Your hormones change throughout your menstrual cycles and affect you mentally, emotionally and physically. It is, therefore, no surprise that our training programs should take these changes into account and be optimised to fit our body’s needs at the time.
Note: the menstrual cycle starts on the first day of your period and end when you start the following one. On average menstrual cycles are 21-45 days long.
Until very recently, little consideration was given to the physiological differences between women and men in the world of fitness and exercise. However, according to the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs), different stages in the menstrual cycle and associated symptoms – such as body temperature, cramps and water retention – can affect heart rate, breathing, an individual’s susceptibility to injury as well as overall performance and strength.
Thanks to the amazing work of many to beak taboos surrounding periods and female reproductive health, We are finally starting to see a shift in the understanding of the female body and how it performs.
Earlier this year, the Independent brought additional attention to this topic when it reported that the Chelsea FC Women’s Football Club sync their training regimes with their menstrual cycles, Lioness Fran Kirby also stating “It can affect you so much, whether it’s your coordination or your reaction time – which is so vital in so many sports,”
Optimising workouts based on the different phases of your cycle, should not be reserved solely for elite female athletes; it can be beneficial for all women.
Let’s start with the basics so that we can understand exactly what is happening in our body and how our changing hormones are affecting us.
Menstrual cycle – the basics
The menstrual cycle is made of 4 main phases:
- Phase 1 – Menstruation: Bleeding.
- Phase 2 – Follicular phase: This is the first half of the cycle in which an egg starts getting prepared to be released from the ovary.
- Phase 3 – Ovulation: The release of the egg from the ovary, mid-cycle. Oestrogen peaks just beforehand, and then drops shortly afterwards.
- Phase 4 – Luteal Phase: The body prepares for a possible pregnancy or to breakdown and shed the uterine lining. Progesterone is produced, peaks, and then drops.
What are the hormones in the menstrual cycle and their functions?
The menstrual cycle is driven by fluctuations in luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). These hormones, which are secreted from the pituitary gland, stimulate the release of progesterone and oestrogen from the ovaries.
- Follicle-stimulating hormones (FSH): stimulates your ovaries to start preparing an egg and helps mature it in the ovary up until ovulation.
- Luteinising hormones (LH): stimulates the follicle in the ovary to release an egg.
- Oestrogen: helps to thicken the uterine lining
- Progesterone: plays an important role in maintaining the early stages of pregnancy or stimulating menstruation if the egg hasn’t been fertilised.
- Testosterone: is produced by the ovaries and adrenal glands. The majority of testosterone produced in the ovary is converted to the principal female sex hormone, oestradiol.
The Menstrual Cycle – Phases, hormones and their functions – Click here to learn more
What hormonal changes occur during your monthly cycle?
Female hormones change drastically during the different phases of the menstrual cycle, with the primary sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, continuously fluctuating.
How do hormones affect our mental and emotional wellbeing? – Click here to learn more
Phase 1 – Menstruation
During the menstrual phase, a slight rise in follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) stimulates your ovaries to start preparing an egg (technically, menstruation is the very first part of the follicular phase).
Other hormones – luteinizing hormone (LH), progesterone, and oestrogen – are at their lowest levels at this time of the month, which results in many women finding their energy levels at their lowest at this point in their cycle.
Phase 2 – Follicular
Once menstrual bleeding (period) is over, your hormone levels begin to rise. FSH levels continue to gradually rise to help an egg mature in the ovary and then drop shortly before ovulation.
Oestrogen levels also gradually rise, beginning to peak towards the end of this phase just before the next egg begins its journey down the fallopian tube.
Phase 3 – Ovulation
Oestrogen, FSH, and LH levels all peak during the ovulation phase.
Oestrogen helps to thicken the uterine lining, FSH helps eggs mature in the ovary, and LH stimulates the follicle in the ovary to release an egg.
Peak hormone levels correspond with peak energy levels – many women feel vibrant and magnetic during this phase of their cycle.
Phase 4 – Luteal
Phase 4 – During the luteal phase of your cycle, oestrogen levels dip after ovulation, but begin to rise again shortly afterwards, whilst progesterone starts to steadily increase as well.
Oestrogen and progesterone reach their luteal phase peak in the middle of this phase and then dip again as you move towards the end of your cycle.
The hormonal ups and downs during this phase of the cycle can make many women feel fatigued and with less energy. Research suggests that women’s basal energy expenditure may be higher during the luteal phase, which explains the stronger food cravings, particularly those high in carbohydrates and fat.
Diagrammatic Representation of different phases of Menstrual cycle along with changes occurring in uterus, Pituitary & Ovarian hormones. Image taken from here.
How to plan your workouts based on your hormonal changes throughout your menstrual cycle
Phase 1 – Menstruation: reset phase
As menstruation gets underway, PMS symptoms subside, your body temperature returns to more normal levels with reduced water retention.
