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No More Taboo: Synchronising your training with your Menstrual Cycle
Bizarrely, despite the amount of impact it has on diet and exercise, the female menstrual cycle is often deemed an awkward subject to discuss, especially with a male trainer!
It often takes a long time (I’m talking up to 6 months) before a female client feels comfortable to talk to me about their period, and sadly this means that they go through this time without any guidance on how to handle the different stages of their menstruation.
But I’m here to cut the tension with a knife and tell you straight out exactly what’s going on and how you should deal with it to ensure you’re giving your body the right exercise and dietary prescription at each stage of menstruation.
Firstly, I’d like to clarify that:
1. No, I am not a woman
2. No, I don’t have any first-hand experience of this process
3. Yes, it’s part of my job to know this stuff, so..
4. Yes, I am speaking from extensive knowledge on the subject.
5. Yes, you should ask me if you are unsure of anything (I’m here to help)
Without knowing enough about the role that it has on exercise and nutrition (and vice verse), your period can seem quite the enemy to your health & fitness goals. But when you truly understand their involvement, you can start to use your hormones to your advantage and go through the whole month looking and feeling great!
So, throughout this article I’m going to give you an overview of what’s happening and how you need to structure your training and diet through each phase.
What Exactly Is The Menstrual Cycle?
The menstrual cycle is the series of changes your body goes through in preparation for a possible pregnancy. About once a month, the uterus grows a new, thickened lining (endometrium) that holds a fertilized egg. But when there is no fertilized egg to start a pregnancy, the uterus sheds its lining to prepare for the next cycle. This is the monthly menstrual bleeding (A.K.A menstruation) that a woman has from her early teen years until her menstrual periods end around age 50 (menopause).
The menstrual cycle is measured from the first day of menstrual bleeding, Day 1, up to Day 1 of the next menstrual bleeding. Although 28 days is the average cycle length, it is normal to have a cycle that is shorter or longer.
A teen’s cycles may be longer (up to 45 days), growing shorter over several years.
Between ages 25 and 35, most women’s cycles are regular, generally lasting 21 to 35 days.
Around ages 40 to 42, cycles tend to be at their shortest and most regular. This is followed by 8 to 10 years of longer, less predictable cycles until menopause.
Phase 1: Menstrual
This phase is commonly recognised as the end of your menstrual cycle as it is the point when your PMS symptoms start to subside, but to be scientifically accurate, we’ll be addressing it at the beginning.
You’ll know this phase as the point when bleeding takes place, typically lasting 5-7 days, with often the first day or two still feeling the effects of cramps and fatigue.
At this point, water retention and increased body heat from the previous cycle will clear up and you should be feeling a bit more like yourself again.
As you’re just off the back of the Luteal Phase (PMS), it wouldn’t be wise to jump straight back in with heavy lifting, however, without the raised body temperature and cramping, you’ll be able to begin properly working out again and making some good progress with your strength & endurance.
Avoid – 1 rep maxes, HIIT, anaerobic exercise (sprinting, Olympic Lifting, Powerlifting, etc)
Consider – endurance exercise (running, cycling, swimming), higher rep ranges (8 or more reps per set), standard strength exercises (squats, deadlifts, press ups, pull ups, rows, etc)
At this stage, it’s likely your metabolism will progressively slow down, so it’s worth keeping your calorie consumption in mind whilst you wean off those crave foods from the previous phase! Generally, you wouldn’t need to make any changes until you’re a few days through the cycle, and then you might want to reduce calories incrementally to accommodate for the metabolic rate that keeps slowing down over this phase. In reference to the previous phase (which you’ll find out about later), you’ll now have a higher insulin sensitivity, so carbohydrates can make their return and fuel you back up for your increased activity levels.
Avoid – the binge foods from the last phase, high fat intake, previous calorie consumption
Consider – eat 100kcal less each day until starting intake is reached, replacing some of your fats with carbohydrates
Phase 2: Follicular
This phase commences at the point when you stop bleeding from menstruation. It has the least defined length of time out of all the phases and is the biggest dictator on how frequent your periods are. This is the point when you pretty much forget about your menstrual cycle, simply because there are no symptoms to think about.
Your energy levels are back, there’s no bloating and you just generally feel and look great.
So now is time to get serious with your goals.
The Follicular phase is when you have your highest pain tolerance, so it’s now when you should be looking at doing your fitness tests and heavy workouts. You can handle a lot more demand, so utilise this period to really get some work done!
Avoid – lighter workouts and long rest periods both between sets of exercises and between workouts themselves.
Consider – 1 rep maxes, anaerobic training, high-demand exercises, higher training frequency.
If you’re getting things right with your training, then now is the time to go mad with your carbohydrate consumption (pasta, rice, potato and oats, not sweets and cakes!). A higher carbohydrate intake will up your performance when training, accelerate your metabolism and recover quickly from all that hard work. It’s also definitely time to consider upping protein intake; your body’s gonna need it.
Avoid – fat-dense foods, low-carb foods, low calorie intake.
Consider – complex carbs (pasta, rice, potato, oats, etc), tracking calories in vs calories out, lots of veggies.
