One of the thing I never thought of when I first started going to the gym was the concept of training around your menstrual cycle. I’m sure we’ve all been there when plans for a particular training session or group class have gone awry when coinciding with the very end or start of your menstrual cycle. The flip side of this though, is that you’ll also have days where you’re bursting with energy, or feel more suited to one style of training than another. Having an awareness of this will allow you to take advantage of the changes in you throughout the month so that you can work with your body instead of against it.
Ready to take a time hop to GCSE biology? Whilst there are a lot of hormones that come into play throughout the month, the four most helpful to focus on are oestrogen, progesterone, luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). These hormones work off one another in feedback loops, with oestrogen increases inhibiting FSH throughout the cycle. A surge in LH is what stimulates ovulation. Oestrogen peaks just before LH, and is at its lowest levels during your period.
The menstrual cycle can be split into main two phases: follicular phase and luteal phase, with menstruation and ovulation forming two additional phases that fit within the follicular and luteal phases. For simplification, when using days I’ll refer to the 28 day average cycle length, but will go into personalised cycle tracking below. The first 14 days of a cycle, with day one being the start of the period, are known as the follicular phase, characterised by an increase in oestrogen and a development of the follicles (eggs). This phase ends after ovulation, after which the luteal phase begins, with progesterone levels increasing.
First, let’s look at oestrogen. Muscle growth, and particularly bone health is linked to higher oestrogen levels, which is why post-menopausal women are more at risk of osteoporosis than pre-menopausal women. The relationship between muscular strength and the menstrual cycle has been observed since the late 1800s, but only recently has oestrogen’s influence been understood in more detail. In 14 out of 15 studies, increasing oestrogen levels were associated with maintenance with muscular strength and/or mass. As progesterone may counteract some of the influence of oestrogen, the greatest influence of oestrogen is during the follicular phase when oestrogen is highest, and progesterone is still low. You may notice that your performance and strength feels best between your period and ovulation, so don’t worry if you’re hitting PB’s one week and then feeling less on it the next.
There is some suggestion that metabolism is higher during the luteal phase compared to the follicular, particularly pre-ovulation (see here and here), but statistical significance is often weak and sample sizes have been low. In theory, this would suggest that higher intensity or interval training is more beneficial during the follicular stage, and steady state cardio during the luteal stage
Days 2/3-9 Once any discomfort or low energy from you period has subsided, you can start to build up your training intensity. This may occur during or after your period depending on your body.
Days 10-16 Peak training. Go for your heaviest weights, your hardest sprints, getting upside down in yoga and letting your body feel like Superwoman!
Days 17-25/26 Cardiovasular boost. Add in more runs or bike rides during your luteal phase if you enjoy for some steady state cardio. If you get PMS, book yourself in for a class or training style that you really enjoy for an endorphin boost towards the end of this phase. In weight training, make sure there is a good warm up and consider lighter weights for injury prevention.
Days 26/27-1/2 Deload and rest. I’m a believer in moving during your period if possible, but what that movement looks like depends on you. If you feel good, train normally. If you need, find lower intensity training styles, or even just go for a walk. And of course, please do give yourself permission to rest up if and when you need it!
Exactly how you put this into practice depends on how you prefer to train. If you do yoga, you might focus on your power flows and Ashtanga practices in the first half of your cycle, then moving to more mindful flows during your luteal phase. If you’re a runner or a triathlete, make use a potentially higher pain threshold during your follicular stage for more intense or longer training sessions. For those of you who focus on weight training, your sessions might look like a gradual increasing of weights throughout your cycle up to ovulation, with a slight or full deload week during your period.
Very few people have a menstrual cycle that fits the 28 day average, with cycle lengths, and ovulation times all varying. If you have a fairly regular cycle, then simply dividing these phases up according to your cycle length may be all you need to do. To get more in-depth, you could also track basal body temperature (BBT), mood, acne, PMS and other factors to get a sense of where your different phases are starting and ending.
If your cycle is a little less regular, you might find it harder to predict when these phases occur, so taking the time to track the factors mentioned above, plus your own energy levels can help gain some insight into where your body is at on any given day.
Working around a health condition may be less clear cut again. Those with endometriosis may need to rest hard and for longer than their counterparts without endometriosis. Treating yourself with kindness is really key here. Getting support from an endometriosis community can help, especially if there isn’t anyone at your gym to emphasise when you’re unable to train hard or even at all. If you have PCOS, working out what your body is doing or if it is even ovulating this month can make sussing out your cycle hard! I’ve personally found tracking and monitoring my body to be really empowering, even when I don’t know what is going on with it.
Image source here.
Read more: if you have journal access, this paper goes in depth into the different interaction between hormones with themselves and on metabolism, as well as linking to several papers for further reading.
This post was reviewed by a NHS doctor for accuracy and clarity.