By Georgia Hamilton
STRENGTH & CONDITIONING COACH | ORMOND, VIC
My name is Georgia Hamilton, I am a Strength & Conditioning Coach. I specialise in helping women understand and train with their physiology to get the most out of the training and health. Today I will be walking you through the basics of the menstrual cycle and how it impacts your training.
What does the average cycle look like?
We start with the Follicular Phase: Day 1 is defined as the first day of bleeding and during this first approximate 7 days, progesterone and oestrogen plateau out. Hence why the Follicular Phase is also known as the ‘low hormone phase.’
Day 7-14, oestrogen peaks right before ovulation. On its own, oestrogen gives anabolic effects, essentially meaning “building” muscle. This means that we have greater capacity for muscle growth and strength development. During this week, we will get the most return from our weight training as our physiology is best matched to combat this type of training stress. After we get our period our core temperature drops and water availability increases, this allows us to hit higher intensities during our HIIT sessions and recover faster.
Day 15 through to day 28 (or until the last day before your period begins again), we enter the ‘high hormone phase’ of our cycle. After ovulation, progesterone and oestrogen both increase and exert their greatest effects. Opposite to the Follicular phase, progesterone on its own is catabolic, “breaking down” muscle. These peaks in oestrogen and progesterone can cause changes to mood, cognitive function and musculoskeletal strength and stability. Over these two weeks, we are likely to experience some form of PMS. We can experience a decline in mood and motivation, a presence of brain fog or elevated feelings of anxiety or stress. We are also likely to feel ‘weaker’ and fatigue sooner during our training session. The same weight you lifted 2 weeks ago might feel twice as hard around day 21 of your cycle, and that is completely normal! Something to be cautious of is that ligament laxity, general inflammation and core body temperature all increase during this period of time, making us more susceptible to injury. With our hormones peaking, increased inflammation and core temperature, it will take us longer to recover after hard cardio or heavy lifting sessions.
How To Adjust Your Training:
Follicular Phase: If you are feeling good during days 1-7 this is when your body can hit higher intensities during cardio efforts and recover faster. In saying this, a lot of us do not feel 100% when we have our period. If you experience debilitating cramps or breast pain, try some light stretching or yoga to keep your body moving. Remember that days 7-14 is when our energy levels should start to increase and our body is in a better state for building muscle and lifting heavy! If you’re into weight training, aim for heavy compound lifting (deadlifts, squats, bench press etc) during this time. If you love your circuit based cardio sessions, incorporate more weight bearing exercises during this time.
Luteal Phase: After we ovulate it is normal for energy, motivation and ability to recover to decrease. When my clients experience this dip in energy is when I would recommend a ‘deload’ training week. This involves focusing on training movement patterns, increasing reps and decreasing load (weight lifted). Simply, reduce your training intensities and incorporate some stability exercises for your core and hips (bird-dogs, glute bridges, high plank etc). This will not only reduce risk of injury but also improve your mentality around training. Ensure to not be self-critical if you lift less weight or simply not feel as fit during this time, it’s not because you aren’t training hard enough, but because your physiology is inhibiting you from doing so.
What If I Do Not Experience This ‘Average Cycle?’
In saying this, we all do not experience the same menstrual cycle with the same symptoms. Step 1 is to track and understand how you experience your cycle, including changes to energy, mood, motivation etc. Step 2, apply the above concepts to suit you! If you experience ovulation cramping, put your deload training week around days 12-16. If your period is full of low energy and cramps, this is your week to take it easy! Simply, go hard when you feel great and take it easy when your body is calling out for a rest.
During the Luteal Phase, the body is using more energy to build up the uterine lining prior to day 1 of your period. This results in the overall amount of calories burned day to day increasing, therefore slightly increasing your caloric intake during these two weeks will be of benefit to your energy levels. It is around 100-150 cals per day, equating to a couple squares of chocolate, an extra muesli bar on your yogurt that morning or an extra handful of almonds in the afternoon. This also can indicate why cravings are common during this phase, the body is craving more energy because it is burning more.
Understanding the ‘Low Energy Availability State:’
A low energy state is the body trying to conserve energy if the daily calorie intake (energy/fuel going into the body) is not matching the daily energy expenditure (how much energy we are burning). This imbalance can occur if our training load throughout the week is not being supported by appropriate recovery. Prolonged periods of the body being in a low energy state can lead to menstrual cycle dysfunction.
Appropriate recovery encompasses; adequate sleep (7-9hrs is recommended) and adequate calorie intake. In terms of your diet, the female body needs to be fuelled for training. Training without having a snack or small meal beforehand puts the body in a catabolic state prior to any training stress. After exercise the body is in a catabolic state (muscle breaking down) as a result of the natural effect that training has on our body. Therefore, training without fuel (food) encourages the body to begin conserving energy prior to our efforts during exercise to burn energy. Post exercise we want to get out of that catabolic (breakdown) state as soon as possible. Eat an appropriate snack or meal that replenishes carbohydrates, healthy fats and protein to support muscle repair and growth, for women, consuming around 25-30g of protein post-exercise is ideal.
Under a stressed state for a prolonged period of time (overtraining) will result in the amount of energy the body burns daily doing nothing decreases. This is due to the body going into a conservation mode for survival. It aims to retain as much energy as possible to support functioning. Being in this low energy state can lead to irregularity in your menstrual cycle and potentially it stopping altogether. The body feels that it does not have enough to support itself in an optimal way hence it cannot support reproduction, so that process stops. We want to maintain healthy menstrual cycle functioning so we experience these fluctuations in hormones because when we train to work around them, the effectiveness of our training increases.
Bringing it all together, track your cycle to start understanding when you experience changes to mood, energy, cognitive function and cravings. From here you can begin adjusting your training as necessary. There are times to train hard and times to pull back. Train with your physiology not against it.
IMAGE GRAPH CREDIT: Laurie Ray, DNP. What is the menstrual cycle? Sept 14. 2022 Hello Clue