Phase 3: Ovulatory
As the name suggests, this phase is where ovulation takes place. Although this phase only lasts a day or two, it still has some slight changes from the follicular phase that are just worth noting.
You’ll still have that high pain threshold so don’t hold back in your training. Just be aware that, as you go through these couple of days, connective tissues (particularly around the hips and lower back) will become soft meaning that you have a slight proneness to injury. Of course, if you’ve got your super-awesome RAW coach by your side, you can proceed rest assured that your techniques are spot on and you’re doing the exercises that are best suited to you.
Avoid – technically-challenging and high-risk exercises (Olympic Lifting, calisthenics, plyometrics, etc)
Consider – Compound strength exercise (back squat, deadlift, hip thrust, bench press, bent-over row, etc)
Over this short period, you may notice yourself feeling more hungry and tending toward carb-loading, so make a conscious effort to keep your macro-ratios (carbs, fats, proteins) in balance. To make the carb issue even more of a cautious topic, your insulin sensitivity will be decreasing, so those carbs won’t just burn off like they have done over the follicular phase. Despite this need to keep carbs in line, you can probably get away with eating a bit more, so perhaps alter your calorie intake to accommodate for the hunger and help you stick to your plan.
Avoid – heavy carbohydrate meals, low protein intake
Consider – a more rounded macro ratio (40C:30F:30P), increasing calorie consumption by 1-200kcal depending on hunger.
Phase 4: Luteal
Now ovulation is over, it’s time for everyone’s most loved phase in the cycle: Luteal phase (A.K.A PMS).
The Luteal phase, although unpleasant for just about everyone, can be a very different experience from person to person. Some women don’t experience symptoms until about a week in, whereas others can experience symptoms right from the beginning of the two-weeks.
As I imagine you already know (assuming you’re a female reader or just know a female reader), the symptoms related to this phase include high body temperature, fatigue, water retention, muscle & joint ache, lack of concentration, cravings & hunger. What a list hey?
Generally, this is when you’re going to feel least like training, which is totally understandable when you take a look at all those symptoms! But there is still much that can be accomplished over this period, just so long as you train smart and accompany it with solid nutrition. Bearing in mind the higher body temperature and increased fatigue, you won’t get much out of high intensity or muscular endurance exercise. There’s no need to worry about having the time off your more intense exercise, as it will give your body time to recover from all the hard work from the previous phases. At this point, you’ll benefit from taking the intensity down a few notches and putting your focus onto the more technical components of your training, perhaps trying new exercises that you can add in when you get back round the cycle. Another idea I encourage in my clients is to spend more time on flexibility, balance and any particular weaknesses in their body.
Avoid – high intensity exercise, heavy strength training, exhaustive endurance exercise.
Consider – areas of weakness, technical components, flexibility, balance, steady-state cardio (walking, light jogging, leisurely cycling, swimming)
The Luteal phase is where most women struggle the most with their nutrition, and sadly where many fail to adhere. Cravings get strong, noticeable development hides away and hunger finds its way to the forefront of your mind. But really, if you adapt accordingly, you can get through this phase without any drawbacks. With everything that your body is having to deal with at this stage, your metabolic rate goes up a little, so you now have some more calories to play around with there! It’s totally okay at this time to throw 2 or 300 calories on top of your intake, in fact in most cases it works out best this way (better than you going completely off plan). You’ll be less hungry and have fewer cravings; let’s call it damage limitation.
The other thing to note is that your body slows down serotonin production (feel good hormone), so try look for foods high in tryptophan to counteract.
Avoid – calorie-dense foods (processed/fast food), [for the most part] foods that combine fats and carbs (chips, ice cream, chocolate, burgers, pizza, etc), foods high in carbohydrates
Consider – increasing total calorie intake by 2-300kcal, eating crunchy veg and fruit (carrots, celery, cucumber, apples, pears, etc), adjusting calories to accommodate for a crave food, foods high in tryptophan (milk, turkey, beans and seeds), increasing fat intake.
And then it all starts over again, with a better body, more progress and lots of new techniques ready to be thrown into your workouts!
I suppose you could say the female menstrual cycle is much like a lion: it’s a deadly beast that can easily get the better of you, but if you can tame it, there’s not much that will stand in your way.
Like I said at the beginning, this is always seen as a taboo subject, particularly to be avoided in discussion between a woman and a man, but it has such an impact on your life that you can’t just hide it and pretend it doesn’t exist.
So I hope this article has allowed you to think a bit more constructively about the whole process and make some plans for how you will tackle the ordeal of training and eating throughout your menstrual cycle.
It is an area I handle very professionally with my clients, offering advice and assistance to help their development.
I hope, like many others, you feel comfortable enough to ask for my guidance; I’m always delighted to be able to help people achieve more with their health & fitness.
If you’ve picked up any tips along the way that you think others would benefit from, please add them to the comments either here or on Facebook and let’s achieve greatness together!
Advanced Nutritionist, Strength & Conditioning Coach, and Head Fitness Coach
RAW Results Aimed Workouts