If you’re an athlete with a menstrual cycle you know first hand what a wild ride it can be to keep up with a regimented training plan when your body, mind and emotions are on what seems like a rollercoaster. It can feel impossible to keep up with a training schedule when you feel so yucky one day and full of energy the next. On low energy days you may even beat yourself up mentally for not being "motivated" or being "lazy," and on high energy days you may even over do it to compensate.
Here’s the thing, you’re neither lazy or unmotivated, you’re a human with a period and with that period comes waves of hormones, energy and other not-so-fun side effects that may affect your training and your progress. Instead of letting this cycle of ups and downs veer you off course, I'm going to give you some tips and tricks to start tracking your cycle and scheduling your workouts to match. Small tweaks in your training can give huge payoffs when it comes to strength and endurance PRs, overall feelings of success and, even better, sticking to a training program long term.
We are not just smaller versions of men, who have pretty consistent hormones throughout the month, we have the opportunity to use our high energy phases as our strength and athletic gains super power and our lower energy phases to recover and rebuild. It will take a little focus and planning, but once you get rolling you will feel it.
Let’s start with the basics. What are the phases of your menstrual cycle?
I’m sure all have been given loads of anecdotal advice about working out on our period, everything from "don’t move at all" to "go all out to relieve cramps" but research shows there’s actually a little more to it. The hormonal changes that occur during your menstrual cycle have a range of effects on your body including affecting energy levels, exercise performance, focus and mood. The good news is we know particular forms of exercise may be better suited to each stage of your cycle. So let’s dive in.
The average menstrual cycle lasts for 28 days (but the normal range is anywhere from 28-38 days) and has four main phases - menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. To break this down further, menstruation begins the follicular phase (higher energy phase) and ovulation marks the start of the luteal phase (lower energy phase).
While the length of your cycle can vary, the luteal phase of the cycle is relatively constant in all women, with a duration of approximately 14 days. The variable part of your cycle lies in the follicular phase, which can range from 10 to 16 days.
So what about exercising during my period?
So it’s that time of the month – aunt flo, old faithful, your moon cycle, whatever you like to call it – has arrived and the menstrual or follicular phase has begun. This phase starts when you are actually on your period, not when PMS symptoms begin. Most of us associate the two – PMS and menstruation – but what is happening in your body once your period has begun is actually much different than you may think.
Scientifically at this phase, your uterus is shedding the lining it built up over the month. The first day of your period is day one of the follicular phase or the early follicular phase. At the start your progesterone and estrogen levels will be at their lowest, which along with the loss of blood and discomfort that can come along with that, may cause you to feel more blah, less motivated and generally more fatigued. As your cycle continues these hormone levels start to rise and using that information can help you to elevate your training for more strength and endurance gains.
If you experience heavy bleeding or fatigue in the early follicular phase, opting out of intense training is probably your best bet. Resting, fueling your body and focusing on gentle movement is A-ok. However, if these symptoms don’t hit you as hard there is no medical reason to avoid training while on your period. Comfort will depend on each person and you should do what feels right to you. Although there is positive early research showing that regular exercise (even as little as 60 minutes of yoga per week) can help reduce menstrual cramps, training hard through pain is never recommended.
Recommendations for workouts through your period
➤ HOT GIRL WALK (OR JOG)
... or just a normal walk will do as well. There are so many positive health benefits to getting a solid walk in. From helping to promote better digestion, to giving your brain a break from that computer screen, to distracting you from those cramps. Getting your body moving in a lower intensity way is good for body and mind. Try combining your walk with a guided meditation, a new audiobook or your favorite album if you’re feeling extra angst.
➤ PILATES - BARRE - BODYWEIGHT STRENGTH- LIGHT RESISTANCE TRAINING
If you’re feeling up to some strength work but still dealing with some achiness or fatigue, focus on bodyweight strength. Try a barre or pilates session, like my 35m Barre Burn: Long and Strong
class. Really focusing on technique and breath work works. Or if you do hit the gym don’t push for PR’s and instead keep the weights at your working weight and work on form with proper rest between sets.
If you’re not feeling up for a rigorous session but need some movement relief, a restorative or gentle yoga session could be exactly what you need. Modify any poses that cause any discomfort and take all the time you need in child's pose.
The Follicular Phase (Period to Ovulation)
The worst part of your period is over and you’ve hit your follicular phase stride. Your hormone levels are low but slowly rising and your body is primed for power. You’ll sometimes hear female strength athletes talk about "Period PR’s" and that's because when training is scheduled correctly this phase can give you the biggest boost in performance. In this phase your body is generally primed to take on stress, it is able to adapt to heavy training and recovers well.
Recommendations for workouts through your follicular phase
This is the time to challenge yourself. Push the weights, go for PR’s and maximize your training time.
➤ (HEAVY) STRENGTH TRAINING
This is the time to push your training. Schedule your most intense workouts now. See if you can push yourself to add a little more weight or an extra rep, you may surprise yourself.
Whether High intensity training is already part of your training schedule or you’ve always been a little nervous to try, this is the phase to do it. You have a higher capacity for intensity and stress and your body is better prepared to recover from these sessions, making them more effective. For a true HIIT workout you should be seriously pushing yourself during work intervals and fully resting in between. These sessions can increase your overall athletic performance, your VO2 max and they are just really fun when you’re feeling energetic and strong.
➤ BOXING/HIGH IMPACT SPORTS
If you’re looking for another high intensity option, give boxing, kickboxing or another high impact sport a go. Check out Coach Colby's 30m Full Body Boxing: Throw What Ya Know
class for starters.
