A Complete Guide To Exercise and Your Menstrual Cycle
Many women don’t realize that their menstrual cycle can have a significant impact on their training routine.
Sure, you likely notice that a day or two before your period your energy levels plummet. Or perhaps on day one or two of your cycle, you can’t even fathom the idea of going to the gym. But the impact of your hormones on your workout routine doesn’t end when the bleeding ends.
In fact, your hormones shift throughout the entire month — and where they are when you’re training can have a significant impact on your goals.
Before we jump into the best workout routine for your cycle, it’s essential that you understand two things:
- The menstrual cycle phases that your body goes through.
- Your personal menstrual cycle.
Every menstrual cycle has two primary phase; the follicular phase and the luteal phase. Here’s a breakdown of each:
The follicular phase begins on the first day of your period and lasts until you ovulate. At the beginning of this phase, your estrogen and progesterone levels are low, which stimulates a hormone called follicular stimulating hormone (FSH) to mature the follicles in your ovaries (which contain your eggs).
Throughout this phase, estrogen rises, peaking at ovulation — when your egg is released from your ovaries. If you want to get pregnant, ovulation is go-time[*].
Ovulation is the turning point between the follicular phase and the luteal phase. This occurs about halfway through your cycle and is marked by high levels of both FSH and luteinizing hormone (LH). During this time, estrogen levels fall briefly.
Following ovulation, you promptly begin the luteal phase, which is marked by a decrease in both FSH and LH. During the luteal phase, progesterone begins to increase and estrogen picks up again, but then slowly drops off.
By the end of the luteal phase, both estrogen and progesterone are low — which stimulates the follicular phase…and the cycle continues[*].
Understanding how your hormones fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle is imperative to determine the best workout program for you. Your hormones don’t just affect your ovaries, and when your body becomes fertile, they can affect everything from energy to mood, cravings, and more.
The first step in understanding your personal cycle is to track. If you don’t already have some way of tracking your cycle, many apps and programs exist. A few examples are:
- My Period Tracker
- Eve Tracker
- Period Diary
Some trackers allow you to include symptoms, which can be incredibly insightful if you want to see how your cycle affects you both physiologically and psychologically.
Once you have a good idea of what your length looks like, you can divide it up into two phases; the follicular phase and the luteal phase. Don’t be surprised if your period doesn’t actually come every 28 days — a normal cycle can be anywhere from 21 to 35 days.
For instance, if your period comes every 30 days, your cycle will look like this:
Day 1-15 follicular phase
Day 15 Ovulation
Day 16-30 Luteal phase
A tracker app will help you more accurately plan when your period is going to start, and when you can expect to start feeling symptoms of PMS.
Everyone’s body is different, and throughout your life, your individual symptoms will likely shift. However, it’s helpful to know which symptoms of PMS tend to hit you, and when they show up. Some common symptoms of PMS include:
- Period cramps
- Night sweats
- Breast tenderness
- Skin breakouts
- Swelling in hands or feet
- GI symptoms
- Brain fog
By tracking your symptoms, you can plan your workouts ahead of time to avoid days when you know you’re going to be really run down or overwhelmed. For instance, if you know that two days before your period you hit a wall and feel a lot of fatigue, that would be a perfect day to schedule in some yin yoga.
On the other hand, if you know the week before your period you get a hit of high energy — that’s the week to take on that 10-mile hike. Make sense?
Research shows that there are specific hormonal shifts that take place during your cycle that generally make strength training or aerobics more effective. However, this all has to be taken with a grain of salt because there’s no research study that can tell you how you feel better than your own care and attention to yourself.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some science-backed suggestions for optimizing your training for your menstrual cycle.
#1 Hit It Hard When Estrogen Is High During Your Follicular Phase
Estrogen levels have an effect on your insulin response, diminishing insulin resistance, and allowing your body to more easily use carbohydrates at fuel. For this reason, it may be beneficial to schedule your intense workouts around the times when your estrogen is highest, which is in the time just following your period through the week or so after ovulation — basically the middle of your cycle[*].
While this may seem like a moot point on the keto diet, since you’re burning fat for fuel and not glucose, your body is actually always using some glucose even when you’re fully keto-adapted.
In addition, if you follow a cyclical ketogenic diet or targeted ketogenic diet, this could help you further hone your “on” and “off” days with adding carbs.
Estrogen is also associated with energy balance, so many women feel more energized when their estrogen is high. This is another reason to take advantage of high estrogen by partaking in more challenging workouts[*].
#2 Focus On Strength Training During Your Follicular Phase
Women who go through menopause often notice a sharp decline in their muscle strength and tone. Research shows that this may be due to declines in their estrogen levels — which can be combated with hormone replacement therapy[*].
In addition, when the researchers compared the effects of strength training on women during their follicular phase(FP) vs. luteal phase(LP) they found that greater gains in muscle and strength were possible during the FP[*].
For this reason, strength training during the first phase of your cycle can help you optimize your body’s muscle-building potential.
#3 Take Advantage of Enhanced Breathing Capacity During Your Luteal Phase
Research shows that during the second half of your cycle, you have a greater lung capacity than during the first half. This is particularly true when compared to the beginning of your follicular phase — when you’re bleeding. This may be one reason why going for a run when you first start your period feels like a heroic effort.
To take advantage of this shift in your body’s ability to utilize oxygen, you should focus on more intense aerobic training during the second half of your cycle. Or at least take the first week of your follicular phase off[*].
