I hear it so often from women at the gym: “Oh my gosh! I’m so tired. I don’t know why I’m so tired!” One of the first things I will then ask them usually is: “Are you about to get your period?” Then the light bulb goes off in their heads, and I’ll usually get some response like: “You know what…actually I am!”
Now, yes…I realize that there are all sorts of reasons as to why someone could be tired; but for women, it’s a bit more complicated than that when it comes to figuring out the culprit behind the exhaustion. There are all sorts of variables to consider (especially hormonal considerations). Being a woman, one of the first things I take into consideration is the female menstrual cycle and how it could potentially be affecting my coaching clients’ workouts, energy levels, and physical and emotional state.
It’s not as easy as “just push through it” when it comes to working out around your period. I’ve seen (and experienced it myself) time and time again: ladies getting upset and frustrated with themselves and their workouts as it get closer to being that time of the month, trying to fight with their body’s very natural functions and biorhythms instead of working with them.
Let’s take a closer look at this issue, and talk about what’s going on here, and how we can structure our workouts and tweak our nutrition around our personal cycle. Once we become aware of our own cycle, it helps to serve as a guide for what’s normal or abnormal, as well as help us identify if our performance in the gym is conflicting with our body’s natural functions. How many times have you been motoring along with your workouts only to feel one week like you got hit by the Mac truck of exhaustion? There’s a very natural reason why this happens, and you can be better prepared for it, or even take advantage of it—once you have a better handle on your own body.
So…how do we become more familiar with our own cycle? It’s as simple as tracking it. If you’re not already doing this, there are plenty of ways to track that include anything from downloading an app for your phone to keeping a journal or jotting some notes down regarding your physical, mental and emotional state during this time of the month.
The more precise we can get at tracking and monitoring our period, the better we can adjust our training and nutrition so that things are working with us and not against us!
Part A: Basic Overview of the Menstrual Cycle
Before we dive into a short overview of each phase of your cycle, please understand that not all cycles are created equal! J The day count for your cycle begins on the first day of menstruation. Please note that the 28-day cycle is the average, but in reality there are many women whose cycles last about 25 days; there are others whose cycles will be longer than 31 days. The entire menstrual cycle can be divided into four phases:
- Menstrual phase (From day 1 to 5)
- Follicular phase (From day 1 to 13)
- Ovulation phase (Day 14)
- Luteal phase (From day 15 to 28)
Now…let’s talk about each individual phase of the menstrual cycle as well as programming and nutrition strategies you can implement to help maximize your results, minimize your risk of injury, and help you become more in tune with your own body.
The Menstrual Phase: Days 1-5
The Menstrual phase begins on the first day of menstruation and lasts on average until the 5th day of the menstrual cycle, although some women will experience shorter or longer periods.
The following events occur during this phase:
- A drop in estrogen and progesterone signals the uterus to shed its inner lining of soft tissue and blood vessels.
- Women may experience anywhere from 10ml to 80ml of blood loss.
This is the phase that can cause a lot of problems for women, especially during the first few days. Many women will experience a variety of symptoms during this time ranging anywhere from minor discomfort to unbearable pain, cramps, nausea, and headaches. This phase reduces a woman’s energy to its lowest level, and she may feel very tired, withdrawn, introspective, and feel the need to a rest and take a break from everyday life and tasks.
Follicular Phase: Days 1-13
This phase also begins on the first day of menstruation and accounts for the first half of the menstrual cycle. It lasts for 7-10 days ending on the day before ovulation starts.
The following events occur during this phase:
- The pituitary gland secretes two hormones, FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) and LH (Luteinizing Hormone) to stimulate a follicle to grow and the egg within it to ripen. It takes about 13 days for the egg to reach maturity.
- While the egg is maturing, an increase in estrogen also stimulates the uterus to develop a soft lining of tissue and blood vessels called the endometrium to serve as a “nesting place” for the potentially fertilized egg to attach and develop.
- Estrogen and testosterone levels remain low during the earlier part of the follicular phase, but then gradually increase as a woman’s body gets closer to ovulation.
This boost in estrogen and testosterone towards the end of the follicular phase helps to improve your energy levels, your mood, and clear away some of that brain fog you may experience during your period. You may also feel more confident in yourself and your decision making, willing to take more risks, be a bit more impulsive and social, as well as feel a bit friskier in the bedroom!
