Optimizing Training Around your Menstrual Cycle
As women sometimes it can feel like we have something to prove — that we can train, grow, and recover with the best of them. But your female physiology is not a weakness, and it certainly does not have to hold back your training goals. Just like anything in the natural world, our bodies and hormones go through cycles, which can be monitored and adjusted accordingly.
While we recognise that every woman is different when it comes to her period, we can use science to better guide our training choices. Let’s take a closer look at how you can work with your body instead of against it in the gym.
A woman’s menstrual cycle has different phases; the menstrual, follicular, ovulation, and luteal phases, which is often broken down more broadly into just the follicular and luteal phases. Let’s take a closer look.
Follicular Phase (the first 2 weeks)
This phase is the time between the first day of your period (menstruation) and the release of the egg from the ovary (ovulation) at approximately mid cycle.
Menstruation is the period (bleeding) itself, is the shedding of the uterine lining. Estrogen and progesterone (two of your hormones) levels are low in this phase.
Estorgen peaks just before ovulation when the egg is released and you are fertile. Following ovulation oestrogen drops off.
Luteal Phase (the last 2 weeks)
The time between ovulation (after the egg is released) and before the start of menstruation is the luteal phase. The body is preparing for a possible pregnancy in this phase. Progesterone is produced, peaks and then drops if you do not fall pregnant.
Strength Training During Follicular Phase
Some research has found that strength training during the follicular phase results in greater increases in muscle strength compared to training in the luteal phase. Estrogen is highest in the follicular phase. This has a positive effect on mood, energy and strength.
Higher levels may also help your recovery! During the first week of your period you are primed to train hard in this phase! You may want to start priming for a training peak by increasing weights, sets or reps!
Towards the end of this phase, as you enter the second week of your cycle, ovulation occurs. In this phase your strength peaks! Ovulation is characterised by a sharp increase in hormones, including testosterone, so can be the best time to hit strength PB’s and really push yourself.
Overall the first half of your cycle (follicular phase) is great for strength training and high intensity cardio, your body is also generally more carb sensitive.
Injury Risk During Fertile Window
In the third week of your cycle and the luteal phase you may notice you get extra hungry as your metabolism ramps up, towards the end of the week you may start getting the period bloat and some PMS symptoms.
We see a change in hormones that may increase the chance of injury due to changes in the laxity of ligaments. My recommendation is to pay extra attention to your warm up and activation series, steady state cardio may be more appropriate in this phase.
Be Kind to Yourself
During the final week, and final part of your cycle, many women experience PMS (premenstural syndrome). Following the fertile window, if you do not fall pregnant there is a drop in estrogen and progesterone. You may experience cramps, bloating, fatigue and changes in mood.
You may want to deload training in this week, reduce training intensity and focus on recovery, before you ramp up for the building phase again as your cycle starts again!
As a female or health care professional, taking a closer look at how the female body changes throughout a cycle can be an incredibly helpful tool. When we understand what is going on the inside we can set ourselves up for success in reaching our health and fitness goals.
Written by: Olivia Strelein
- BSc. Physiotherapy (Honours)
- BSc. Exercise and Sport Science
- Personal Trainer