The menstrual cycle is a fact of life for all women. It’s a normal part of female fertility involving cyclical patterns of hormonal signalling between your brain, ovaries and uterus. These hormonal changes can have effects on your whole body which has implications for exercise and training depending on which phase of your cycle you are in. With the rise in women’s professional sports, teams are starting to realise how to hack the menstrual cycle to track and monitor recovery and plan for different training outcomes dependent on changing hormone levels Below we aim to take you through a typical cycle and highlight the changes to your training you may want to consider because we think all women should be able to benefit from this knowledge. Before we go on though, it is important to mention that your body is not a clock, meaning that the days and timing mentioned below are just guides.
A typical cycle will range from 21-35days and during this time your body goes through 4 different phases. The four stages are menstruation, the follicular phase, the ovulatory phase and the luteal phase.
Typically, the first 14 days of your cycle involves menstruation within the first half of the follicular phase during which the lining of your uterus with an egg embedded in it is shed, resulting in bleeding (menstruation). This phase typically lasts 3-8 days. The follicular phase continues for approximately another week after menstruation in which Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) is released to start your ovaries producing follicles which contain new eggs.
The lining of the uterus thickens and readies itself for the releasing of the egg from the ovaries. This phase is generally called a ‘low’ hormone phase which means a lower body temperature and lower levels of progesterone and estrogen before ovulation. It is during his phase that you should focus on making progress with your training. During the follicular phase women have higher pain tolerances, increased endurance and your insulin sensitivity will improve meaning you are better able to use energy packed carbs to fuel your workout. Use this phase to get some HIIT training or sprints in!
The ovulatory phase begins when the egg is released, travels to the uterus via the fallopian tubes and is embedded in the lining of the uterine wall where it eventually forms the corpus luteum. It is just before this phase that estrogen levels peak which can mean increased ligament and other soft tissue laxity. During this phase you will likely still be strong but more prone to soft tissue injuries, particularly in the knees. So, don’t stop training but don’t take risks either!
The luteal phase is the last phase before menstruation starts again and begins as the corpus luteum forms and begins to release a hormone called Luteinising Hormone (LH). Other hormones such as progesterone and estrogen are also high during this phase. Luteinising Hormone can cause central nervous system fatigue and lead to higher body temperatures. Progesterone is a hormone that acts catabolically, meaning it works by breaking molecules down to be used in other chemical reactions in the body. This can have a significant impact on your recovery meaning it may take longer to bounce back from intense bouts of exercise.
During this phase your body will rely primarily on fat as a fuel source which can raise your body temperature. This is the phase where PMS can start to take place resulting in increased cortisol (stress hormone) causing fluid retention. It’s a great time to choose to do exercise that relies more on fat as a fuel source to work with your body. Any exercise that can be maintained for a long duration working at low to moderate intensities such as going for a walk or swim is great during this phase. The luteal phase is an excellent time to de-load or promote an active recovery phase during your strength training cycle. Everyone, man or woman, should build a de-loading phase into their strength training. As a woman your body is just helping you pick the appropriate time to do it!
So, there you have it! A beginner’s guide to how to train suitably for your menstrual cycle. To make this easier we highly recommend the use of a period tracker app (there’s heaps) and if you need any extra help, contact your local Accredited Exercise Physiologist or Women’s Health Physiotherapist.