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Exercising in harmony with your menstrual cycle

The science of menstrual cycles and exercise is well understood and can help you set the right expectations and routine to keep your routine on point.

This post has been weirdly awkward to write in my brain. Being a dude, it feels like I’m out of my lane here, but also so many of the people I work with mention this in one way or another that I wanted to get the word out there. My desire is that we come to a place where women, and mostly men, are comfortable talking about this so we  can all quit the silly jokes and get the best out of what it is – but I also recognise that this is an easy thing for a dude to say.

I write this with full awareness that some mansplaining might happen, but through learning all of this I’ve had a lot of “Damn, this is cool!” moments. I’ve been lucky to have a few of the women that I work with discuss this with me and it’s been an awesome learning experience, so I hope this helps not only women while exercising, but also trainers.

Before I start, I would like to point out that without being exposed to the excellent work from Dr. Stacy Sims and Alisa Viti I wouldn’t know any of this. If you want a much better and in-depth version of what’s in this post, go follow their work.

Why do we have to complicate things?

You see, most of medical science is based on men’s physiology. Not only exercise or nutrition science – medical science in general. Menstrual cycles and pregnancy are a pesky inconvenience for scientists looking for “reliable” results. Men’s physiology mostly deals with one hormone, so research that uses men as its subject produces data that is more straightforward to parse and, therefore, “easier” to understand. Yay, science!

There’s one catch here though. If you’re not a male that means that most research likely doesn’t apply to you. And last I checked, there were a bunch of people that don’t have male bodies, but as far as health parameters go, are still expected to function like they do.

For that reason, most traditional exercise programmes and nutrition protocols that are based on good science have an implicit issue: they likely have been tested and proven on dude people and completely ignore variations that only pertain to female hormonal cycles.

Happily, the science community decided to call bullshit on that and has come a long way since believing women shouldn’t run in case their uterus falls out (it won’t). The science around exercise and menstrual cycles has brought excellent (and, surprise, surprise, not that hard) knowledge into the topic.

Women are not small men

Dr. Stacy Sims

At this point It might pay to remind some people that women are not a completely different species. Women’s physiology still responds to the general laws of metabolic conditioning and strength training. As far as exercise goes, most of the advice out there is “just do this but less than the dude” which is a problem considering women are not just like men but less so.

A quick primer on women’s reproductive infradian rhythm

Circadian rhythm is the name we give to one of our body’s main internal clocks – the one that controls our sleep and wake cycles and has a duration of about 24 hours. But our body has a few other clocks that are longer than 24h, and we called them infradian rhythms. They guide things like hair growth, winter/summer hunger levels and, for women, the menstrual cycle.

A woman’s menstrual cycle lasts around 28 days (give or take), and is broken down into 4 phases:

  • Menstrual: the 3 to 7 days of your period
  • Follicular: 7-10 days after the period
  • Ovulatory: 4 days in the middle of the cycle
  • Luteal: 10 to 14 days between ovulation and the period

Each of these phases has a distinct hormonal makeup, and levels of energy and hunger will respond to that.

The follicular and ovulation phase

Here’s when the women’s body will respond to exercise and nutrition much like a man’s would – estrogen is relatively low, testosterone is relatively high and the body is not in “we need to prepare for a potential baby” mode.

Here’s where weights, interval training and big cardios should feel excellent. It’s also easier to control your food as the body won’t be in crave mode so dieting will be easier to stick to.

In between: The menstrual phase

Technically once you have your period you’re out of the luteal phase (more below) and your hormone levels are going up to the follicular phase levels, so theoretically your energy levels are prime for some hard exercising. Some people tell me that this phase can be uncomfortable and crampy to a point where a hard bout of 5 sets of 1-hour couch lie downs is all that can be achieved here, and if that’s the case, go hard!

This might be a good exercise for this moment

The Luteal phase

Here’s where things become very different. During the second half of the cycle estrogen and testosterone drop and so does energy. As mentioned, the body here is preparing for a potential baby, so it will want to get more calories in – the body’s metabolic rate also rises and will require more calories whether you want it to or not. The good news is that it will also burn calories at a higher rate.

The science here is very cool and has some interesting implications. Progesterone delays sweat response, which means the body is more likely to overheat. The body’s metabolism also becomes slower as fat becomes the primary energy instead of carbs, which means power and strength take a hit. The kidneys react to the new hormone make-up, redistributing water flow and some delightful bloating and swelling can take place too.

This is the phase where you dial things down, perhaps switching to a more gentle modality of exercise like yoga or walking. If you love your high intensity workout it can be more of an exercise in expectation setting – you might not be able to go as hard or lift as much, so dial things down and go by what challenges you that day. If you have a coach or a trainer it might be a good idea to discuss changing the programme a bit. In my opinion, trying to stick to what’s on the cards just because it’s there can be frustrating for everyone, so adapting things to find the right levels of challenge while keeping it fun and achievable goes a long way.

Some closing comments

With all the above said, it’s easier to make any changes yourself or with your trainer if you know your cycle. 

I always have a conversation with my clients before a session to gain insight into their stress and sleep levels and maybe some information about how they’ve been eating. I never expect or seek information about their menstrual cycle because I understand not everyone is comfortable discussing that, but sometimes people feel free to discuss that and it’s useful information. It would be awesome if the stigma around menstrual cycles got to a point where it was talked about as a natural body function like sleep, stress and digestion because, y’know, it is.

Lastly, if you’re on the pill, the above likely won’t apply to you. With the pill, the discussion gets really complicated as different pills create different hormonal panels and they all have different cost/benefit ratios when they come to exercising.

I hope the above has shed some light in this very interesting topic and that helps you or your clients adapt things a bit when the time is right.

If you would like to discuss more in this topic, get in touch!

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