Words by: Claudia Cramer – Dietitian
Today we are talking all things menstruation, cycle and periods so, apologies men, but this one may not be for you. For the majority of us ladies, we have a monthly cycle, but should this stop us from training? Should there be anything to avoid or take into consideration during this time of the month?
To give some background information, a normal cycle goes through different ‘phases’ as the body signals different hormonal production. An entire menstrual cycle usually lasts between 24 and 38 days, but the length may vary from cycle to cycle (1). To keep it simple (although it is a very in-depth process), the menstrual cycle occurs in two main phases: the follicular and the luteal phase.
The first phase, which starts the first day you get your period and lasts until the day you ovulate (usually half-way through the month), is called the follicular phase. Estrogen increases in order to stimulate follicle growth during the time (2) and progesterone remains low.
Some studies have suggested that strength training during the follicular phase resulted in higher increases in muscle strength when compared to the luteal phase (3-5). Therefore, exercises to be adding in during this phase are any compound movements such as: back squat, bench press, front squat and dead lift. This would also be a great time for any ‘functional’ sessions (which focus on technique and progressing in lifting) compared to ‘cardio’ or ‘HIIT’ sessions.
The second phase, the luteal phase, goes from ovulation until the day you get your period. Progesterone is the hormone that increases dramatically in comparison to estrogren, and towards the end of the entire cycle, these hormones both decrease (if an egg is not fertilised). In this second phase, body temperature also increases. As a result, some women may find they do not have as much endurance during this phase; therefore this may not be the time to be trying to lift any PB’s (personal bests). During this time you may also be subject to PMS (Pre Menstrual Syndrome), which can sometime cause symptoms such as irritability, bloating and general fatigue.
It is important to note here that if you flat-out do not feel like training at any time in your cycle (especially during your actual period) and prefer to curl up into a ball and watch Netflix, you should feel 100% comfortable doing so. There is no judgment or expectation that women have to train just as hard during this time. If that is you and all you feel like doing is going for a gentle walk (or not) then this is absolutely okay.
Other more gentle forms of exercise that might suit you could be: Yin Yoga (stretches held for ~3 minutes each), swimming, foam rolling or trigger balling. Rest and recovery is just as important as exercise and this might be the perfect time to schedule this in.
To recap and some overall tips for training with your cycle:
- Take it easy, if need be. Be kind to yourself and listen to your body. You do not need to go ‘all in’ all of the time.
- Become aware of your cycle and how you feel at certain times. The female body goes through huge hormonal fluctuations every month and it is good to become aware and ready for when this happens. There are many apps where you can ‘track’ your cycle throughout the month, such as the free Clue App (1). Here you can track what is normal for your cycle each month to see any changes from your ‘norm’.
- And lastly, if you aren’t training, this is not the time to throw in the towel with your nutrition. You can still optimise your nutrition by having a balanced diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables, good quality protein, herbs and spices and plenty of healthy fats. Coupled with adequate hydration, you will still be making progress even on those days you aren’t training.
1. Clue - How your menstrual cycle affects strength training https://helloclue.com/articles/cycle-a-z/how-your-menstrual-cycle-affects-strength-training
Coconuts and Kettle bells https://coconutsandkettlebells.com/training-with-your-menstrual-cycle/
Sung E, Han A, Hinrichs T, Vorgerd M, Manchado C, Platen P. Effects of follicular versus luteal phase-based strength training in young women. Springerplus. 2014 Dec 1;3(1):668
Wikström-Frisén L, Boraxbekk CJ, Henriksson-Larsén K. Effects on power, strength and lean body mass of menstrual/oral contraceptive cycle based resistance training. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 2015.
Reis E, Frick U, Schmidtbleicher D. Frequency variations of strength training sessions triggered by the phases of the menstrual cycle. International journal of sports medicine. 1995 Nov;16(08):545–50.