Exercise & The Menstrual Cycle

The menstrual cycle is a natural bodily process woman will experience within their life. Despite this, it can be determinately to daily tasks and events, particularly if you are an active individual. Often, women are not too sure if they should be training on their period or if it will make any difference. The first thing we need to do is get a better understanding of what is happening within the female body during the menstrual cycle.

We can split the menstrual cycle into two distinct phases - the follicular phase and the luteal phase - and usually last for a period of 28 days (roughly four weeks); however, each women's cycle will vary, with some cycles lasting anywhere between 21 days and 30 days and can vary month to month. The Follicular Phase typically consists of being two weeks long and includes the period (menstrual bleeding or menses) itself, which usually last up to 7 days. The luteal phase is where things get interesting - more on this below.

So, what happens in each phase?
With menses, some women will still experience pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms 2-3 days into their menses - this includes mood swings, bloating/stomach pains, backaches, headaches, sleep trouble, breast tenderness and, in severe cases, vomiting, to name a few - menses is brought on by the drop of progesterone and oestrogen levels and the influx in prostaglandins, which causes the uterus to contract and expend its lining (thus causes the menstrual bleed and causes the PMS symptoms such as stomach aches and back pain). Exercise can be very beneficial in this phase of the cycle, due to the increase in blood flow to the uterus, helping the healing process along, by massaging the area and improving oxygen and nutrient delivery.

Once this is over, you essentially go into the 2nd part of the follicular phase, and we see a gradual increase in oestrogen. Typically, women feel better in this stage - they are energised, and with the increase in serotonin (a "happy, feel-good "chemical) associated with the increase in oestrogen, training in this phase of your menstrual cycle is often wonderous. Oestrogens is also linked to an increase in strength, so women typically feel stronger, fitter and at their best in this phase. Oestrogen is also an appetite suppressor, meaning cravings and sticking to a calorie guideline (i.e. a deficit for losing weight) is usually easier. One thing to consider here is the point in which we approach ovulation - just before ovulation, oestrogen is at its highest peak before it drops; increases in oestrogen have been documented to increase risk of ligament injuries due to affecting Its stiffness levels. So, maybe just be wary of jumping and running around too much at this point.

After ovulation, we enter the luteal phase of our cycle - here, we see an increase in progesterone alongside oestrogen again, but progesterone is the dominating hormone. Progesterone causes several reactions to occur within the body - it is catabolic, so it can be harder for women to build and maintain muscle mass during this phase.  Equally, during this phase, some women can expect to burn more calories at rest (basal metabolic rate), thus causing them to feel a little hungrier throughout the day. Progesterone equally causes your body temperature to increase, your heart rate to increase, and the plasma volume of your blood to decrease (meaning blood becomes thicker), which affects the bloods ability to travel to working muscles and deliver oxygen and remove waste products successfully. Equally, lower plasma volume causes issues with the body temperature regulation, as the body's ability to sweat and thus cool itself off is hindered. All of this can result in exercise feeling harder with many women reporting a higher Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scores during this phase, then in the follicular. Equally, PMS systems will start to make themselves present roughly 11 days out from your menses start date; thus, those symptoms can hinder your ability to perform at your best.

Our advice as fitness professionals in order to use the understanding of the menstrual cycle would be the following:

  • Track your menstrual cycle using an app and plan your training around that - as the menstrual cycle is roughly four weeks long, perhaps consider doing three weeks increasing load/volume/intensity, followed by a 1-week deload just before you start your period.
  • Ensure your diet is rich in anti-inflammatory foods (fish, leafy greens) and protein, particularly during that luteal and menses portion of the cycle to aid recovery and lessen the impact of muscle breakdown and PMS symptoms. Also, ensure you are hydrating the body effectively.
  • Understand that exercise does feel generally harder during the luteal phase, and thus it is probably not wise going for PB's during this phase - still exercise, just understand the implications this has on your body. Refer to point 1 of our advice.
  • During the luteal phases, if you are trying to lose weight as one of your goals, consider going to a maintenance calorie requirement rather than remain in a deficit - you will be burning more calories during this phase; thus energy expenditure is higher, making you a little more peckish and potentially causing cravings.

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