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Optimising your exercise routine to your menstrual cycle

May 14, 2024

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Have you ever noticed that some weeks you feel unstoppable, powering through intense workouts or smashing your personal best in a 5km run, only to find yourself the next week barely motivated to leave the couch, with cravings for ice cream and comfort foods? If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many women experience these fluctuations, which can often be traced back to the phases of their menstrual cycle. Understanding this natural rhythm can unlock the secret to optimising your fitness routine, aligning your exercise to the ebb and flow of your hormonal changes.

Phases of the Menstrual Cycle:

The menstrual cycle is typically divided into four main phases, each characterised by unique hormonal environments:

Menstrual Phase (Days 1-5):

This phase begins with day one of bleeding, signalling the shedding of the uterine lining. Hormones such as estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest, which can lead to decreased energy levels and motivation. Some women may experience cramps, which can affect their ability to perform high-intensity exercises.

 

Follicular Phase (Days 1-13):

Although this phase starts concurrently with the menstrual phase, it features a gradual rise in estrogen as the ovaries prepare to release an egg. The increasing estrogen levels enhance mood, energy, and resilience against pain, setting a positive stage for more vigorous exercises.

 

Ovulation (Day 14):

The midpoint of the cycle, ovulation occurs with a sharp increase in estrogen and luteinizing hormone. Energy is typically at its peak, and there’s an increase in libido. This phase presents an optimal time for achieving high performance in strength and endurance activities.

Luteal Phase (Days 15-28):

Post-ovulation, if the egg isn’t fertilised, estrogen levels dip initially then slightly rise, while progesterone levels increase to prepare the uterus for a potential pregnancy. This hormone shift can lead to premenstrual syndrome (PMS), bloating, and dips in energy and mood, which may affect exercise motivation and performance.

 

Hormonal Impact on Energy and Motivation:

Each phase comes with its set of hormonal changes that distinctly affect a woman’s physical and emotional state:

  1. Menstrual and Early Follicular Phase: The low hormone levels can lead to reduced stamina and a general feeling of lethargy. Light to moderate activities can help maintain activity levels without overstraining the body.
  2. Late Follicular Phase (pre-ovulation): With estrogen climbing, women often experience a surge in energy and strength, making it an excellent time for pushing limits in high-intensity workouts.
  3. Ovulation: The hormonal peak can enhance physical capabilities, making it the best phase for trying to hit new personal records in strength or endurance.
  4. Luteal Phase: The increase in progesterone can lead to a slowdown in physical energy. It’s beneficial to switch to less intense, more restorative exercises during this time.

 

To truly harness the physiological changes across different phases of the menstrual cycle, it’s important to not only adapt the type of exercise but also consider intensity, duration, and recovery. Here’s a detailed exploration of how to optimise your exercise training around the menstrual cycle, offering a phase-by-phase approach to maximise effectiveness and comfort.

Menstrual Phase: Gentle Engagement and Recovery

Focus: The goal during the menstrual phase is to manage discomfort and conserve energy while maintaining a level of physical activity that feels comfortable and restorative.

  1. Low-Impact Activities: Opt for exercises that are low in intensity but help in maintaining mobility. Swimming can be particularly soothing due to the buoyancy of water, reducing strain on the body.
  2. Gentle Yoga: Certain yoga poses that focus on relaxation and stretching can alleviate menstrual cramps and help maintain flexibility. Avoid intense abdominal workouts that might increase discomfort.
  3. Duration and Frequency: Keep workouts shorter and less frequent; even 15-20 minutes of gentle exercise can be beneficial without overtaxing the body.
  4. Recovery: Allow for more rest and recovery time. Sleep is particularly important during this phase for hormonal regulation and overall recovery.

 

Follicular Phase: Building Strength and Stamina

Focus: With rising energy levels thanks to increasing estrogen, this phase is ideal for focusing on gaining strength, endurance, and cardiovascular health.

  1. Strength Training: Implement progressive overload principles where the intensity of exercises increases gradually. This phase is perfect for pushing your limits in strength training due to better pain tolerance and recovery.
  2. Cardio Workouts: Take advantage of the higher energy levels to incorporate more cardio sessions, which could include longer and more intense sessions like running or cycling.
  3. Skill Acquisition: Since cognitive functions and coordination might be at a peak due to high estrogen levels, it’s a good time to try new sports or challenging physical activities that also require mental engagement.
  4. Recovery: While you can push harder during this phase, always ensure adequate recovery by incorporating days of lighter activity and focusing on nutrition to support increased activity levels.

 

Ovulation: Peak Performance Opportunities

Focus: This is often the time of peak physical and mental energy, making it ideal for high-intensity and high-load workouts.

  1. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Leverage the peak in strength and stamina to engage in HIIT sessions, which can help improve metabolic rate and cardiovascular health.
  2. Heavy Lifting: With the body’s increased ability to handle stress, this is an opportune time to focus on lifting heavier weights or increasing the intensity of resistance training.
  3. Competitive Sports: Engage in competitive scenarios whether it’s team sports, racing, or personal challenges in strength or endurance, as reaction times and coordination may be enhanced.
  4. Recovery: Even with increased capacity, recovery should not be neglected. Focus on post-workout stretches, hydration, and protein intake to aid in muscle recovery and prepare for the next workout.

 

Luteal Phase: Maintenance and Mindfulness

Focus: As the body prepares for the possibility of pregnancy, energy levels may wane and discomfort can increase. The focus should shift to maintaining fitness and managing premenstrual symptoms.

  1. Moderate Aerobic Exercise: Continue with aerobic exercises but reduce the intensity. Activities like brisk walking, light jogging, or steady-state cycling can maintain cardiovascular health without excessive strain.
  2. Stability and Flexibility Workouts: Incorporate exercises that enhance core stability, balance, and flexibility such as Pilates or gentle yoga. These are low-impact and help in reducing stress and muscle tension.
  3. Mind-Body Activities: Practices like tai chi or yoga can be especially beneficial for their mental and physical benefits, helping to manage stress and mood swings.
  4. Recovery: Pay special attention to sleep and stress management techniques during this phase. Consider lighter exercise days and more comprehensive warm-up and cool-down routines to support recovery and overall well-being.

 

Tailoring your exercise regimen to your menstrual cycle isn’t just about improving workout performance—it’s also about fostering a deeper connection with your body. By adjusting exercise intensity, type, and recovery strategies according to hormonal fluctuations, women can achieve better health outcomes, reduce discomfort, and enhance their overall fitness journey.

 


 1 The Impact of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Athletes’ Performance: A Narrative Review, 23 Dec. 2020.
2 Impact of Menstrual cycle-based Periodized training on Aerobic performance, a Clinical Trial study protocol—the IMPACT study, 29 Jan. 2024

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