A blog about periods… really?
I’m writing this blog for women who, like myself, previously haven’t really ever stopped and thought about what my menstrual cycle is. We turn 11,12,13 or whatever age you were and all of sudden your body shows you that you’re physiologically able to conceive. I remember clearly thinking this is so unfair, I don’t want to have a child until I’m at least in my 20’s, why do I have to suffer with these for so many years prior! Until very recently I’d never thought very much about the monthly’s, it was just something that happened, I knew I’d feel a bit crappy, want to eat everything in sight and have a tummy that looked like an overinflated balloon for a few days. I accepted this as par for the course and got on with it… until I started training.
A year or so ago, I started to become a lot more conscious of what my body was going through when I had my period but still wanted to maintain my workouts. I’d notice that some weeks I’d feel amazing in the gym, more plates were going on the bar, I had loads of energy, and then other times I could barely drag myself out of bed, let alone even contemplate a workout. I took a chance to educate myself as to what goes on inside, and it’s more complicated than I’d realised. You may be totally clued up, but I wasn’t, so thought I’d get a few points down to help anyone who’s curious and may be struggling.
I’m going to go pretty high level, as I don’t claim to be a doctor or by any means have a vast understanding of biology but here goes…
What is the menstrual cycle?
So the menstrual cycle is just that, a cycle. It’s the releasing of an unfertilised egg and the shedding of the womb layer. This cycle usually takes about 28 days but can vary from person to person. There’s four phases within our cycles – These are known as follicular, ovulation, luteal and menstruation. We usually just hear of our menstrual cycle being two phases (follicular 14 days and luteal 14 days), this is easy to grasp and less technical, but understanding all of these phases benefits and disadvantages can be crucial for you, you could have deeper knowledge into when you can get your best work done in the gym, slay your fitness class, shop for some new jeans, or have a lazy day!
Phase 1 – Follicular
The follicular phase begins as soon as you stop menstruating, day 0 to about day 14. In this phase, your body ups the production of estrogen (female steroid hormone which sends the message to the womb, to grow and shed the lining from the previous cycle), your progesterone (produced by the ovaries, which tells the womb to stop growing, and mature ready for possible pregnancy) levels stay the same and you maintain an average body temperature. In the follicular phase, your metabolic rate also declines slightly. This phase is great for workouts, this is the time to train hard, go eat those carbs but stay within your calories, or even reduce slightly if you’re trying to lose weight! Carbs eaten in this phase will be getting used to fuel your muscles more, as your insulin sensitivity is higher in the follicular phase. The follicular phase is where you’re going to be feeling pretty strong, this is also when you’ll have the highest pain tolerance, plus an increased level of endurance. I’ve really noticed the follicular phase now, and all the benefits I can get from it. I use it to my advantage as best I can.
Phase 2 – Ovulation
The ovulation phase starts at day 14, based on a 28 day cycle, and is thrown into the same category as our luteal and menstrual phases. Ovulation is when your body releases the egg down to a Fallopian tube with the hope of getting fertilised! This phase is usually only about 2 days, so quite short but still has its advantages. Interestingly, a study found that ovulating women are 11% stronger in both their handgrip and their quadriceps. This is a perfect time to attempt that PB, but this comes with a downside… risk of injury while ovulating is higher 🙁
It’s been suggested there’s 4-8 times more chance of injury in this phase. Why? this is because whilst you’re ovulating, you’re producing the most estrogen in your cycle, this hormone will also have an impact on your neuromuscular control, meaning you’re not going to get that mind to muscle connection as much which, could impact your form.
The good news about ovulation is that your metabolic rate starts to increase – cue the cravings! The cravings come because your insulin sensitivity starts to decrease, so, if you do feel the need to increase your calories here because you’re hungrier, try and opt for more fats and proteins.
Everyone get out of the way, she’s in her luteal phase!
Phase 3 – Luteal
Next is your Luteal phase, classed as the last 14 days of your cycle but, also includes ovulation and menstration. This is when your body is preparing for a potential pregnancy. I call this my fuck it phase though. I can’t be bothered to do very much here at all. Why? Well in your luteal phase your serotonin (the feel good hormone) levels are lower, your body in response to these lower serotonin levels tells you to go grab the carbohydrates. Carbs cause a quick release, although short lived boost of serotonin. Insulin sensitivity in this phase is the lowest, which means carbs should be kept under control. How unfair is this, when your body is craving them the most, is the time you should refrain from them. I do envy the men with their pretty stable hormone levels. The luteal phase is likely to be when you’ll experience most of your PMS symptoms, the all too familiar moodiness, emotions, bloating, sore boobs… the list goes on! Body temperature here is increased, which can make summer nights a pain for a decent nights sleep.
I find it so hard to resist cravings in this phase so, instead of fighting it, I tend to go with it. This sounds undisciplined, but the reason I tend not to fight it is because the nice saving grace with our luteal phase is that our metabolic rate is at its highest. YAY! An increase on average of 7.7% higher than usual, plus your body expends more calories digesting food than usual. See, I told you it wasn’t all bad.
In the luteal phase, your body relies more on fat as a fuel source, so this is when you want to do your lovely fat burning fitness classes, beware though – energy levels here are rubbish. It’s a good time to incorporate a deload week, or more rest days than usual. If you go on holiday in your luteal phase then happy days.
Ideally when you’re in your luteal phase, you want to try and aim for a lower calorie, lower carbohydrate diet if you’re looking for fat loss. Water retention in the luteal phase is higher so avoid the scales… anywhere from .5-10lbs is considered ‘normal’ water weight gain. I personally tend to gain about 2lbs, but have finally realised that it is just water weight and it comes off as quick as it goes on.
Phase 4 – Menstruation
Last but by no means least, we have good old Aunt Flo pay us a visit. This is your menstruation phase (about 5-7 days) and is included in general with your luteal phase. You’re of course aware of your menstruation phase, but how does it affect your body and workouts? In this phase, probably by day 2-3 you should be seeing less cravings as a result of serotonin levels sneaking back up, the water retention will start to diminish, you should be less crabby (I’m not sure this ever goes for me!). You may well be feeling pretty much normal. Now is a good time to kick start that new diet, or workout regime you’ve been putting off.
Lets embrace, not be embarrassed.
We’re women, we have periods, we should be proud of what our bodies go through and embrace all of the benefits our menstrual cycle can bring. What I’ve summarised above will like most things, vary from woman to woman. Personally when I’m menstruating, I still suffer with lethargy, bloating and general tend to feel a bit sorry for myself. Its great to take note of which phase you’re in and see how you find your cravings, workouts and energy. Perhaps if you keep record for a few months, you’d notice a pattern and be better equipped to deal with each phase and its various offerings.
To help summarise:
Follicular – Smash those heavy weights. Carbs aren’t the enemy.
Ovulation – Set your next PB. Increase fats and proteins if you’re hungrier.
Luteal – Time out from training if necessary. Control the carbs, insulin sensitivity is low.
Menstration – Try on those jeans you’ve been eyeing. Good time to make a positive commitment to healthier choices.
Now, where’s the biscuits and my pj’s… I’m in my luteal phase! 😉
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