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, perhaps struggling and would like to take advantage of her cycle.
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 Early Follicular, Late Follicular (where ovulation occurs), Early-Mid Luteal and Late Luteal (the onset of 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!
This graph helps describe what is happening in your body. Perhaps most importantly, it’s the distinct changes in Estrogen and Progesterone that have the largest impact on our mood, energy levels, appetite, fuel use and performance.
Phased Female Training & Nutrition – ‘Cycling With Your Cycle’
So, by being mindful of the proportions of Estrogen and Progesterone in your body, you can alter your nutrition and training approach to maximise the benefits and mitigate the downsides of each of the four phases.
Here are some basic principles to follow regarding training and nutrition based on where you are in your cycle. This is considered as a Menstrual Cycle Based Approach (MCBA), to support ‘cycling with your cycle’. Of course every woman is different, even from one cycle to the next, but this acts as general guidance to consider.
PLEASE NOTE: if you are on birth control pills, the swings in hormones are smoothed out, so expect some of the below to be less exaggerated.
PHASE 1 – EARLY FOLLICULAR (Week 1)
What’s Going On?
The early follicular phase begins and includes your menstruation, it’s considered day 0 to about day 14. In the early part of this phase, you will have the lowest levels of Estrogen, which will gradually build up as you get into the Late Follicular. (Estrogen is the female steroid hormone which sends the message to the womb, to grow and shed the lining from the previous cycle). Progesterone levels however, stay the same as does your average body temperature. Progesterone is produced by the ovaries and tells the womb to stop growing and mature ready for possible pregnancy.
Of course good old Aunt Flo then pays us a visit. This is your menstruation which lasts about 5 days, starting at day 0.
In this phase, 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.
How Might You Feel?
This phase is where you’ll start to feel yourself again as PMS symptoms begin to subside. As you’ll be having the lowest amount of Estrogen in this phase, your Testosterone will be more pronounced. As a result, physiologically you will be ‘most like a man’, and is sometimes called ‘Period Strength’.
Probably by day 2-3 (whilst menstruating) you should be seeing less cravings as a result of serotonin levels sneaking back up, the water retention will start to diminish, and you should be less crabby. You are likely to feel more motivated and enthusiastic.
- This is a great time to start a new training programme as motivation is high.
- Some women can perform exceptionally well, and feel particularly strong in training
- Body composition measurements should be taken now, as fluid is more evenly distributed and bloat is reduced
- This is a great time to introduce a new eating plan, again due to mood and motivation
- Due to blood loss, it’s a good idea to increase Iron-rich foods
- Increase Vitamin C rich foods
- Include Anti-inflammatory foods
PHASE 2 – LATE FOLLICULAR (Week 2)
What’s Going On?
In this week of the follicular phase, Estrogen ramps up and peaks to mature the follicles. The LSH hormone has stimulated the ovary to produce around five to 20 follicles, and these follicles are reaching maturity ahead of ovulation.
How Might You Feel?
Due to being Estrogen dominate, you could feel the positive influences this has on muscle growth, strength and force. You’re may be feeling pretty strong, you’ll have the highest pain tolerance, an increased level of endurance and enhanced muscle recovery from training. In this phase, insulin sensitivy is improved and fat is the preferential fuel source.
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.
- Women can train harder and at higher intensities – It’s a good time to ‘challenge’ yourself
- Due to insulin sensitivity, higher glycolytic activities can be performed
- Prioritise traditional strength and muscle building training, with some HIIT
- Appetite and hunger will be suppressed, as well as your BMR
- Carbs will be more easily processed, so you can increase to support performance whilst minimising storing as fat
- It’s a good time to build in diet-breaks or re-feed meals/days due to insulin sensitivity
PHASE 3 – EARLY-MID LUTEAL (Week 3-4)
What’s Going On?
Within the early to mid luteal phase, ovulation is initiated by a sharp rise in Progesterone, typically around day 14. Ovulation is when your body releases the egg down to a Fallopian tube with the hope of getting fertilised!
Your Estrogen levels start to rise one again, this causes a peak of both hormones. Your Basel Metabolic Rate (BMR) increases by about 10% (100-250 calories per day), whilst your insulin sensitivity is lowered.
