25/11/20 by Anna Floyd
Firstly, why am I credible to talk about this?
As part of a project last year I undertook a lot of independent research on barriers to women’s sport and exercise during your menstrual cycle. All of the information in this blog post is based on scientific research journals and articles which I have referenced below if you want to read more!
Your energy levels, pain thresholds, stamina, strength, body temperature and metabolism all vary depending on the cycle phase you’re in! These are huge changes to a woman’s body which frankly, we should know more about and understand in order to…
1. Look after ourselves
2. Prevent injury
3. Get the most out of our training
What happens to our bodies in each phase?
Women’s cycles all vary in length so the duration of each phase will be different in everyone, below are just approximations. Menstruation is considered normal from anywhere between 22-36 days. If you’re relatively in tune with your symptoms and track your cycle, you’ll have a good idea which phase you are in. Taking your basal body temperature will also give you a good indication (read on to see why).
Menstruation= Day 1-Day 5
Day 1 is the first day you start to bleed. This is the passing of the unfertilised egg and the uterus lining. Your period is a mixture of blood, mucus and uterus tissue. Menstruation can typically last from 2-7 days. Symptoms you may experience in this phase are cramps, bloating and headaches.
Follicular Phase= Day 1-Day 14
From the start of your menstrual cycle to ovulation you’re in this phase while the ovaries are preparing to release an egg. Oestrogen levels are rising in this phase, in order to thicken the uterus lining and create a nutrient rich environment where an embryo could grow.
Ovulation= any day usually between day 14 & day 17
A mature egg is released from the ovary. Oestrogen levels are at their highest on the day of ovulation. During this phase the egg is travelling down the fallopian tube ready to be fertilised (this is the fertile window, if you’re trying to get pregnant). Otherwise the egg dies after 24 hours. Symptoms in this phase may include a higher than normal basal body temperature (you should take this first thing in the morning) and thicker, white discharge.
Luteal Phase = Day 15-Day 28
Your luteal phase comes after the egg has been released, leading up to your period. As the egg is released, the body secretes progesterone, to keep your lining thick ready for a fertilised egg. If you don’t get pregnant, the levels of these hormones will drop significantly and this is what prompts your period. The luteal phase is often associated with pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS). Symptoms can include tender breasts, irritability, mood swings, lack of sex drive, cravings, poor sleep etc!
How should I adapt my exercise routine in response to this?
Most women find that they have naturally higher energy levels in the follicular phase, so this is something to take advantage of! You may have a higher pain threshold in this phase too, so higher intensity workouts won’t feel as tough! If you enjoy HIIT training you will most likely find this easiest in the late follicular phase, leading up to the day of ovulation. It is also the best time to plan your heaviest strength sessions. There are some really interesting studies showing how focussing your weight training in this phase leads to better results in muscle growth, compared to the same number of workouts spread evenly through the cycle (linked below).
For most women, this is the phase where we will struggle with PMS symptoms and not feel like working out at all! Our basal body temperature is around 0.3-0.5 degrees higher so you need to be careful of working out in hot environments and make sure to stay extra hydrated. Planning lower intensity and shorter workouts in this phase is a good idea. For some people, their metabolic rate may be slightly higher in this phase, so you might be burning more calories at rest in this phase anyway! We would still encourage keeping active in this phase, taking walks or cycles, and trying classes such as Pilates and Yoga. If you have painful bloating and cramps then skip any abdominal workouts so you don’t further add to this discomfort.
What if I’m on hormonal contraception?
Hormonal contraception, such as the combined pill, will disrupt your natural fluctuations of oestrogen and progesterone. In general, the levels of these hormones will be consistent while you’re taking the pill and then dip as you take your break. People will react differently in this break, some feeling more energised and others feeling fatigued as your body responds to the unbalance. If you’re on contraception I would recommend tracking your symptoms for 3-4 months and trying to spot patterns. You can then personalise your exercise routine depending on when you feel most energised and when you might be suffering from PMS.
The research into this subject is all relatively new and if you take a closer look at the studies you’ll see that there are inconsistencies. Really, this doesn’t surprise me at all—every one of our bodies, cycles and symptoms are different. I think the biggest take away from this is to listen to your body and pay more attention to your symptoms when planning your exercise schedule. I would really recommend that you always track your cycle, I have linked some great apps below. Apps that allow you to track symptoms too will give you a better idea of your personal energy levels throughout the month etc. You probably shouldn’t be doing the same length and intensity workouts week in week out—try to get more out of your workouts in the phase leading up to ovulation and accept you may need more rest in the second half of the month.
Some great apps to track your cycle: