There are an infinite number of ways to train the body, but as a woman, have you ever considered using your time of the month to your advantage in the gym?
Yes, it might sound counterintuitive when all we want to do is sleep and eat chocolate during specific parts of our cycle. However, the female body is a complex maze of hormones, systems and phasing and when we tap into that, our performance in the gym can actually improve.
Let’s set the scene first. The lead players in the menstrual cycle are the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland and together, they regulate hormonal release over the course of a cycle. Estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and luteinizing hormone are the hormones linked directly to training and nutrition during that time of the month.
Over a 28-day cycle, there are three main phases, with the follicular phase kicking things off. The hypothalamic-pituitary axis signals an increase in follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and at the same time, there is a steady increase in estrogen peaking around day 12. When estrogen gets to a certain level, it triggers a sharp surge in another hypothalamic-pituitary hormone called luteinizing hormone (LH). This sudden increase works like a pin bursting the follicle and releasing an egg for fertilization, also known as the ovulation phase. Between days 13 and 16, there is an increase in progesterone, an important regulator of exercise quality. The luteal phase – also known as premenstrual – is the final phase of the cycle.
During each of these phases, each hormone is at a different level and can be used to your benefit in training.
During the follicular phase and into ovulation in the first 14 days, the body is more dependent on carbohydrates for fuel. Also, the hormone estradiol improves blood sugar control, and insulin sensitivity is higher during this time. Estrogen is also higher at this time, which is perfect for any kind of strength training and ideal for higher training volume, less rest and more intensity. Estrogen is also important for muscle recovery.
During the next phase of the cycle, the luteal phase during days 15 to 28, the body starts to respond less and less to strength training, fatigue starts to settle in and switching over to a more endurance-based routine becomes more beneficial. As the core temperature of the body increases, so will sweating. The body generally prefers fat as its main source of energy during this time, due to progesterone increasing and blood sugar becoming less stable. Cue the sugar cravings.
Achieving a personal record during the luteal phase is not recommended as the same workout performed in the follicular phase will likely feel harder in the luteal phase because fatigue starts to set in. Think about pulling back the intensity with longer cardio sessions and more emphasis on recovery.
Nutritionally, during menstruation, one of the goals should be to reduce inflammation because chronic inflammation can block the body’s hormone signaling. This can lead to an imbalance in hormones long term causing heavy periods, skipped periods, PMS symptoms or a lack of ovulation completely. Consider adding more leafy greens, nuts, legumes, whole grains, lean proteins and more healthy fats to support your body best.
Outside of science, putting this into practice starts with tracking your cycle. Pull out your calendar and map out when things start to happen. Track your energy levels, sleep, moods, stress levels and cravings. Make sure to also note which workouts you were doing and when.
Tracking for three months will give you a clear picture of your cycle, and from there, you can make adjustments in your training to fit those patterns. Use the first half of your cycle for strength gains and back off a little during the second, adding in more mobility, pilates and yoga. Tracking your cycle will also show you irregularities you might have missed, which could actually be pushing you further away from your goals rather than toward them.
As women, the gift of the menstrual cycle gives so much insight into how our body functions and our superpower is using it wisely.
About the Author
Emma Aguirre’s training career began with spinning almost 20 years ago in a small women-only gym in South Texas. After a career in journalism, Aguirre switched to fitness full time, certifying in Practical Pilates, TRX and Jillian Micheals BodyShred program. She’s also qualified as an AFAA Group Fitness professional and holds several personal trainer certificates as well as Precision Nutrition’s Level 1 certification. She’s currently becoming certified as an International Sports Sciences Association master trainer and spends her days coaching clients online as a Personal Health Advisor at Austin’s Wellthy Soul.