The rise of Progesterone will have a catabolic effect (muscle break down) and more fat storing will occur. Additionally, appetite is stimulated, to encourage a healthy potential pregnancy.
How Might You Feel?
Whilst ovulation is usually only about 2 days it does have 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. The combination of Estrogen impacting your neuromuscular control, combined with the catabolic effects of Progesterone, meaning you’re not going to get that mind to muscle connection and could cause injury. It’s been suggested there’s 4-8 times more chance of injury in this phase.
PMS symptoms may start to appear at this stage, and you may notice a drop off in motivation and enthusiasm.
- Likely to achieve Personal Bests during this time due to the maximal overall sex hormones
- Take advantage of increased grip and quadriceps strength – e.g Deadlifts
- Introduce more priming and activating movements, to increase the mind-muscle connection
- Be mindful of increased appetite, and opt for more filling foods such as protein, fats and fibre
- Start to drop your carb intake due to reduction in insulin sensitivity
PHASE 4 – LATE LUTEAL (Week 4/5)
Everyone get out of the way, she’s in her luteal phase!
What’s Going On?
Assuming there is no pregnancy, Estrogen and Progesterone levels start to fall in this last phase. As a result, Insulin sensitivity in this phase is at it’s lowest, as is your Serotonin * (the feel good hormone). In response, there will be a cascade of effects on your mindset, food cravings and energy.
The late luteal phase is likely to be when you’ll experience most of your PMS symptoms.
Water retention in the luteal phase is higher so avoid the scales… anywhere from 0.5-10lbs 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.
How Might You Feel?
Motivation and enthusiasm will be at it’s lowest at this phase, as will your energy levels. I call this my ‘fuck it’ phase. I can’t be bothered to do very much here at all.
Sweet and salty cravings may be overriding your thoughts, so you get a brief boost of Serotonin*. Craving for chocolate is extremely common, as it’s sweet, has great mouthfeel due to fat, has magnesium and tryptophan (that produces Serotonin) and releases endorphins. * 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!
With PMS symptoms peaking, 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.
To top it off, you might experience some GI issues such as constipation or diarrhoea.
- You will more than likely need to adjust training parameters
- If experiencing abdominal pain, reduce weights in training
- Reduce intensity of exercise – either by lowering weight, doing more bodyweight work, practicing skill/movements or more flow-based movements
- Replace HIIT for fat-fuelled low to moderate cardio-based exercise
- Introduce mindfulness strategies – walking, breathing, meditating, yoga – they can help with mood, stress and cravings
- If you need to, take a couple days out completely, with the confidence that your progress will not suffer if you keep the whole month in context.
- Cravings for Sweet/Salty combinations and foods of comfort (mostly chocolate) can take over – introduce mindfulness practices as per above
- Include high-quality 70%+ Dark Chocolate provides all the chocolate benefits with less calories, downsides and is harder to over consume
- Increase calorie intake with Protein and/or Fat
- Carbs should be kept under control due to reduction in Insulin sensitivity
- Increase Magnesium-rich foods
- Avoid ‘trigger’ foods such as coffee for a few days, to limit loose stools
- If you’re looking to lose fat – now is a good time to aim for a lower calorie diet due to the higher metabolism
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 generally 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:
PHASE1 – Early Follicular – Start that new training programme or diet. Smash those heavy weights. Carbs aren’t the enemy. Try on those jeans you’ve been eyeing up.
PHASE 2 – Late Follicular – Challenge yourself with higher intensities and prioritise traditional strength training. Consider re-feed or diet breaks, as insulin sensitivity is increased.
PHASE 3 – Early-Mid Luteal – Set your next PB. Increase fats and proteins if you’re hungrier, and start to lower carbs.
PHASE 4 – Late Luteal – Adjust training to lower weights whilst increasing reps, more flow-based movement and ditch the HIIT. Build in mindfulness practices, grab a couple squares of Dark Chocolate, control the carbs and avoid trigger foods.
Now, where’s the biscuits and my pj’s… I’m in my luteal phase! 😉
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