THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE + YOUR FITNESS JOURNEY

WHAT DOES ONE THING HAVE TO DO WITH THE OTHER?

Most women have no idea how much their monthly cycle can affect their health and fitness goals. From metabolism, to injury risk, to strength levels, your menstrual cycle absolutely plays a role! So, let’s break it down!

Phase I: Your Follicular Phase

This phase begins on the first day of your period and ends when you ovulate.

Your follicular phase is the first “half” of your cycle. In terms of training, this is your time to train HARD in the gym. Due to the gradual increases in estrogen throughout this phase, you’ll feel stronger, faster, and have more endurance. Pain tolerance is higher, force generation capacity is higher, AND so is your insulin sensitivity. Meaning, this is a great time to utilize higher carbohydrate days or carb re-feeds to better fuel your exercise.

Phase II: Ovulation

The release of an egg from the ovary. Typically about 13-15 days before period.

If you’ve ever noticed that you’re STARVING about 2 weeks before your period, it’s probably due to ovulation. When we ovulate, our metabolism actually increases slightly based on an increase in body temperature. During this time, strength levels are high, force generation capacity is at its highest (AKA great time to PR in the gym!). However, due to the nature of increased estrogen leading to decreased neuromuscular control, your injury risk is higher during this time. Moral of the story: Train hard, but with STELLAR form/technique (though this should always be doing this!).

Phase III: Your Luteal Phase

The time between ovulation and your period (2nd half of your cycle).

You know those days that just feel HARD AF? Welcome to your luteal phase. From the time you ovulate to the time you get your period, things are a bit rough around the edges. This is not to discourage you, rather to tell you, THIS IS NORMAL! You’re human (and a female).  Your luteal phase includes increased fatigue, increased water retention and an increased craving for carbs. In other words, the “hangry” phase, though most women typically call this PMS. During your luteal phase progesterone peaks, which is where all these lovely symptoms come from.  While estrogen is still high during this time, progesterone is dominant during this phase. As a result, we are actually more insulin resistant during this time and tend to rely more on fat as a fuel source as opposed to carbs. Unfortunately, this phase also elicits a decrease in serotonin which leaves you craving carbs AKA something that would increase serotonin (happy hormone)

Phase III: Your Luteal Phase

The shedding of the lining of the uterus AKA your period.

Believe it not, this is actually when your PMS symptoms start to subside. Your body temperature should return to normal, water retention/bloating should diminish, and insulin sensitivity will increase again (yay more carbs!). Short of some cramping on the first day or two, you should start to feel a bit more like your normal self once menstruation is underway.  This is a great time to transition back into more intense workouts (some women experience their strongest workouts on their period!) so have at it!

This image is a great illustration of what’s happening throughout each phase of your cycle. See the peaks in estrogen? The peaks in progesterone? The sooner you know your own cycle, the better you’ll understand the ebbs and flows of your hunger, strength, and health journey overall!

HOWEVER:

There is one more important thing to note here! The descriptions (and image) above are what a normal menstrual cycle looks like (or should look like) when hormones are at optimal levels and the female is cycling naturally. On the other hand, if you are on hormonal birth control, this is NOT what your cycle will look like as the exogenous hormones you’re using keep your own endogenous hormones from fluctuating. Remember, birth control works by preventing ovulation (no release of an egg), so your menstrual cycle will look much different than what’s described above.

Depending on the type of birth control you use (shot, pill, combination, progestin only, etc)  your cycle would look more like the image below; one steady supply of exogenous hormones from your contraceptive, until you have your “non-pill” days to illicit a bleed. Note: A bleed on birth control is NOT the same as having a “normal” period, as you are typically not ovulating while using hormonal birth control.

-Kaylin Hauge BS, CSCS

 

Disclaimer:  The author is not a physician or a registered dietitian. The contents of this article should not be taken as medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any health problem – nor is it intended to replace the advice of a physician.

Resources:

Herzberg SD, Motu’apuaka ML, Lambert W, Fu R, Brady J, Guise JM. The effect of menstrual cycle and contraceptives on ACL injuries and laxity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Orthopaedic journal of sports medicine. 2017 Jul 19;5(7):2325967117718781.

Sung E, Han A, Hinrichs T, Vorgerd M, Manchado C, Platen P. Effects of follicular versus luteal phase-based strength training in young women. Springerplus. 2014 Dec 1;3(1):668.

Wikström-Frisén L, Boraxbekk CJ, Henriksson-Larsén K. Effects on power, strength and lean body mass of menstrual/oral contraceptive cycle based resistance training. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 2015.

Disclaimer: The author is not a physician or a registered dietitian. The contents of this article should not be taken as medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any health problem – nor is it intended to replace the advice of a physician.