The female menstrual cycle, a series of events which play a huge part of a women’s life yet remains vastly misunderstood and misinterpreted when applied to training and nutritional principles.
Many women still do not fully understand what is happening to their body throughout their cycle and do not realise the influence this cycle can have on their training. Thankfully, I’m a dude and I don’t not have to worry about this. However, I have put together a simple explanation of each cycle phase and how these different phases can affect your performance and progress in the gym.
Once you understand the effects associated with each cycle and the hormones at play, you can alter your training and nutrition to your advantage – allowing you to take back control, break through plateaus and continue making progress in the gym, even on your bad days!
The first two weeks of your cycle begins with the follicular phase. This phase, which begins immediately after menstruation, is characterized by increasing estrogen, average body temperature and an increased carbohydrate tolerance due to higher insulin sensitivity. This is a great time to make progress in the gym!
Around day 14 of your cycle you will start to ovulate. When this occurs, your estrogen levels will peak and your body temperature shall begin to raise. At this point you should feel your strongest, however be aware you may be more prone to injury.
During the third phase of your cycle (day 15-28) you will enter the luteal phase, where estrogen declines and your body temperature remains elevated. At this point it’s time to lower the weight and focus on lower intensity workout’s which mobilize fat as a fuel.
The final phase of your cycle is Menstruation, which resets your cycle and transitions you back into the follicular phase. By now you should be starting to feel your normal self and can start the transition back to higher intensity work.
The Follicular Phase
Time to make gains!
The Follicular phase is characterized by increased endurance, a high tolerance for pain and a high capacity to generate force, meaning you will be potentially at your strongest and mentally able to apply that strength to your workouts!
During this phase, your body will be more dependent on glycogen to fuel exercise due to a higher level of insulin sensitivity, thus it is paramount to focus on supplying your body with ample amounts of carbohydrates prior to your workouts – but don’t worry, all of these hormonal characteristics result in a strong body, primed to use those carbs to fuel muscle gains.
However, be wary of excess calories and over indulging. Although this is a great time to fuel your body with carbohydrates, the Follicular phase is associated with a decreasing metabolic rate, until it hits its lowest point, one week before ovulation. Fuelling your workouts and training with heavy weights will help combat this decline, however, be wary not over consume.
At this point your strength levels should peak and you should feel like you own the gym! If you are periodising your workouts, now is the time to go for broke and set a new PR before de loading during the Luteal phase.
However, be aware that during this phase, your risk of injury is increased by up to 8x due to elevated estrogen levels effects on collagen metabolism. Train heavy, train hard, but be especially considerate of using good form, performing a thorough warm up and being mindful of working under fatigue.
Also take note of your nutrition. At this point your metabolism shall be firing on all cylinders, which should increase feelings of hunger and potential cravings. If your training is peaking, consider adding in extra calories to support your recovery, however, be mindful not to over indulge as your body’s insulin levels shall begin to decrease.
The Luteal Phase
Mood swings, exhaustion, water retention, bloating and random acts of anger / thoughts of murdering your boyfriend / husband? Welcome to the luteal phase!
Now is the time to de load, reduce your training intensity and opt for lighter cardiovascular and strength work.
However, do not assume this is not a time to make progress.
Due to your body’s reliance on fat during this period, your lower intensity workouts will be efficiently fuelled - and coupled with your increased metabolic rate (up to 7% higher according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition), should prime your body for fat loss and endurance performance increases.
However, be aware that at this time, due to decreased serotonin levels (the reason you may be cranky), your body will be craving carbohydrates, which at this time may not be efficiently processed due to lower levels of insulin and lower intensity workouts.
Due to your body’s elevated metabolic rate and your training geared to lower intensities, now is the time to opt for a lower carb, lower calorie phase to promote fat burning.
Finally, as menstruation gets underway, your PMS symptoms will clear, as well as your water retention and bloating and you should start feeling more like your super human self (after all, you’re all super hero’s!).
After de loading during your luteal phase, now is a great time to begin transitioning back to more intense workouts as you begin your cycle again with the follicular phase. However, be aware that although your insulin levels will begin to rise, allowing for greater carbohydrate consumption during your follicular phase, your metabolism will now be in decline, so make sure you are tracking your calories and supplying your body with a balanced mix of quality carbohydrates and fats.
Your cycle has a huge influence on your body, including your hormones, digestion, metabolism and physical psychological readiness for exercise, therefore it makes sense to programme your training and nutrition to work with your cycle, rather than battle through it.
At the start of your cycle, during the follicular phase, go hard. This is a great time to make progress with your weights and push yourself. Fuel your workouts with carbohydrates, however, be aware of over eating as your metabolism will still be low, but slowly increasing.
During ovulation is a great time to set PR’s in the gym as you should feeling your strongest, however be cautious of injury!
The luteal phase is the time to back off. Drop the weights, reduce intensity and work to improve endurance over strength, fuelling your body with fats and taking advantage of your increased metabolic rate.