The Menstrual Cycle and its Impact on Exercise

Women are not small men, period. Literally. We all know how much our menstrual cycle can effect our mood, motivation and overall wellbeing. But how many of us continue to train like any man would without considering how our changing hormone levels might impact our ability to perform in our training sessions. Have you ever considered that your menstrual cycle might increase/decrease the likelihood that you'll hit a PB or could inhibit your strength? You probably think, well yeah I just feel more tired at certain points in my cycle but that's just life. In reality we can effectively adapt our training to benefit us at every point in our cycle so that we're not struggling through sessions at certain times of the month.

This blog post is going to refer to the menstrual cycle as a very generic 28 day cycle. It's unlikely that many of you have a cycle like this and that is completely normal! Using a period tracking app will be a great way to help you to understand which phase you're in.

The menstrual cycle is split into two halves: the follicular and luteal phases. The follicular phase is typical day 1-14, from the start of your period through to ovulation. In the early follicular phase, when we are menstruating, levels of both sex hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) are low. However in the mid- to late- follicular phase our oestrogen levels rise and hence is the dominant sex hormone during this phase peaking prior to ovulation. The luteal phase is day 14-28 and hence runs from ovulation to the start of your next period. Both oestrogen and progesterone levels are high during this phase, with progesterone now the dominant hormone. Prior to the start of our period the levels of both sex hormones will drop.

Training in the follicular phase

First of all, in the early follicular phase, don't push it if symptoms are making you feel awful. Nevertheless, studies do show that exercise can improve menstruation symptoms and so it might be worth your time.

Oestrogen not only plays its role in our reproduction system but is known for it's impact on strength and muscle-building. Research shows that prioritising strength training during this time in our cycles will result in increased muscle strength compared to the luteal phase. Oestrogen also increases our body's ability to utilise carbohydrates for fuel, which can be utilised to benefit higher intensity training.

The rise in oestrogen after our periods can also help to increase confidence and self-esteem and so you might simply feel more motivated to train like a BOSS.

Training in the luteal phase

The transition into the luteal phase means that oestrogen levels decline and progestrone takes over as the dominant sex hormone. Researchers have found that, around this time, performance during training is often lower than during the follicular phase. Hence this is a time to prioritise movement over PBs and making gains both in our strength training and aerobically. Strength is often reduced in the luteal phase and balance and coordination may decrease, hence we may want to look at decreasing strength training sessions compared to the follicular phase. Our ability to pick up new skills is also more limited during this time so it's best to keep training to what we already know rather than applying new stimuli or attempting new movements.

How should I shape my training?

  1. Prioritise strength training in the follicular phase compared to the luteal phase e.g. four sessions in follicular phase and 1-2 sessions in the luteal phase.

  2. The follicular phase is the time to crush training. If you're wanting to test a 1RM then this is the time to do it. Additionally, thanks to increased insulin sensitivity, increasing the intensity of your sessions will be more effective during this phase.

  3. Prioritise recovery and less intense training in the luteal phase. Longer aerobic sessions and even things like yoga will be effective here.

  4. Don't compare your performance across phases. Training in the luteal phase will feel far more laboured than in the follicular phase.

  5. Be aware of your body and do what feels right. Remember, our hormones affect each of us differently to the next person.

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