You have the extra power, confidence and pizzazz to push yourself. You are on the other side of fatigue and your body is ready to prove what it can do. So go punch, kick or jump it all out.
Follicular Phase Nutrition Tip
The ovulation phase is the halfway point between the follicular and luteal phases. Ovulation itself only lasts for about 24 hours but the phase lasts approximately 2-3 days and comes along with high levels of estrogen, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising Hormone (LH) which work together to start ovulation.
Just like the follicular phase, for most, ovulation tends to be a higher energy time. Though some feel a little dull or blah during actual ovulation (this should only last a day). If you’re still feeling good, continue with your higher workout intensity. If you need to scale down while ovulating that’s totally ok as well.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR EXERCISING DURING OVULATION
Keep up your intensity! If you need to take a day off or lower your intensity while ovulating because you're just feeling off, do so and get back to it the next day!
The luteal phase
The luteal phase is the end of your cycle before your period and is the most consistent from person to person, lasting around 14 days. However the early and late portions of the luteal phase can feel very different.
During your early luteal phase you will most likely still feel pretty energetic, motivated and see good progress in your training, though this will begin to decrease as you get closer to your period.
During the luteal phase your progesterone levels begin to peak which can cause feelings of fatigue, drowsiness and the dreaded "lack of motivation." Quick reminder – you are not lazy or unmotivated, your body is producing hormones that actually can make your performance suffer. While this phase continues you can feel tired faster (those tiny weights start feeling much heavier), recover slower from intense bouts of stress, and have increased cardiovascular strain. On top of that, research shows that you most likely will suffer even more in a hot climate because your core body temperature is rising as well. Athletes in this phase are shown to have decreased speed and performance overall.
Now, this does not mean that you shouldn’t exercise or run during this phase, but it may feel more difficult than other phases of your cycle. Focusing on endurance based workouts and lowering your intensity while increasing your recovery time will pay off in the long run.
For athletes, acknowledging what is happening in your body and giving yourself the space to de-load in this phase so you can really push when the follicular phase comes, will help keep a positive mindset around training. You are not suddenly less motivated or talented, you are just going through the natural hormonal ups and downs.
RECOMMENDED EXERCISE DURING THE LUTEAL PHASE
During the early luteal phase, you can continue with your normal training, but as you near the late luteal phase which carries our favorite PMS symptoms and menstruation, you may feel more fatigued and struggle with the same workout you crushed the week prior. When this starts to happen it's good to adjust your training to match your body's needs.
➤ YOGA / MOBILITY PILATES - BARRE - BODYWEIGHT
Yoga, flowing movement and gentle mobility work can be super beneficial in this stage. Allowing your body to rest when it needs to while focusing on connection, breath and technique is key. Use this time to increase joint strength, mind body connection and flexibility.
➤ PILATES - BARRE - BODYWEIGHT
If getting flow-y just doesn’t work for you, lower intensity pilates, barre or bodyweight movement classes can do the trick. Give yourself plenty of time to recover, fuel properly and focus on technique work you may push past when you’re feeling super energetic.
➤ STEADY STATE or LOW INTENSITY CARDIO
We’ve all heard that exercise can help alleviate PMS symptoms and it is the truth. This is a great time for lower intensity cardio training if your body is up for it. Rowing, jogging, swimming and other activities can keep you on track and make you feel better, just make sure you don’t let your competitive side take the wheel.
No, I'm not joking. After ovulation your core body temperature should be at its lowest allowing for deeper more restful sleep. So get it while you can!
Early Luteal Phase Nutrition Tip - Keep your carbs up to stay fueled for workouts as your body needs slightly more energy in this state. Keep a watchful eye on protein as your body is in a more aggressive breakdown state and it needs support for recovery.
Late Luteal Phase Nutrition Tip - Focus on foods that can help ease some discomfort. When your hormones drop your body also releases inflammatory compounds. You are also using more magnesium & zinc in this phase so focus on foods that are rich in these or add them back through supplements as it can help reduce the severity of pain, cramping and bleeding.
SO HOW DO I KNOW IT’S MY CYCLE AND NOT JUST ME BEING LAZY?
Start tracking your period to know how to schedule your workouts for performance.
To actually know what phase of your cycle you’re in, it's important to track your period. Because we are all different, tracking will help you understand yourself and how training affects you throughout the month. Women more than men need to customize their plans and training and remain flexible so they can stay on track and keep crushing their goals.
Tracking your cycle and symptoms can be done the old school way with a diary or through one of the many available apps. Knowing your actual phase lengths and how they influence your performance, sleep and moods can open so many doors to better athletic performance and let you really start to take charge of your training. Working against your body can be exhausting physically and mental, so understanding the why behind your symptoms and feelings can be liberating.
Everyone’s bodies and symptoms are different, but knowing how your hormones affect you when it comes to exercise can help you choose the right workouts for you at the right time (and when to maybe take a break!)
You may have very few dips in energy and performance (lucky you!) and can largely stick to a pre-set program while your training partner may have significant drops in energy and strength and need to make bigger changes throughout the month. Either way, tracking your cycle and knowing more intimately what is going on in your body is just another tool in your performance and habit building tool box. If you know why you feel fatigued, that rest day won’t feel like you’re "just lazy" or "unmotivated," and instead allows you to feel ok just stretching or resting while your body does its thing.
Knowing that you can use your cycle to boost your physical and mental performance is your new super power.