Workout recommendation: This is a good time to begin transitioning into more intense workouts as you move into the follicular phase and start feeling stronger.
Diet recommendation: consume a diet that’s neither high or low carb.
Phase 2 – The follicular phase: focus on strength and train harder
The follicular phase – including the ovulation period – is when you should focus on progress and strength training.
This phase is characterised by a higher tolerance for pain and increasing levels of endurance. Your body will also be more prone to utilising muscle glycogen to fuel exercise during this stage, making the consumption of high-carb meals/snacks, before and after a workout, beneficial for increased performance and recovery.
Workout recommendation: Focus on strength training and building muscle. This is the perfect time to hit the gym hard as your physical strength is at its best
Nutritional recommendations: Have a higher card, lower-fat diet with moderate protein as your body is consuming carbohydrates as it’s main fuel source during this time.
Phase 3 – The ovulation phase: last hard push!
During ovulation, your strength levels will still be high and you may notice higher levels of strength during this phase. If you want to set a PR, now is the time to try. One study published in the Journal of Physiology noted that ovulating women showed an 11% increase in both quadriceps as well as handgrip strength.
It’s important to note, however, that you might be at a higher risk of injury during this time. The reason being that as oestrogen reaches its highest levels, it impacts collagen metabolism and influences your neuromuscular control.
It was noted in the American Journal of Sports Medicine that anterior cruciate ligament injury rates are four to eight times higher during this point in the cycle than in all other phases.
Side note – The Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of the key ligaments that help stabilise your knee joint. The ACL connects your thighbone (femur) to your shinbone (tibia).
Workout recommendation: Take advantage of your increased strength during this time to train hard and hit new records. However, do it whilst paying attention to your body and make sure to use good form and be mindful of built-up fatigue.
Nutrition recommendation: Your metabolism will also be starting to climb, so if you’re feeling a little extra hungry, understand that this might be the reason behind it. Consider adding a few more calories, but get those calories from a balanced mix of proteins, carbs, and fats as your insulin sensitivity is starting to decline.
Phase 4 – The luteal phase: reduce lifting intensity and go for endurance
During the luteal phase, with your body temperature higher than normal, you’ll experience higher cardiovascular strain and reach your point of exhaustion a lot sooner than in the previous 3 phases.
Moreover, you may be retaining excess water weight due to PMS, making it more uncomfortable to perform very intense sprint-like activities.
Metabolically, your body will be at its peak during this time. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests your metabolism will be humming along about 7.7% higher than normal, and you’ll also experience a greater thermic effect from food as your body will burn more calories digesting than it normally does.
Your body will also rely more heavily on fat as a fuel source during the luteal phase and as such opting for workouts that use fat as fuel, such as lower-intensity cardio training coupled with moderate intensity strength work, would be more beneficial.
One thing you want to watch out for in this phase, however, is your craving for high carbohydrate foods. Your serotonin production will be lower, and that can promote a low mood and irritability.
Your instinct will be to eat more carbs as they cause a rapid release of serotonin, instantly providing a mood boost.
To help offset the decline in serotonin and calm those cravings for carbs, consider supplementing with tryptophan or eating foods rich in this amino acid such as turkey, skim milk, soybeans, or pumpkin seeds.
Workout recommendation: Opt for lower-intensity cardio training coupled with moderate strength training workouts. If you generally suffer from high fatigue and discomfort, yoga may be the route to go as studies suggest it may help lessen the severity and duration of PMS symptoms.
Nutrition recommendations: During the luteal phase, your body starts using fats as its primary fuel source. Opt for lower carb and overall consume lower calories to kick-start fat burning. You may experience a craving for high carbohydrate foods; however, due to your insulin sensitivity now being at its lowest point and lowering the intensity of your workouts, you need to keep your carb intake under control.
Example menstrual cycle workout plan:
Menstrual cycle workout plan if you’re on birth control
You’ll likely follow many of the same patterns, but perhaps to a lesser degree. Hormonal birth control suppresses ovulation, so your body doesn’t get that bump in testosterone during your period. Without that extra testosterone, it’s not impossible to build your strength and improve your muscle mass when working out, but it will be a little bit harder than if you weren’t on birth control.
Workout plan after menopause
After menopause, permanent drops in estrogen levels interfere with your body’s use of calcium, weakening your skeleton and increasing your risk for osteoporosis. Maintaining a regular fitness habit can help offset some of menopause’s negative effects by strengthening your bones and your heart. For best results, combine cardio and weights; women who did so lost about 3.2% less bone after menopause than those who stayed sedentary, according to a 2011 research review.
Your menstrual cycle plays a big role in your physical, mental and emotional state of being. Understanding how your body works and the different changes happening in your body can empower you to make decisions that benefit you and support your health and wellbeing, as well as pick up when there might be something wrong.