For the first time in my running career, I have a coach tailoring my training to my menstrual cycle. I record my symptoms, or the byproducts of where I am in my cycle, such as swollen breasts, cramping, etc., in the FitWoman app, which lets me know where I am in my menstruation. Then my coach adjusts my activity accordingly.
For female athletes seeking peak performance, understanding how the hormones of their monthly cycle affect performance is essential. It’s a little crazy that it took me this long even to try to understand it. But considering the limited amount of research into menstruation and the longstanding taboo surrounding discussing its relationship with athletics, it’s not surprising.
Here are a few things you should know about how to optimize training according to your cycle. It is important to note that the menstruation cycle is complicated. This is simplified for my sake and yours.
Assuming a typical 28-day cycle, we break the cycle into two 14-day phases: the follicular phase from days one through fourteen and the luteal phase during days fifteen through twenty-eight. Menstrual bleeding starts the first day of the cycle and involves two main hormones: estrogen and progesterone. Around day five or six, estrogen, which is produced in the ovaries, rises slightly. Around day twelve, there is a surge in estrogen coupled with a luteinizing hormone surge, which causes ovulation. Estrogen levels decrease somewhat after this but will soon rise again.
During the ovulation period, progesterone levels increase to prepare the lining of the uterus for egg implantation. This is the luteal phase and the high hormone phase. The highest hormone levels of both estrogen and progesterone occur four or five days before the period. This is often when women experience premenstrual symptoms. If there is no egg implanted, progesterone levels fall, and we shed the lining, and we cycle back to day one.
Phase one: Menstruation
This is day one of your cycle. You’ve just started your period. Because of the rapid decrease of progesterone and estrogen, glycogen stores are far more accessible, making carbohydrates an optimal fuel source. No matter how we may feel during menstruation, phase one is the best time to incorporate high-intensity workouts to your training. Because carbohydrates are more readily accessible during phase one, we can work at higher intensities for longer.
Make sure you replenish what you burn during phase one; your body is burning more carbohydrates than usual, so make sure to double down on high-quality carbs like sweet potatoes and whole grains.
Phase two: Late Follicular
The follicular stage starts alongside menstruation, but it lasts for around a week longer. Once your period has stopped and you get to the start of week two of your cycle, your body will have an increase in estrogen but progesterone will remain relatively low.
Estrogen helps the body build muscle but progesterone can interfere with it. Research suggests that bodyweight exercises are the best way to take advantage of this hormone change. Ramp up your protein intake to facilitate muscle growth and to recover from hard strength training sessions.
Stage Three: Ovulation
Around day fourteen through sixteen, your estrogen levels hit their peak. This is the time to push yourself with your heaviest weights while you’re working out instead of high reps on light weights.
Put extra effort into pre and post-workout warm-ups and consider recovery supplements. Your muscles are more vulnerable to injury during this phase. A recent review of studies examined the impact hormonal changes can have on tendon health and the risk of tendon injury and found that the risk was greatest in the days leading up to ovulation when estrogen is high. The luteal phase was associated with the lowest risk. More research is needed, but it’s worth doing an extended warm-up during your fertile window.
Stage Four: Luteal
Once ovulation is over you’re in the luteal phase, the last fortnight of your cycle, when your body prepares for your period to start again. Unlike earlier in the cycle, your body is now burning fat rather than carbs or glycogen, so you’ll want to focus on cardio to make the most of this phase.
Water retention and other premenstrual symptoms can make high-intensity workouts feel much more taxing, so head on a bike ride or a trail run or hit the pool for a soothing swim. This is often the time in the cycle where women lose the most motivation and report feelings of sluggishness, but power through and your body will reward you.