Tips to Optimize your Training around your Menstrual Cycle
As a female athlete and coach, one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of sports & fitness that I come across is the misalignment (or lack in understanding) of female physiology as it applies to an optimized training regimen. Understanding how the different phases of a gal's monthly cycle affect her training and recovery is critical to optimizing performance, whilst also maintaining hormonal balance within her body-both in the short and long term. Important info for coaches and athletes alike! :)
Our female physiology sure as hell isn't a weakness and it doesn't have to get in the way of our training goals. Like most everything else, our bodies and their hormones fluctuate with cycles- cycles that can be monitored and adjusted.
Below are a few tips to do just that.
A brief rundown of the phases in a menstrual cycle is necessary to better understand what is internally happening so that we can adjust our external stimuli accordingly:
-Start of period
-Usually lasts 3-7 days
-Estrogen & progesterone levels drop
-Usually lasts 16 days
-Starts day 1 of a women's period & continues until ovulation
-FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) is released by the pituitary gland
-Elevated testosterone levels
-Usually lasts 3-4 days
-LH (Luteinizing Hormone) is released in response to rising estrogen levels
-Typically occurs around day 14
-Slight rise in body temperature
-Usually lasts 11-17 days
-Progesterone levels rises, alongside a slight rise in estrogen levels
-Rises in progesterone & estrogen are followed by a drop in both hormones to restart the cycle
-Typically when symptoms of PMS (bloating, migraines, weight fluctuations, food cravings, sleep trouble...) are experienced. (Note that intense PMS symptoms and cramping are actually not normal and indicate a more serious hormonal imbalance).
Understanding how our hormones fluctuate during these phases helps us to better structure our training plans; including type of workout, macronutrient changes, hydration changes, and internal biomarkers of performance.
When it comes to strength training, taking extra caution probably isn't necessary. Although fluctuations of steroid hormones occur during the menstrual cycle, they do not appear to have a significant impact on muscle fatigue and strength. Regardless, it is always wise to listen to your body if you're feeling PMS symptoms like fatigue, mood changes, & irritability. Conversely when it comes to endurance and higher-intensity training, a little more planning is necessary to optimize and reap the benefits from your training.
Tips to optimize training around each phase:
-Body does not necessarily need to rest
-Body temp, insulin sensitivity, & metabolic rate should be at baseline
-Train as normal
-Higher testosterone levels = train hard!
-Increased liklihood of muscle gain & strength
-Good time for your heaviest, most intense strength workouts
-Higher tolerance of pain
-Metabolic rate may be slightly lower than usual, but not enough to cause significant training differences
Don't skip strength training in the first part of your cycle (the time from your period until ovulation).
-Increased risk of injury due to rises in estrogen levels
-Fine to perform maximum strength training, but get in a thorough warmup before hand
-Fluid retention peaks from ovulation through the first half of the luteal phase. Fluid is redistributed throughout the body, creating a drop in plasma volume that can compromise the amount of oxygen delivered to the muscles (reductions in sweat rate can lead to an increase in body temperature-be aware of your fluid intake!)
-Reduce intensity & get adequate rest
-Increased liklihood of fatiguing more quickly due to increased body temperature (increases about 0.4 degrees C after ovulation & stays high until menstruation)
-Lower insulin sensitivity (quality fats & protein during this phase!)
-Higher metabolic rate (get adquate amounts of fuel!)
-Body might prefer fat as a fuel source due to increased progesterone & decreased estrogen
-Decreased time to exhaustion
Don't beat yourself up for poorer performance during your luteal phase
A couple extra helpful tidbits...
Women tend to perform better in a fasted state during the follicular phase, and when fueled with carbohydrates during the luteal phase. This is because when estrogen and progesterone peak during the luteal phase, they suppress gluconeogenesis (necessary to utilize energy stores in the body). External sources of carbohydrates become more critical here, especially if exercising over 60 minutes.
If you're training for an endurance event during your luteal phase, make sure you're getting adquate amounts of carbohydrates before & during to meet your increased needs :)
During the luteal phase when progesterone levels peak, protein catabolism (breakdown of muscles & other protein stores for cellular processes) also peaks. This means that it's a good idea to increase your protein intake during this phase of your cycle, especially if you have higher intensity and/or bigger workouts scheduled.
Watch out for tendon injuries during fertile days. Women are 3-6x more likely than men to have ACL injuries. Hormonal changes impact tendon laxity and risk of tendon injury. The window for the highest risk of injury is in the days leading up to ovulation, when estrogen is high. Conversely the luteal phase is actually associated with the lowest risk. It's worth doing a longer warmup and not over-stretching during your most fertile days.
While all ladies should be mindful of their potential for developing anemia and despite blood loss during the menstrual phase, your cycle actually has little impact on performance-related iron markers like hemoglobin and hematocrit. The first biomarker to drop from insufficient iron intake is ferritin, so it's worth keeping an eye on your levels.
Track your cycle!
All the above tips are fine and dandy but they don't do diddly squat for you if you don't track your monthly cycle. It's terrifying how divorced the majority of us are from our bodies. Tracking your cycle helps you understand when your body enters each phase and therefore how to adjust your training and fuel intake accordingly so as not to hinder your progress, and instead to optimize your performance. There are a few apps helpful to tracking your cycle, I personally like "Clue" because you can track various markers within each phase (joint discomfort, fatigue, body temperature...).
Every gal's cycle is different and SO MANY factors play a role (oral contraceptives, eating disorders, medical conditions like PCOS or uterine fibroids, IUDs...). Tracking your period is tricky without a physical period to track (like if you have an IUD), but is helpful nonetheless. Although an IUD can cause the loss of a period, your hormones are still doin' their thang behind the scenes. If you have difficulty tracking your cycle due to an IUD, you can measure your temperature upon waking- your readings will be lower during the follicular phase and peak after ovulation. Your basal body temperature will remain higher throughout the luteal phase into menstruation. I personally love my Oura ring to help me track all the above in one convenient place. If you are using an oral contraceptive you're unlikely to experience the hormonal fluctuations bulleted above, and you can expect levels of estrogen and progesterone to be steady throughout your cycle. Depending on the person and oral contraceptive used, a steady hormonal level may affect muscle gain or fat loss when compared to someone not using such a medication. While oral contraceptives may increase insulin resistance, this should not impact your training sessions.
Assessing and listening to how your body feels & what it needs is an incredibly important tool to master.
When we understand what is going on internally, we can master what is going on externally to reach our goals.
One last quick note....
Amenorrhea is the loss of a menstrual cycle all together and can result from low body weight/fat, excessive exercise, or medications. Problems affecting the ovaries, hypothalamus, pituitary gland, or thyroid can cause secondary amenorrhea. Amenorrhea is too common of a condition among female atheltes and is often a sign of decreased estrogen levels, which can lead to osteoporosis. Female athletes in their twenties have been found to have bones of an eighty-year-old woman because of it! Overtraining also leads to a reduced ability to train at your desired intensity/duration and increase your risk of injury. Be smart
Train smart for the longevity of your body!