So you are training optimally, nailing your nutrition, getting your recommended sleep, maintaining a social life AND balancing work - but you still don’t feel like you are reaping the results you have worked hard for?
Did you ever consider your menstrual cycle could play a key role in performance? Yeah, neither did I.
When considering your training plan it's important to understand that women are biochemically different to men. Women have to factor in their Infradian rhythm, which is responsible for regulating hormone production.
During your 28 day menstrual cycle your hormones, cortisol, progesterone and estrogen will fluctuate in concentration. Your metabolism and calorie intake will rise and fall. Therefore it is important to note that there are different nutritional requirements that exist at different phases of your cycle.
Considering this, how do you expect to train at the same tempo as the boys? In order to biohack your unique cycle, it's important to fully understand what is happening at each of these stages.
This is not a copy and paste method, your symptoms and hormone concentrations will vary, and no woman is the same.
Based on the hormonal profile there are 4 phases:
Phase 1: Menstruation (3- 7 days)
Your energy will be at its lowest at the beginning of your period. It is completely normal if you take napping as your sport! If you feel inclined to exercise, focus on low intensity and aerobic exercise. Depending on your symptoms, just going for a walk or participating in some mobility and yoga is great.
It’s important to be on your ‘A Game’ with nutrition during this phase as there is an influx of inflammatory markers flooding your body. It can be easy to comfort yourself with takeaways and sugary treats. However, eating a highly-processed diet means a diet high in saturated fat and this will increase the inflammation in the body and actually exhaust its ability to deal with it. As a consequence of this, you can make symptoms worse.
Focus on anti-inflammatory foods like omegas, nuts and green leafy vegetables as well as antioxidants which will be found in fruits. Fuelling properly during menstruation is very important, your body will require more iron and zinc.
In order to remineralise, eat kelp and seaweed and focus on high sources of iron found in lentils, chickpeas, tofu and beans. Consume these with a glass of orange juice or any other form of vitamin C as this will allow for iron to be readily available and absorbed in the body. High sources of vitamin C can be found in broccoli, spinach and berries.
Although it was thought for years that women should not train on their period, recent research suggests that women can actually improve their symptoms through physical activity. So carry on as normal, and only you know how your body is feeling. Do consider turning it down a level and opting for more recovery if your PMS systems show cramping, fatigue and mood changes. You can’t exercise the same way every day and expect to see results!
Phase 2: Follicular (7- 10 days )
The week after your period your hormones are all at their lowest and slowly beginning to increase in concentration. During this phase, your estrogen levels increase. It is important to have a healthy diet as your energy requirements shift.
You should fuel efficiently for your performance if you are training and consume enough calories to match your everyday needs. Typically your appetite levels can decrease, but here it is essential to make sure you are eating enough so your body is in prime condition to reach the ovulation phase.
A well-known study showed a woman's resting metabolic rate (also known as our basal metabolic rate) decreases during the follicular phase, hitting its lowest point one week before ovulation. So doing high-intensity workouts during this phase serves as a counterbalance to a slower metabolism. Helping you burn fat and increase muscle.
Focus on fermented, sprouted foods, green vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, kale and cauliflower are abundant in a phytonutrient called diindolylmethane (DIM) which helps to normalise estrogen levels. If you can, try to stay away from high consumptions of alcohol in this phase as it can quickly dehydrate your body and cause hormonal imbalances.
Phase 3: Ovulation (3-5 days)
Estrogen increases further and testosterone starts to surge. If you want to make those muscular and strength goals, now is your chance ladies. Several studies have reported that women weight training during their ovulation period in the follicular phase had much higher increases in muscular strength compared to training in the luteal phase.
Pay attention to your body and make sure you have an efficient warm-up, a meta-review of studies reviewed how hormonal changes can potentially impact your tendons laxity. An increase in tendon injuries during the fertile window has been suggested to have a correlation amongst female athletes. That being said, just take your time and focus on form and technique rather than reps for speed.
Fill up on raw veggies for extra fibre and fruit for higher levels of glutathione to enable your body to be easily metabolised and eliminate any extra estrogen surplus. Ovulatory foods like asparagus, okra and spinach promote vascular and antioxidative well being for your ovaries. Be sure to supplement and prioritise your Essential fatty acids to assist blood flow to the uterus during this phase.
Phase 4: Luteal (10-14 days)
This is when the progesterone hormone joins alongside estrogen. Estrogen, progesterone and testosterone reach their peak concentrations. Progesterone has been shown to be a catabolic hormone which drives the breakdown of muscle tissue. So if you are doing any high-intensity exercise that triggers an inflammatory response in the muscle, that muscular breakdown is likely to be significantly greater.
Protein in this phase is super important, to make sure you are recovering properly and going into exercise fuelled rather than fasted. This is also the phase where most women develop cravings - and I don't know about you, but I definitely don’t crave a salad!
Focus on foods rich in B vitamins to stave off those sugar cravings. Eating your greens to boost your calcium and magnesium intake will reduce fluid retention.
Your hormones are likely to make you feel irritable so be mindful and kind to yourself. During the first week of this phase, you will have lots of energy to burn so put your focus and determination into HIIT, intense yoga or whatever floats your boat. Scale back later in the phase to lighter exercise like walking or pilates.
I would highly recommend that you track or map your menstrual cycle either in your personal diary or through an app. Record all your symptoms, appetite, energy levels alongside with your nutrition. It will help you find patterns and you’ll know what to expect and how to manage it.
Thanks for reading, I hope this helps you smash all your health and fitness-related goals.
Until next time,
De Jonge, X.A.J., 2003. Effects of the menstrual cycle on exercise performance. Sports medicine, 33(11), pp.833-851.
Herzberg, S.D., Motu’apuaka, M.L., Lambert, W., Fu, R., Brady, J. and Guise, J.M., 2017. The effect of menstrual cycle and contraceptives on ACL injuries and laxity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Orthopaedic journal of sports medicine, 5(7), p.2325967117718781.
Razzak, Z.A., Khan, A.A. and Farooqui, S.I., 2019. Effect of aerobic and anaerobic exercise on estrogen level, fat mass, and muscle mass among postmenopausal osteoporotic females. International journal of health sciences, 13(4), p.10.
Solomon, SJ, Kurzer, MS & Calloway, DH 1982, 'Menstrual cycle and basal metabolic rate in women', American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 611-616.
Wikström-Frisén, L., Boraxbekk, C.J. and Henriksson-Larsen, K., 2017. Effects on power, strength and lean body mass of menstrual/oral contraceptive cycle based resistance training. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 57(1-2), pp.43-52.