Ovulation Phase: Day 14
The Ovulation Phase marks the end of the follicular phase and it is the shortest phase in the menstrual cycle. It is the culmination of all that your body has been going through over the last few weeks.
The following events take place during this phase:
- The increase in estrogen during the follicular phase eventually triggers the release of another hormone called GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone) which then triggers a spike in the Luteinizing Hormone.
- 24-36 hours following the surge of the Luteinizing Hormone, the follicle with the mature egg/eggs will burst and the egg(s) will be released into the Fallopian tube. The release of the egg(s) is what is known as ovulation.
- Once the egg(s) has been released into the fallopian tube, what is left of the follicle undergoes a transformation and it becomes what is known as the corpus luteum. The corpus luteum begins to produce high amounts of progesterone to prepare the lining of the uterus for implantation of the mature egg(s).
During the ovulation phase, some women may experience a mild to sharp pain on one side of their lower abdominal wall. This pain can be felt before, during, or after ovulation takes place. Estrogen and testosterone also continue to rise during this time boosting the way in which you may have been feeling during the follicular phase. During this time, your energy is riding high, your confidence level improves, you may find it even easier to verbalize your thoughts and feelings, be more assertive in your actions, and incredibly in touch with your sensual and sexual side (like an absolute tigress in the bedroom :))
Luteal Phase (day 15-28)
The Luteal Phase begins the day after the Ovulation Phase and is the last phase in menstrual cycle, ending with the onset of menses (which then marks the onset of the next monthly cycle). This phase typically begins on the 15th day and lasts till the end of the cycle.
The following events occur during this phase:
- The egg cell released during the ovulation phase stays in the fallopian tube for approximately 24 hours.
- After a woman ovulates, the egg cell that is released stays in the fallopian tube for approximately 24 hours.
- If the egg is fertilized within this 24 hour period, then the corpus luteum will begin receiving the hormone hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) from the embryo. HCG tells the corpus luteum to keep producing progesterone so that the uterus maintains a healthy enough environment to sustain the pregnancy.
- The corpus luteum lasts for about ten weeks after ovulation and then after ten weeks the placenta takes over progesterone production until the end of pregnancy.
- If the egg is not fertilized within 24 hours, then corpus luteum dies and progesterone production slows down over the course of the next few days. When there is no longer enough progesterone to supply the uterine lining with blood (usually after around 11-14 day), the start of your period begins again.
During the first half of the luteal phase, you may still feeling as well as you did during the ovulation phase, but as estrogen and testosterone production begin to decline and progesterone production increases over the latter half of the luteal phase, then you’ll start feeling yourself wanting to wind down a bit more and start taking it easy again. You may start to experience more of the PMS symptoms like bloating, tender breasts, headaches, moodiness, anxiety, irritability, exhaustion, and more cravings for carbohydrates and comfort foods. Know that these symptoms aren’t merely a figment of your imagination, but the effects of all the hormonal and physiological changes taking place in your body right now!
Part B: Designing Your Training and Nutrition Program Around Your Cycle
Okay, so now that we’ve done a bit of a crash course on the four phases of the menstrual cycle, you’re probably wondering what this all means for your training, nutrition, and recovery cycles, and how do we piece this all together? Let’s talk about that now!
Menstrual Phase: Transition Back to Higher-Intensity Workouts
Every woman is affected differently by her period. Some women feel strong and able to exercise at higher intensities while others don’t feel so good and may need to train at lighter intensities. The thing to keep in mind here is to honor your OWN emotional and physical state during this phase. The focus during this phase should be on supporting your body.
During the first few days of your period, you may feel a bit out of it and want to take things easy and stick to some gentler movements (e.g. Yoga and leisurely walking). Be sure to reduce your overall load to around 50-60% of your 1 rep max, 3-5 sets, 10-15 reps, and volume (sets x reps) down to about 50-60 % of your normal volume in your workouts, especially if you experience cramps and pain. Now is a good time to focus on skill, technique work, and body weight training. Giving yourself permission to rest for these few days actually helps to improve your overall training because it helps to serve as a built in “deload” week.
