important than ever to pay particular attention to night-time routine, allowing time to wind down, switch off the screens, and ensure the bedroom is a cool temperature – between 16 and 18 degrees is recommended.
Include additional recovery strategies. Again, progesterone is still quite high throughout the beginning of this phase, but due to the dropping hormone levels, inflammation also increases which can impede recovery. Similar to the ovulation phase, focus on adding some additional recovery strategies into your schedule that make you feel good.
Focus on good food The increased inflammation that’s associated with PMS and delayed recovery can be counteracted with choosing foods that are rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Focus on getting your diet right, and fuel up with foods such as fish, eggs, fruit, veg and nuts.
The bottom line - Continue with exercise, but back off on the intensity, especially if you’re feeling fatigued. Vary your workouts, take extra time to recover, and honour what you’re capable of.