As a woman, you know the hormonal swings, cravings, breakouts, bloating, and a stubborn scale all too well. If you are in tune with your body and training regularly you may notice a cyclical pattern with your energy, sleep, mood, strength and/or endurance levels as they change throughout the month.
But have you ever wondered what causes these highs and lows other than just feeling like you might be having an off day, or week, while other times you CRUSH IT and feel like superwoman ready to take over the world? Well, it has a lot to do with our menstrual cycle and the hormonal shifts throughout the month.
Instead of seeing hormonal fluctuations as the enemy that makes us feel crazy or emotional, we can use these biological cues in a way that allows us to work with our bodies instead of against them, and use this to our advantage in the gym.
We recognize that every woman is different when it comes to her monthly cycle so understanding the shifts that you’re experiencing can help us use science to better guide our training choices.
First, lets begin with a high level overview of your cycle and training:
MENSTRUAL CYCLE PHASES
A woman's menstrual cycle has different phases: the follicular, ovulation, and luteal phases, which are often broken down more broadly into just the follicular and luteal phases. Let’s break down each phase, the hormonal shifts that are happening and how that impacts our training and nutrition.
Phase 1 - Period to Ovulation (~ Day 1 to day 14)
The best time for progression and higher intensity workouts.
The first phase of the cycle is the follicular phase. The follicular phase occurs between day one (first day of your period) to ovulation which is around day 14 of your cycle, but this can come earlier or later depending on your cycle. During the follicular phase an egg is released from the follicle and during this phase the female hormone estrogen starts to rise and will reach its peak just before ovulation.
The follicular phase is a time of new beginnings as estrogen has a positive effect on mood, energy, and strength so you are more likely to feel good and experience improved physical strength. You’re open to new ideas, creativity peaks, and it’s a good time to start a new program (if you’re not already training regularly) as you may feel more motivated during the follicular phase.
This phase is the time when the female body is primed to hit intense workouts such as traditional strength and hypertrophy sessions, with some high-intensity intervals programmed in and focus on progress.
The hormonal changes during this phase slow down your metabolism, so cravings are lower, and continue to stay low through the ovulatory phase. You are also more insulin sensitive during this phase due to the increasing levels of estrogen so carbohydrates are used more efficiently. This is great for fueling high intensity workouts and your body will be able to cope and recover from a greater training volume than the luteal phase (which we will discuss next).
Phase 2 – Ovulation (~ Day 14)
Time to hit some new strength records!
Toward the end of the follicular phase comes ovulation - this typically occurs around day 14 if you’re following a 28 day cycle or around day 21 if you’re following a longer ~35 day cycle. Again, this varies for every person, and this is why it is a good idea to track your cycle. Ovulation is characterized by a sharp increase in all hormones, including a rise in testosterone so you might notice a dramatic change in how you feel as well!
Typically, your energy is at its peak in this phase. You feel more social, and feel more inclined to get out of the house and be around others. High intensity workouts are ideal, both because motivation and energy are high along with the sharp increase in hormones and the increased insulin sensitivity. During this time, you may also notice you feel your strongest due to the testosterone peak.
However, you’re also more prone to injury due to an increase in estrogen as it reaches its highest point, which can impact collagen metabolism and influence your neuromuscular control. Consider supplementing with a tablespoon of collagen in your morning smoothie, place more emphasis on your warm-up, include recovery sessions, and be aware of fatigue and proper form.
Phase 3 – Luteal Phase (Beginning After Ovulation ~ DAY 15-28)
Scale it back...
After the egg has been released during ovulation, it awaits to be fertilized. This is the luteal phase, or the time between ovulation and menstruation. This is where progesterone starts to rise (along with your body temperature), estrogen takes a slight dip, but then it rises again, followed by a drop in both hormones and the restart of the cycle (barring pregnancy). The reason that this cycle happens with hormones is because progesterone, known as our calming, balancing hormone compared to estrogen, is created to help support and protect the potential pregnancy after the egg has been released. This downward shift towards the end of the cycle just before mensuration is responsible for the PMS symptoms like bloating, headaches, weight changes, food cravings, and low energy.
During this phase, your body is not primed for high intensity work, so you may want to alter the exercise program to match energy levels, mood changes, and a compromised ability to recover from intense training. You may also notice a lack of motivation along with lower energy during this time, but it doesn’t mean you should skip your workouts. Rather, you can focus on utilizing lower-intensity training coupled with moderate intensity strength work. That means you should reduce overall load, use moderate weights, and shift towards mixed style training, like metabolic conditioning or circuit-style training. You can of course continue strength training sessions, but you may just want to go a bit lighter and focus on recovery a bit more.
During this time we are also more insulin sensitive, meaning the body prefers a bit more fat as its primary fuel source instead of glycogen, and you might retain more water at this time due to PMS symptoms. It is normal to crave high carb foods during this time…sweets included. Your serotonin production will be lower, and that can promote a poor mood and irritability. So, our natural instinct will be to eat more carbs as they cause a rapid release of serotonin, instantly providing a mood boost and natural high.
Rather than caving to the baked goods and high sugar, high carb foods, we would recommend focusing on two specific nutrients during this phase as the cravings are also related to nutrient deficiencies and minerals.
First, incorporate more magnesium-rich foods like spinach and dark chocolate. Magnesium rich foods are important for balancing fluid retention, reducing cravings, and supporting hormone metabolism. Research shows magnesium supplements can reduce PMS symptoms, so consider incorporating a magnesium supplement or increasing your dose the week leading into your cycle if you’re experiencing a lot of PMS symptoms.
Second, Vitamin C is incredibly important for progesterone production. In fact, research shows that vitamin C significantly increases progesterone in women. (source) This is important during this phase because many PMS symptoms can occur because of an imbalance of estrogen and progesterone, specifically estrogen dominance. (source)
Opt for foods rich in vitamin C, like organic strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and sweet potatoes. You could also consider adding in a Vitamin C supplement like HYDRATE to sip on throughout the day which can combat cravings and help with hydration and electrolyte balance.
Transition back to phase 1 and repeat the process...
And… back to square 1! After the luteal phase you will transition back to the menstrual/follicular phase, which will bring insulin sensitivity, body temperature, and water retention back to a slightly more “normal” balance.
Finally, outside of how these 3 phases and hormone changes impact your performance in the gym, you feel a bit moody or fatigued, we all know the worst part about the menstrual cycle – BLOATING.
It is not abnormal at all for women to take on a few extra pounds of water during their cycle. This is very uncomfortable and leaves an unsettling reflection in the mirror. One morning, you may wake up impressed with the degree of definition your body is showing. The next morning, you might see what looks like a blanket of fat covering what used to be those defined muscles.
That’s not fat, we promise! It's excess water retention caused by female hormones, mainly estrogen. *Birth control with high doses of estrogen can impact this even more.
So, how do you beat the bloat, or at least reduce it?
Utilize these tips to help you decrease bloating and water retention:
In conclusion, if you want to maximize your performance during all three phases, we recommend tracking your cycles. As mentioned before, we like Life Period Tracker: PMS & Menstrual Calendar App. This app will help you track your period, symptoms, mood, fertility, weight, nutrition, sleep, fitness, medicine, women’s health exams and keep a journal (available in iTunes store).
If you start to pay attention, you will see the difference in your workouts and understand why you have some amazing training days and some that are harder than others - again being in tune with your body and the hormonal shifts helps us work with our bodies rather than against them!
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