In lifting, much of the focus is often around the male sex hormone testosterone and how it can impact training. But what about the impact of hormonal cycles for women, and specifically; how to train around your period.
Performance in the gym will naturally dip and peak depending on where you are in your monthly cycle. Training with this cycle in mind where possible can lead to more productive sessions, and improved athletic performance.
This article will focus on nutrition and training guidance for women who are premenopausal, and not using an oral contraceptive.
Recap Of The Menstrual Cycle
Your menstrual cycle begins once you finish your period and follows the following phases: Follicular, ovulation, luteal, and menstruation itself.
By taking into account the different phases in the cycle, you and your personal trainer can plan around times when you’re likely to be setting new lifting bests, and times when you’re less likely to want to train with intensity.
If you don’t already do this, consider keeping track of your menstrual cycle in order to maximise the returns in your training.
Day 0-14: The Follicular Phase
Biologically, you’re experiencing an increase in oestrogen, normal levels of progesterone and a slightly elevated, but mostly normal body temperature - meaning you’re unlikely to overheat during exercise.
In the gym, your focus should be on pushing harder during this stage. You’ll have a higher tolerance for pain and your endurance will be better than usual so you take longer to feel fatigued. Your ability to generate force will be improved too. This means that your potential for muscle growth is optimised.
Your insulin sensitivity will be higher so focusing on higher carb meals to refuel your body post workout may be necessary if your focus in training is on intense, carb depleting workouts.
According to The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, your basal metabolic rate will be at its lowest around day 7 before ovulation so if your goal is weight loss, keep an eye on the calories this week.
Day 14: Ovulation phase
Around day 14, oestrogen is at its highest and progesterone starts to increase. You’ll begin to notice that you feel warmer. This is often the best time to generate force in the whole cycle, so here’s the time to attempt that max lift.
The Journal of Physiology reported up to 11% increases in quad power generation and grip strength during ovulation. Proceed with caution though as you may also be more at risk of injuries during ovulation. So train hard, but warm up thoroughly and be especially mindful of always using excellent technique as guided by your personal trainer.
Your metabolism will be higher this week, so if you feel hungrier than usual this is why. Add a little extra protein into your meals to keep satiety high.
Day 15-28: Luteal phase
During this phase oestrogen decreases, progesterone continues to increase and your body temperature will remain higher than usual. This could lead to cardiovascular work feeling harder than usual. In your training, your focus should be on backing off from the intensity, especially if your body feels like it’s “fighting” the workout.
If you experience PMS, this is the time you’re likely to feel bloated and so some exercises might feel uncomfortable. Avoid anything max efforts or short, all-out bursts of effort such as sprinting or 1 rep max attempts.
In the gym, lower intensity cardio, as well as moderate strength work, is a sensible choice during the luteal phase. This may be a time when you’re experiencing cravings, so be mindful of what you eat at this time as you’re likely craving high carb options. It may be a sensible time to dial back on carbs in your diet, or at least keep an eye on them. If you’re feeling hungry, higher protein options such as turkey or foods high in tryptophan such as pumpkin seeds.
Day 28: Menstruation
Once your period begins you’ll start to feel less bloated and not so hot. This may be a good time to transition back to more intense workouts.
If your schedule allows it, using the information you have about your own menstrual cycle can be a way for you to optimise your efforts in the gym. It’s certainly a conversation that could happen between a client and their personal trainer. It will help to inform whether you push on in that session and look to set some personal bests, or whether that session is better left to maintain progress.
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