Exercise and the Menstrual Cycle
Working With, Rather Than Against Your Body
Note: In this article I refer to ‘menstruators’, meaning all people who experience a menstrual cycle rather than gendered terms, for inclusivity of all genders.
Have you ever wondered why some weeks you feel your usual workout is so much harder than the week before? Sure, it might be that string of late nights or your work stress distracting you, but have you ever considered if you’re also in a phase of your menstrual cycle with characteristics that don’t lend themselves to that form of training?
For those who experience a menstrual cycle, their bodies can feel extremely different depending on where they are in their cycle. Menstruators who are not taking hormonal birth control, experience a (roughly) monthly hormonal journey. For some this is relatively smooth, with few emotional and physical variations. For others, the contrasts are like night and day, the yin and yang of their cycle vivid and stark. While every person’s experience of their period is as individual as their personality, we can draw some generalisations using the (woefully small) body of research available. This is not to ignore the detailed nuances of each experience, and the huge variations in cycles. Identifying the general phases of the cycle and where you are in them help you exercise to feel your best, working with, rather than against your natural rhythm.
In taking the time to understand your cycle and identifying the characteristics of different phases, you can make the most of your strengths at different times. I’m keen to say that while this is a subject I’m fascinated by, I am not formally qualified in this area. I simply want to share some of the information that I’ve found useful, and my understanding as it stands so far.
The first thing to note is that while the bulk of this information is relevant to every menstruator, those who take hormonal birth control are not experiencing the same monthly change in hormones. Hormonal birth control such as the pill, implant or hormonal IUD offer the body synthetic hormone replacements which interfere with the body’s natural hormone production. You therefore may not necessarily identify with the characteristics of the phases, so track your energy through your cycle and adapt the information accordingly.
I’m Going Through a Phase...
Let’s head back to sex ed’ for a bit. The four phases of the menstrual cycle are defined by the hormones present at each stage. In brief:
1: Menstrual Phase – Typically 3-7 days in length, so days 1-3/7 of your cycle, this is when you bleed. Oestrogen and progesterone are low.
2: Follicular Phase – Typically days 7-11 of your cycle, FSH hormone tells your ovaries to release an egg, while oestrogen rises to thicken your womb lining.
3: Ovulatory Phase – The days before you ovulate, typically days 12-19, oestrogen and testosterone spike.
4: Luteal Phase – The days after ovulation and before bleeding, typically days 20-28, oestrogen has a second mini spike and progesterone peaks.
There’s a world of more detailed information on this subject online which I recommend you seek out if it’s your jam.
Choosing to Exercise With Your Cycle
Most menstruators will be familiar with the heavy lethargy that comes with the first couple of days' bleeding. Adjusting our exercise to fit around our cycle can go way beyond taking it easy for a couple of days each month. Here’s some general advice, which may resonate with you.
THE ACTION PLAN!
Phase 1 – Working Out While Bleeding
The lack of energy many will feel is due to the drop in the hormones which give us our va va voom, combined with blood loss (especially if you bleed heavily). If that’s you, it’s tempting to glue yourself to the sofa especially if you suffer with pain, but often gentle, restorative movement boosts your mood and can help alleviate cramping. Walking, low impact classes, Pilates and yoga might all seem like achievable options, but really whatever you feel up for is a good choice!
We often don’t feel sociable, and may need to be near to home comforts at this stage, so on demand home workouts are a great option. There’s no need to push for your personal best this week – ease off, listen to your body and rest as needed to preserve and build energy for your more sociable and energetic phases. If you work with a personal trainer, tell them where you’re at and what you need this week. Any good PT will adjust your programme accordingly, so you can come back refreshed and recovered.
I personally feel a lift in energy and mood a few days into my bleed. While I use this to get back to challenging myself and lifting a little heavier again, I remind myself not to overdo it in these early stages of my cycle and burn myself out. If you feel the same, remember there are phases to come that much better lend themselves to hard work. Make sure you feel ready for them!
Phase 2 – The Morning After the Night Before
The rise in hormones a few days into, and after you bleed, often brings with it a lift in mood. Some menstruators feel the heaviness of the menstrual phase is lifted, and a refreshed energy returns. If you experience a renewed vigor, make use of this by trying something new, or return to your regular training routine to start making progress once again. High intensity and cardio workouts will capitalise on the rise in energy. Now is a great time to get back into the group classes you love, and any exercise you enjoy but didn’t have the energy for in the menstrual phase.
If your bleed is traumatic (either because it’s heavy or painful, or because it brings sadness) you may feel the hangover from this lingering into your follicular phase. If this is the case, be kind to yourself and rebuild slowly. .
Phase 3 – Your Best You
The peak in testosterone and oestrogen make you feel your most energetic and sociable in this phase, so this is a great time to try a new class or style of exercise. Go with your friends, socialise and enjoy being able to give it your all. Generally, this is the time you’ll feel and perform your best. Go for gold!
Worth noting: In the days leading up to ovulation when oestrogen peaks, there’s a window where injury risk is higher due to increased ligament laxity. Research suggests that injuries like ACL tears due to the decreased stability of joints, are more likely to occur. It’s worth tracking your cycle so you can identify this window just before ovulation, and adjust your workouts accordingly (avoiding sharp changes in direction for example), and make sure you warm up with appropriate mobility and activation exercises.
Phase 4 – Ease on The Breaks
As this phase progresses, many feel a drop in energy and motivation. Especially if accompanied with PMS symptoms, this is the time to ease on the breaks. You may feel up for continuing your usual workout programme, but find it harder to perform with the same intensity. Don’t beat yourself up, use this time to work at a lower intensity while still progressing towards your goals.
Good nutrition which supports your energy, blood sugar levels and nutrient needs at different stages will help you feel at your best. Although it’s tempting to reach for sugary foods when energy and mood dips, turning to foods that keep your blood sugars stable is so much wiser. Adequate protein, complex carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables are all your friend.
Sleep is so important! Prioritise it as much as you can...whoever you are!
If this article has piqued your interest, I highly recommend the book Period Power by Maisie Hill for a vital and eye-opening unpicking of how the menstrual cycle affects people's lives. I certainly experienced a number of 'aha moments'!
You may not resonate with the characteristics of all, or some of the phases above, and that’s just fine! As I said at the start, everyone’s experience of their menstrual cycle is as unique as they are, and this is generalised information from a small body of research in this area. This is why getting to know your cycle and the characteristics of each phase is so beneficial: you can predict how you’re likely to feel at different stages and plan accordingly, or simply not borate yourself for feeling unmotivated at a certain stage! In syncing up your workouts and your cycle, you’ll be able to perform at your best, working with, rather than against yourself. And in the end, we all want to feel our best.