When balanced correctly, the menstrual cycle can work to the female athlete’s advantage. The menstrual cycle consists of four key phases. Each phase has different nutrition and physical needs to provide a woman with sufficient support. Below is a breakdown of each of these four phases along with tips for attaining balance and harmony throughout the process.
The menstruation phase starts on the first day of bleeding and lasts 3-7 days. During this period, the body is shedding the uterine lining that was built up over the course of one’s cycle. This phase can give tremendous insight to the current health of a woman. At the start of menstruation, estrogen and progesterone are low, but gradually rise over time.
What to expect: On the first day of your period, energy may be low and your body may crave more foods due to the increase in metabolism that occurs from the luteal phase (see details below). PMS, cramps and heavy periods, while common, are not normal. If you are experiencing these symptoms, there is an underlying issue that needs to be managed.
Nutrition considerations: Pay attention to your protein intake, and consume foods that are rich in nutrients, such as grass-fed meats, bone broth, wild-caught fish and pasture-raised eggs. These animal protein sources have a higher bioavailability of iron and B vitamins, both of which are necessary for an increase in energy. Healthy fats are also valuable for their anti-inflammatory effects and their ability to synthesize hormones, which will be necessary throughout the cycle.
Exercise considerations: After the first 2-3 days of low energy, estrogen levels begin to rise, causing an uptick in energy. As you proceed to the follicular phase, that energy matriculates, and you can incorporate more exercise, still being mindful to give your body appropriate rest when needed.
Ranging between 7-10 days, this is the phase when women usually feel their best. During this time, women feel more outgoing, motivated, productive and stronger. Use this to your advantage!
Nutrition considerations: After menstruation, the metabolism will slow during the follicular phase, which causes women to feel less hungry. This can lead to under-eating. If athletic performance is a goal, it is a good time to track your food and make sure you are eating enough. Focus on consuming quality proteins, healthy fats, fiber-rich carbs and lots of whole foods to support the increased energy and higher activity level!
Exercise considerations: Now is an excellent time to schedule a longer run, lift heavier weights and hit that PR! Make sure you are balancing your workouts with your lifestyle and avoid overexertion.
Ovulation is the peak of the menstrual cycle and lasts for about 3-4 days. This is when an egg gets released from the ovaries for fertilization, and hormones are at their highest. Ovulation is the only true time a woman can get pregnant due to the release of the egg. Keep this in mind when planning for a family.
Nutrition considerations: Because the hormones are at their highest level, it is important to support your body appropriately so the hormones don’t peak too high. When this happens, women can feel “out of sorts.” Focusing on fiber-rich foods such as flaxseed, cruciferous veggies and liver-supporting herbs like milk thistle and dandelion root can help the body detox excess estrogens and rebalance hormones.
Exercise considerations: During ovulation, women can still synthesize muscle, so maintaining your workout program from the follicular phase is fine.
The luteal phase lasts 10-14 days. During this time, there is a decline in estrogen with an uptick in progesterone as the body prepares for menstruation. There will also be an increase in metabolism (which is why you crave more carbs) and a possible decrease in energy. Women will often experience the need to withdraw or isolate, enhanced creativity and heightened focus on projects.
Nutrition considerations: With the increase in metabolism (only about 200 calories extra), it’s necessary to support your body appropriately with adequate proteins and healthy fats. Consume fiber-rich foods during ovulation to clear excess estrogens, allowing for a healthier menstruation phase.
Exercise considerations: The female body cannot grow and build new muscle during this time, so supporting the body with a maintenance program is necessary. An example of maintenance would be staying at current weights during a strength program and not adding extra distance for running workouts. Women may feel a further dip in energy 5-7 days before they start their period. Dropping intensity is necessary to regain balance.
To start tracking the menstrual cycle, download one of the many free apps available, and familiarize yourself with your feelings/moods throughout the month. Pairing nutrition and exercise to meet the needs of the female body is imperative to unlocking potential that is often not utilized. If you notice symptoms such as PMS, mood swings, fatigue, heightened anxiety or depression occurring during your cycle, seek the help of a practitioner to help balance hormones.
**Note: If you are on hormonal birth control, these phases will not occur due to the steady state of progesterone and estrogen causing a withdrawal bleed, which is not the same as a true menstrual phase.
Shannon Dolan is a nutritional therapy practitioner, personal trainer and owner of Health With Shannon.