If you find yourself feeling bloated, fatigued and lacking in performance once a month, you’re not alone.
Many women feel powerful affects from the hormonal shifts of their menstrual cycle ,while others barely feel a thing (lucky them!).
As someone who feels the effects of my cycle each month, learning how to structure my training around these fluctuations in energy and focus has had a monumental affect. Not only do I lower my risk of injury; I’m also able to offer myself (and my clients) some kindness and understanding when performance isn’t up to it’s usual standard.
What is a menstrual cycle?
Note: this post does not take into account conditions like PCOS or Endometriosis; I’m talking about a “usual” cycle in a healthy woman (or one without any specific medical complications).
In very simple terms, each month a woman’s body spends time preparing for pregnancy, and then if there is no pregnancy, it creates the perfect energy and libido levels to encourage insemination (aka sexy time) before it all begins again.
Like the chicken and the egg, it’s difficult to state which part of the menstrual cycle is the “beginning”.
However most medical articles start with Menstruation, so I’ll roll with that. If there is no sperm ready to meet the egg along it’s journey to the uterus, instead of implanting in the lining of the womb once it arrives, it begins to break down. The body then sheds this lining, along with the lining of the uterus, out through the vagina.
After this, the Follicular Phase begins, wherein oestrogen and testosterone increase. Libido rises, appetite decreases and energy is high; the perfect baby-making scenario!
In anticipation of a successful mating period, an egg is then released from one of the ovaries and makes it’s way down the fallopian tubes toward the uterus. This is called Ovulation.
Following this is the Luteal Phase. A hormone called progesterone increases, and the process of lining the womb with blood begins in preparation for possible implantation of a zygote (an egg and sperm combined). After this we’re back to menstruation and the cycle starts over!
How the menstrual phases affect energy and performance
As a prologue to this little section, remember that periods are very individual (like the women who bear them), and can range anywhere from 21-35 days apart.
If you suffer from menstrual cramps or a very heavy flow, the first few days of menstruation could be uncomfortable, when coupled with the leftover Luteal hormones. These could be the best days to schedule in recovery if you partake in heavy lifting or high intensity workouts.
Many women feel:
- Aches and cramps
- Lowered concentration levels
I want to stress that I don’t ever encourage a completely sedentary day. At the very least, get out of the house and do the grocery shopping or stroll around the block. Movement and blood flow to a tender site can actually make your period less painful!
Some good options for recovery days:
- De-load weights
- Sauna/ spa
- Walking, yoga or Pilates
- Quality sleep
- Plenty of H2O
- Eat at maintenance (if fat-loss is a goal)
Follicular Phase + Ovulation
These are my favourite phases; the phases of gains! With love-making hormones raging, many women experience one or more of the following:
- High energy levels
- Increased strength
- Increased mental stamina and concentration
- Reduced appetite
- Reduced water retention (feeling “slim”)
This is the best time to:
- Attempt a PB (Personal Best)
- Increase session intensity, weights or reps
- Add 1-2 extra sessions
- Aim for a moderate calorie deficit (if fat-loss is a goal)
A friend of mine named Lauren recently referred to herself as a “luteal food monster” and this sums up pretty nicely how alot of women feel in this phase!
Common luteal phase complaints (particularly in the last week before menstruation):
- Increased appetite
- Craving high-carb/ hyper-palatable foods
- Decreased strength
- Decreased concentration
- Decreased sex drive
During this phase it’s a good idea to listen to your body; don’t try to reduce calories if you’re craving high-energy foods, as you’re likely to fall off the bandwagon harder than usual.
Training might slow down, but I think focussing on extra sleep and good nutrition or going into a deload week in training is a great option over stopping altogether.
Keep a period diary
Knowledge is power. It’s really hard to predict exactly which days within your cycle will yield these different symptoms.
Like tracking your workouts, you can give yourself the power to preemptively strike during all facets of your menstrual cycle, by tracking them with a period diary.
Write down daily:
- Energy levels
- Sleep quality
Take note of when you menstruate each month too. You’ll start to see patterns emerge at certain times of the month, and then it’s really easy to stay in control of your life around it.
Plus, period knowledge comes in handy if you ever decide to try and get pregnant, or for ensuring you avoid unprotected sex during ovulation if you’re trying to avoid it.
You can be kinder to yourself when you’re feeling less energetic or not as strong as usual. Craving foods at a certain time of the month means you’ll know to pack extra food for yourself that week to help reduce unhealthy snacking, and you’ll know when to really amp up your training, or plan exactly when to try for that PB! Learn about the benefits of programming here.
Even if you don’t suffer noticeable menstrual cycle symptoms, these processes are still happening regardless so choose the last week of the luteal phase to give priority to your sleep and nutrition.
If you have any more questions about training and your cycle, get in touch!