Did you know that where you are in your hormone cycle can affect how easy or hard a workout feels? Just like your emotions, hormones have a direct affect on your physical training. It took me several years of being a competitive athlete to realize that my female biology made me different than my male cohorts. Understanding this connection is the first step in tapping into the super power that is your period!
A Little Biology 101
I don’t know about you but I don’t remember getting into detail on the female hormone cycle in biology class. So for those of us that need a little review of how the cycle works you can get into immense detail here or to summarize; the average length of a cycle is 28 days starting on day one of bleeding until the start of the next menstrual cycle, ovulation occurring around day 14 in the middle. The first half of the cycle up until ovulation is called the follicular phase, the second half after ovulation occurs is called the luteal phase (1).
Our body’s hormone symphony is quite complex. Let’s start with the good news; according to Dr. Sims, “key performance indicators such as max VO2 and lactate threshold remain constant throughout your cycle” (2). The bad news is that some days it really is harder to perform due to rising hormone levels. Let’s take a look at some of the loudest players and how they affect our training.
Are We Doomed?
The first step is understanding that these links even exist! Yes, hormones will affect how you feel but we can develop an action plan to get the most out of training. Step one is tracking your cycle. Use an app like Fitrwoman or download our period symptom tracker to track your cycle over three months. Some women have cycles up to 40 days long (3). Once you know when your luteal phase occurs you can offset for some of the high hormonal effects mentioned above and set realistic goals for those training sessions. Let’s take a closer look at two phases of our menstrual cycle, follicular and luteal.
Follicular Phase; Day one of bleeding to ovulation, overall low hormones at first. This is ironically when our exercise physiology is closest to that of a man (2). During this time your body recovers better from exercise (4), your sleep is improved and you can access carbohydrate easily for activity (5).
Luteal Phase; From ovulation to the start of your period, otherwise known as the high hormone phase. Hormones rise in order to prep the uterine lining for egg implantation. If an egg is not implanted the body starts an inflammatory response to shed the lining of the uterus, otherwise known as PMS. During this time sleep is disturbed as estrogen crosses the blood brain barrier and makes REM sleep harder to access, core temperature is higher (6) and high progesterone counteracts estrogen's ability to build lean muscle mass (7).
How and When to Train
Depending on your sport there’s a few important things to keep in mind when it comes to training periodization. Because of the body’s ability to recover well during the follicular phase this is when you should be doing higher intensity training. During the low hormone phase you’ll be able to access and store more glycogen and thus carb loading works well here but not during high hormone phase (3). Resistance training during this phase has shown greater benefit than during other parts of the cycle (7).
Some women feel particularly good during the days around ovulation. During ovulation we experience a surge of estrogen alongside the luteinizing hormone, a follicular stimulating hormone. These hormones can provide an increased ability to tap into strength and endurance (8). This would be a good time to go for a personal best or enter a race. During the late follicular phase through ovulation you could also work in some steady state endurance training.
During the mid to late luteal phase you’ll want to focus on balance, technique and maintenance activities. Due to our high hormones we may experience brain fog and loss of motor coordination; by honing these skills when it’s more difficult we can become better at them all the time (3). This is a time to be kind to yourself and understand that exercise may feel harder.
Some Things to Keep in Mind During the Luteal Phase
So your key race falls during your high hormone phase? Do you cancel? NO! There are some key things you can do to mitigate symptoms of high hormones when it comes to training or racing.
- Prehydrate with sodium rich drinks to offset sodium loss and plasma drop but also to help with increased core temp (9).
- Increase carbohydrate intake before and during your workout. As mentioned previously increased estrogen makes it harder to access stored glycogen and you’ll need to add in more during your workout to fuel for the activity (3).
- Due to increased progesterone and it’s catabolic nature you want to get in quality protein containing leucine immediately after exercise. Leucine is an essential amino acid that is responsible for stimulating feedback mechanisms in the brain to initiate protein synthesis. Increased leucine intake will also help with brain fog and mood (3).
- Take Marea! The ingredients in Marea help to combat the effects of PMS like cramping, bloating, lethargy and can help stabilize mood (10).
Also to note, these recommendations are based on women with a natural cycle. Oral contraceptives, IUD’s, women in peri and post menopause will have different circumstances to consider when it comes to their exercise training.
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Sims, S. Roar. Rodale, 2016.
Sims, Stacy, lecturer. Women are Not Small Men. https://www.drstacysims.com/products/class-of-january-2020, 2020.
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Oosthuyse, T., Bosch, A.N. The Effect of the Menstrual Cycle on Exercise Metabolism. Sports Med 40, 207–227 (2010). https://doi.org/10.2165/11317090-000000000-00000
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Wikström-Frisén L, Boraxbekk CJ, Henriksson-Larsén K. Effects on power, strength and lean body mass of menstrual/oral contraceptive cycle based resistance training. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2017;57(1-2):43‐52. doi:10.23736/S0022-4707.16.05848-5
Sung ES, Kim JH. The resistance training effects of different weight level during menstrual cycle in female. J Exerc Rehabil. 2019;15(2):249‐253. Published 2019 Apr 26. doi:10.12965/jer.193808.024
Giersch GEW, Charkoudian N, Stearns RL, Casa DJ. Fluid Balance and Hydration Considerations for Women: Review and Future Directions. Sports Med. 2020;50(2):253‐261. doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01206-6
Ingredients (2020, June 2). Marea Wellness. https://mareawellness.com/pages/ingredients
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