The Menstrual Cycle & Training
Understanding How It Affects Us…
It is important for female athletes to consider how their body changes and how hormones play a part in training and recovery.
Don’t be scared to take a rest day if you are suffering from symptoms such as extreme fatigue, mood swings etc. However, we do encourage continuing exercising if you can during your period, this is also shown (if no underlying condition) to help period pains and improve mood. Bare in mind, it is safe to carry on as normal during your period.
In this explanation, the length of menstrual cycle has been assumed to be 28 days (which is the average among women). The entire duration of a Menstrual cycle can be divided into four main phases:
1. Menstrual phase (From day 1 to 5)
2. Follicular phase (From day 1 to 13)
3. Ovulation phase (Day 14)
4. Luteal phase (From day 15 to 28)
What science tells us:
Strength at different stages of the menstrual cycle
Several studies have looked at differences in responses to strength training in the follicular phase (the time from your period until ovulation), compared to training in the luteal phase (from ovulation until your period).
Some research has found that strength training during the follicular phase resulted in higher increases in muscle strength compared to training in the luteal phase.
If you start paying attention to your cycle phases, you may find your strength training pays off the most in your follicular phase.
Tendon injuries in fertile days
A recent meta-review of studies looked at how hormonal changes may impact tendon laxity and risk of tendon injury. It found the risk was highest in the days leading up to ovulation, when oestrogen is high. The luteal phase was associated with the lowest risk. It's worth doing longer warm-up exercises and not overstretching during your potential fertile days.
Feeling weak in the second part of your cycle:
Don’t be too harsh on yourself or work out percentages based on 1rm’s during this time
In the second part of your cycle, progesterone rises significantly. Your body temperature is also higher during this phase — body temp shoots up by at least 0.4 degrees celsius after ovulation and stays high until menstruation. Your body is preparing for a potential pregnancy, should an egg have been fertilised at ovulation.
As a result, you may find that you don't have as much endurance during your luteal phase. You may not be able to hit max lifts, and may feel worse in training compared to the first part of your cycle.
So, don't judge the results of your training based on your performance in this phase alone. Decreased performance is a perfectly normal experience in the luteal phase of your cycle.
Taking rest days in the second part of your cycle
Based on what we have learnt above, you might want to schedule your rest days during your luteal phase. That doesn't mean you should entirely skip training in this phase, (or that you shouldn’t rest during the other stages). You'll still improve from strength training in the luteal phase. If you're not sure exactly when you're ovulating, or you want a baseline for how long your average luteal phase tends to be, try taking ovulation tests for a few cycles (ovulation can shift cycle-to-cycle, but it's usually your follicular phase that's getting shorter or longer).
Also, if you want to take time off from training for a holiday and you are able to plan any time, your luteal phase is a great time to take it in order to reduce impact on your strength goals.
Let’s break down the stages and what’s actually happening during each:
Menstruation is the elimination of the thickened lining of the uterus (endometrium) from the body through the vagina. Menstrual fluid contains blood, cells from the lining of the uterus (endometrial cells) and mucus. The average length of a period is between three days and one week.
The follicular phase starts on the first day of menstruation and ends with ovulation. Prompted by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland releases follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). This hormone stimulates the ovary to produce around five to 20 follicles (tiny nodules or cysts), which bead on the surface.
Each follicle houses an immature egg. Usually, only one follicle will mature into an egg, while the others die. This can occur around day 10 of a 28-day cycle. The growth of the follicles stimulates the lining of the uterus to thicken in preparation for possible pregnancy.
This is the stage you you may find your strength training pays off the most. You might feel stronger.
Ovulation is the release of a mature egg from the surface of the ovary. This usually occurs mid-cycle, around two weeks or so before menstruation starts.
During the follicular phase, the developing follicle causes a rise in the level of oestrogen. The hypothalamus in the brain recognises these rising levels and releases a chemical called gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH). This hormone prompts the pituitary gland to produce raised levels of luteinising hormone (LH) and FSH.
Within two days, ovulation is triggered by the high levels of LH. The egg is funnelled into the fallopian tube and toward the uterus by waves of small, hair-like projections. The life span of the typical egg is only around 24 hours. Unless it meets a sperm during this time, it will die.
During ovulation, the egg bursts from its follicle, but the ruptured follicle stays on the surface of the ovary. For the next two weeks or so, the follicle transforms into a structure known as the corpus luteum. This structure starts releasing progesterone, along with small amounts of oestrogen. This combination of hormones maintains the thickened lining of the uterus, waiting for a fertilised egg to stick (implant).
If a fertilised egg implants in the lining of the uterus, it produces the hormones that are necessary to maintain the corpus luteum. This includes human chorionic gonadotrophin (HCG), the hormone that is detected in a urine test for pregnancy. The corpus luteum keeps producing the raised levels of progesterone that are needed to maintain the thickened lining of the uterus.
If pregnancy does not occur, the corpus luteum withers and dies, usually around day 22 in a 28-day cycle. The drop in progesterone levels causes the lining of the uterus to fall away. This is known as menstruation. The cycle then repeats.
This is the stage you may feel training to be more tricky. It might feel like everything is heavier or more hard work.
5 Top Tips During Your Cycle:
1: Limit Sugar, Alcohol, and Caffeine
Hormones fluctuate during the menstrual cycle, as do our emotions, appetite, thoughts and general well being. To promote hormonal balance you can think about limiting sugar, caffeine and alcohol during your cycle. Limiting these things or cutting them out can reduce cramping too.
2: Eat Whole Foods (Often)
Mood swings during your cycle can also be due to cortisol spikes. Cortisol is an important hormone that works with your brain in order to regulate things such as mood. To avoid these mood swings, try to eat every 3-4 hours. Eating more frequent smaller meals, focusing on whole foods, can help to regulate cortisol levels in the body and therefore help avoid mood swings. You might find this helps the emotional rollercoaster you are potentially dealing with.
3: Try drinking Herbal Tea
If you do experience painful cramping, one tip is to drink herbal tea. For example, chamomile, ginger. All of these herbs are shown to help with inflammation and can help reduce pain.
4: Increase Iron Intake
Around 1mg of iron is said to be lost every day due to blood loss. Examples of iron rich foods:
- Dark leafy greens (spinach)
- Red meats
- Pair these foods with vitamin C (oranges, strawberries, etc.) to help with iron absorption!
5: Eat Magnesium Rich Foods
To help with fatigue, eat foods rich in magnesium. For example:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Dark chocolate
These foods could be a great step to helping fight fatigue associated with the later phase of your cycle.