#4 Avoid Heat and Humidity During Your Luteal Phase
After ovulation, your core body temperature rises as you enter the luteal phase. Due to this increase in body temperature, research suggests that this is not the time to hit a hot yoga class or go for a hike in 80-degree weather.
One study found that during the second half of women’s cycles, both performance and time to fatigue decreased when women were working out in hot, humid conditions[*].
If you’re wondering whether exercise is important at all during, before, or after your period — research shows that when it comes to symptoms of PMS and menstruation in general, exercise is key[*].
Here are some research-backed ways that exercise can help you during your cycle:
Premenstrual syndrome can affect your mood in a variety of ways. Some women become depressed, while others experience more anxiety. For some women, irritability takes over to the point where even the scent of a candle can throw you over the edge.
Regardless of how menstruation affects your mood, exercise can help. Specifically, research shows that aerobic exercise can relieve some of the stress that comes along with the dip in hormones around this time of the month[*][*].
In general, exercise has a positive effect on your mood by raising levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, as well as noradrenalin[*]. In fact, research shows that exercise is an effective tool to combat symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as supporting brain injury recovery[*].
Many women struggle from insomnia during different phases of their cycle. This can be especially prevalent in the week before bleeding begins.
Research shows that regular exercise can help people with insomnia, and may even present an alternative to sleeping pills. One suggested mechanism is that by increasing your core body temperature with exercise, you instigate your body’s natural cooling effect — a crucial step in helping your body wind down and fall asleep at night[*].
It’s also suggested that due to exercises anxiety-reducing effects, it allows people to find peace before sleep and quiet down their mind[*].
#3 Breast Pain
Breast pain is a very common symptom of PMS that happens during the late luteal phase for most women. In some cases, it’s accompanied by swelling in other areas of the body, such as the abdomen and ankles. This is typically due to a shift in water-retention due to the hormone aldosterone.
Research shows that aerobic exercise can have a positive impact on breast pain by altering estrogen and progesterone levels, which effectively help to balance aldosterone[*][*].
Many women experience some degree of cramping before and during their period. Menstrual cramps, also called dysmenorrhea, often show up as throbbing or sharp pains in the lower abdomen. For some, these cramps radiate to the back and even down the thighs.
While most women experience some degree of cramping, for some, it can be nearly disabling, while for others, just a bit of an annoyance. If you fall into the disabling camps category, then you know how difficult it can be to even think about exercise during this time.
Research shows, however, that moderate exercise can have a beneficial impact on the severity of cramps when implemented throughout your cycle. That means that even if you can’t get up and moving the day before or just after your period starts, regular movement throughout the month could help ease cramps when menstruation comes around[*].
This four-week plan is a general example of how the phases of your menstrual cycle may correlate to your training. Remember that week one begins on the first day of your period — not the first day of the month.
Also, keep in mind your specific cycle and how many days it is. Since a typical cycle can be anywhere from 21-35 days, divide the number of days that count as “weeks” accordingly. Regardless of how long your cycle lasts, ovulation will likely stay right in the middle[*].
Week 1 Follicular Phase
During this first week, you’ll be bleeding and likely feel a bit more fatigued and less jazzed about getting moving. In addition, your ability to utilize oxygen is not optimized, so hardcore training may feel a lot more difficult[*].
With that being said, this is actually a crucial time to be active due to the benefits of movement we addressed earlier. For this reason, light exercise is highly encouraged during this first week.
Your follicular phase is also prime time for gaining muscle. For this reason, as soon as you start to feel the symptoms of your period diminish, it’s great to get back into strength training[*].
Some exercises to focus on during your period include:
- Light walking (30-45 minutes)
- Gentle yoga
After your period (or towards the end):
- Strength training
Week 2 Follicular Phase
Estrogen levels begin to increase after your period starts, so by your second week, estrogen should be pretty high. This is a great time to hit the gym or push yourself to do more challenging workouts.
You’re also still in your optimal muscle synthesis window, so there should be a focus on strength training during week two as well[*].
Some exercises to focus on during week two include:
- HIIT (high-intensity interval training)
- Strength training
Week 3 Luteal Phase
The beginning of this week should feel pretty good. However, as you get to the end of the week, you may begin to start feeling symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Take advantage of your enhanced breathing capacity during this week with some aerobic exercise. You may find that you have a burst of energy here before your progesterone and estrogen levels begin to drop off.
Some exercises to focus on during week three include:
- Bike Rides
Week 4 Luteal Phase
Symptoms of PMS may start to occur during this week. If you’re feeling more fatigue, cramps, breast pain, or any symptoms that make exercise difficult, this is the perfect time to rest. Even more so than when your period actually begins, the week before can feel like a struggle when it comes to getting active.
This also happens to be a very important time to keep your body moving in one way or another. Some gentle exercises to focus on during your premenstrual phase are:
- Light walking
- Gentle yoga
You technically still have an increased ability to utilize oxygen during this phase, so if your body feels up for it, aerobic exercise is also a great idea — just don’t overdo it.
Research can tell you a lot about the general benefits of exercise on your menstrual health, as well as when to optimize strength training vs. cardio. However, when it comes to building your own exercise routine, knowing your own body is crucial.
Depending on your specific flow, you may want to ramp up or wind down at different times. That’s absolutely fine, listen to your body. Use the information you learned here to guide you, but not as a holy grail. It’s often most helpful to play with different exercises and do your own research for your body.
As long as you keep track of how you feel, your symptoms around your menses, and which exercises you focus on, you’ll be able to build a perfect program that suits your needs.
And when it doubt — just move your body.
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