Every month women are affected by their menstrual cycles, it can cause a change in emotions, be very painful and instigates lethargy. Which means trying to workout can be difficult. We look at some ways you can sync your exercise routine to your monthly cycle.
Why is it that some days exercise can seem super easy and leave you energised – while on other days the same workout feels like moving through treacle, and leaves you shattered? There are many factors at play, but one that women often fail to consider is where they are in their menstrual cycle.
If you’re one of many users of period-tracking apps like Flo, Clue, Period Tracker and FitrWoman, you’ll be used to noticing how factors like your mood, weight, sex drive, fertility and skin all fluctuate throughout the month. But, as our experts reveal, there’s even more at play. ‘Your hormones can influence everything from injury risk to muscle strength and recovery,’ says personal trainer Jacqueline Hooton. It’s no wonder professional athletes – including the Chelsea Women’s football team – are planning their training schedules around their cycles. Interested? Here’s how you can do it, too.
Know your cycle
Your cycle starts on day one of your period, with the menstrual phase. This overlaps with the follicular phase, when hormones prime your ovaries to release an egg (days one to 14). Ovulation, when an egg is released, happens around day 14 (based on an average 28-day cycle), so this may vary). Finally, you move into the luteal phase (days 15-28).
‘Hormone levels go up and down during this cycle, with the first half being oestrogen dominant and the second progesterone dominant,’ says hormone specialist Dr Sophie Shotter. ‘Tracking your periods so you know which phase you’re in can help you design a training schedule to get the most from your body at that time.’
Aerobic and HIIT
‘When you’re bleeding, lower iron levels can mean an energy dip,’ says Hooton. ‘Cramps, headaches and muscle pain can also make you feel below par so listen to your body and dial down the intensity of workouts for a few days if needed.’
‘As you move into the follicular phase, rising oestrogen levels provide a natural energy boost while low progesterone means pain tolerance is better,’ says Dr Shotter. ‘This is the perfect time for higher intensity workouts.’ Push yourself, enter that race or go for PBs.
You’ll hit your exercise sweet spot in the days leading up to ovulation, when energy levels (and libido) are highest.
Studies suggest you’ll also achieve greater gains in strength and power during the follicular phase of your cycle. ‘During the late part of this phase rising oestrogen means we find strength training particularly effective, culminating at ovulation,’ says Dr Shotter. ‘At ovulation we are primed to achieve our best strength – data suggests that quadriceps strength at this stage is at its highest.’
‘The hormone relaxin, which loosens ligaments and tendons, is raised during your period,’ says Hooton, ‘so take care that you don’t overdo stretches as you may risk injury.’
There is also evidence that risk rises leading up to and during ovulation. Some studies show women are more likely than men to sustain musculoskeletal injuries – in particular and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knee injuries. This is thought to be due to increasing oestrogen levels. Reduce your risk by always warming up well and not overstretching after exercise.
‘During the luteal phase our body is not primed for intense exercise,’ says Dr Shotter. ‘Heart rate as well as core body temperature is higher so everything can feel like more of an effort and endurance may be reduced. Staying hydrated becomes more important. Body weight may be affected by fluid retention – which may lessen your competitive edge in distance running or weight lifting – and higher progesterone levels can mean premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms and cramps.’
That said, research has shown lung capacity is improved at the mid-luteal stage, so exercise needn’t be off limits. ‘Many forms of exercise are ideal at this time to ease symptoms like cramps and improve low mood and energy – thanks largely to painkilling and mood-boosting endorphins released during activity,’ says Hooton. ‘Just go easy and don’t pressure yourself to get that running PB or smash your CrossFit WOD. Think gentle yoga, stretching, swims or mood-boosting walks, easy runs or bike rides in green spaces.’
Sportswomen reveal how they manage their monthly cycles
Paralympic gold medallist and Vitality Performance Champion Lizzie Simmonds: ‘I think menstruation is still a bit of a taboo subject in sport. I didn’t receive much guidance on how to manage the challenges that periods bring and I found it hard to talk to coaches. I remember my periods stopping completely because my energy intake wasn’t matching the huge amount of training I was doing; I was young at the time and didn’t mind not having the monthly stress of a period, but now realise this is a significant sign that your body is under immense strain. Luckily for me, there haven’t been any subsequent health repercussions, but I think that athletes need to be careful that performance isn’t prioritised over health. I think the narrative is changing around periods in elite sport, and I know a number of studies are being done to understand the impact that different points in athlete’s cycle will have on her strength, power and endurance, and also on her likelihood to pick up an injury. The more data that can be sourced on this, the more athletes can be supported, and training can be adapted to benefit both performance and health. I think it’s also really important that we continue to educate young athletes and make sure they have the confidence to talk about their bodies and their cycles.’
England Netballer and Vitality Roses player Fran Williams: ‘Recently, there has been more research into the effects of the menstruation cycle on sporting performance which I think is great. Personally, I am fortunate that my cycle does not have any major impact on how I feel and my ability to train. However, for other female athletes who may suffer from pains or decreased energy levels while having their period, it’s important this is not overlooked and training is adapted to optimise performance whilst still managing these symptoms.’
England Netballer and Vitality Roses player Jodie Gibson. ‘I’m extremely fortunate that there aren’t many adjustments I have to make during that time of the month, but choosing comfortable clothing and sports bra options is something that I do think about as its important I feel comfortable and confident so I can focus entirely on my performance.’
It’s important to make sure you’re eating right before, during and after your workout – read our article on how to fuel your workout: what to eat before, during and after exercise.
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