However, after a few days you will begin to start feeling more like your normal self again. Your PMS symptoms will start to decrease as your body normalizes again, any water retention and bloating will subside, and your body temperature returns back to normal.
As your body progresses towards the end of your period, it’s a good time transition back to more intense training and workouts. Your metabolism will be slowing down a bit more and your insulin sensitivity will be increasing, so you will want to adjust your diet to a moderate caloric range (and one that’s neither high or low carb).
The Follicular Phase: Time to Amp up Your Training
This is when you’ll find it easier to work harder again and focus on making more progress with your lifts and in your training. This phase is characterized by a higher tolerance for discomfort, the ability to generate higher to maximum force production, and increased endurance. Increasing levels of estrogen help to improve your insulin sensitivity, so that you can stand to eat more carbohydrates to help fuel more intense training sessions. One last thing to note is that intense workouts, paired with higher carb intake after these workouts will help to counteract the slowing down of your metabolism during this time. At this time in your cycle, you will want to focus on low rep/higher load weight training /power training (80-95% of 1 rep max, 4-6 sets of 1-4 reps), lower workout volume overall, HIIT training, metabolic conditioning, and sprinting workouts.
The Ovulation Phase: Going for that 1RM
As we talked about previously, you’ll be ovulating around day 14 of your cycle and this means a big boost in strength and power! If you’re looking to attempt or set a new PR, then this is the time to do it. However, be careful in doing so because it’s during this phase that estrogen is at its highest, which can negatively affect collagen synthesis, tissue repair, and neuromuscular control—leading to a higher risk of injury.
So while you are training hard through this phase, go for the big lifts and try and set some PR’s (if you’re feeling up to it); but just remember to use solid form and technique, and pay attention as fatigue starts to set in during your workouts. Also, because your metabolism gets a little bit of a boost, don’t be surprised if you find that your appetite increases during this phase in your cycle. Go ahead and add more calories into your diet, but make sure you get them from a balanced mix of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats…not simply from carbs (because your insulin sensitivity is decreasing again).
The Luteal Phase: Time to Slow Things Down Again
Remember when I mentioned earlier how sometimes it may feel like every rep in your workout feels like an uphill battle? Chances are this isn’t a coincidence, but rather that it’s probably happening while you are going through your luteal phase.
This is the time in your cycle when you start to feel just down right cruddy. Your body temperature is higher, and you may begin to feel symptoms of PMS (bloating, sleepy or extreme fatigue, sore breasts, achy or crampy abdomen). Just the mere thought of heavy lifting and fast paced workouts makes you want to lie down for a nap. And for good reason! Your body experiences higher cardiovascular strain and a faster rate of exhaustion during the luteal phase. Your body craves lower intensity cardio (40 and 60 percent of your maximum heart rate) and moderate intensity strength work (55%-70% of 1 rep max, 8-12 reps) at this time.
In terms of your nutrition, your metabolism is on the rise again, but your insulin sensitivity is very low during this phase and you’re craving foods high in carbohydrates. Your serotonin levels are low, which triggers irritability and a bad mood…so your natural instinct will be to eat more carbs. Why? Carbs cause that quick boost in serotonin and that natural high that the body is craving. Look for other ways to boost your serotonin levels instead of reaching for the carbohydrate rich foods? Try a little extra protein, leisurely walking outside, getting to bed earlier, some light stretching or mobility work, etc. Your body actually also uses more fat for fuel during this phase instead of glycogen, so this is yet another good reason to program workouts that use utilize fat more than carbs (lower intensity cardio, moderate intensity strength training, active recovery sessions, outdoor walking, yoga and stretching).
As we touched on earlier, there are more appropriate times during the month to ramp up your workouts, and there are those days when it’s a good idea to take it easier. The fact that some days feel more physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting could have everything to do with where you are in your monthly cycle. So instead of always trying to fight against what our bodies are telling us, why not work with them? This will enable us to feel more comfortable, confident, and in control of our workouts—not fighting and hating every second of them!
The Effect of the Menstrual Cycle on Exercise Metabolism. Sports Medicine. 2010;4(3):207-227
Hormonal Responses to Resistance Exercise during Different Menstrual Cycle States. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2011 Jun;43(6):967-73
Oosthuyse & Bosch.