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Training around your menstrual cycle

As female participation in both elite sports and general population training has increased, so too has the effort to understand the impact of gender on performance and recovery protocols. Much of this research has looked at the hormonal differences that set males and females apart, and specifically, how the various stages of the menstrual cycle affect the body’s ability to recover and respond to a training stimulus. As a young man this was a topic that was foregin to me, however as a professional within the fitness industry I believe that it’s something I should have an understanding of so that I can take it into account when consulting or programming with clients - much like I consider prior training experience or injuries.

The following blog is my attempt to consolidate some of the most important information into a digestible format. With this goal in mind, I decided to arrange the information and protocols based on each menstrual phase that many readers would be familiar with. While I have done my best to avoid oversimplifying and remain accurate I am not an authority on this matter and would encourage you to do further reading and consult with a professional before implementing a new process into your health routine.

What is the menstrual cycle and why does it affect my training?


The menstrual cycle is a series of hormone- driven changes occurring in females at approximately monthly intervals in order to prepare the body for the possibility of a pregnancy. At the end of a cycle, if there hasn’t been a fertilization of the egg then the body will shed the protective lining protecting this egg and begin the process again. This process will continue throughout an indivduals child bearing years until they reach menopause. At this point the changing levels of estrogen and progesterone in the ovaries mark the end of reproductive years. On average women will experience menstrual cycles from their early teens into their 50’s which for many is the most active point in their life, hence why it is important to understand how each of the stages within this cycle can impact your training.


The Menstruation phase


In the absence of a pregnancy during the previous cycle the thickened layer of the uterus will shed as it is no longer needed to protect an egg. At this stage both estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest levels while testosterone is at the highest levels that it will reach during the cycle. Testosterone has been shown to activate disrupted cortical networks in the female brain during this phase which supports spatial cognition tasks. For this reason the high levels of testosterone make this phase an optimal time to focus on skill development that require coordination such as a sport specific movement or olympic lift. In contrast, this is also a good time to take advantage of the low levels of progesterone that have been shown to inhibit muscle growth and recovery by emphasizing strength training during this phase. While both of these conditions appear optimal for pushing training the rapid changes in hormone levels will leave persistent inflammation which means recovery needs to remain at the forefront of your priorities especially if you are pushing yourself in the gym.


The follicular phase (later stages)


The follicular phase technically begins from the beginning of the menstruation and continues until ovulation usually about 14 days later. In the interest of simplicity the following section will focus on the time between the end of menstruation and the beginning of ovulation when women will begin experiencing significant increases in levels of estrogen as the body prepares for the ovulation of a new egg. It is thought that this combination of hormones creates the optimal conditions for the body to recover quickly from difficult training sessions as much of the inflammation caused by the period would have since subsided. Hence this is an optimal time to increase training total volume or load. Similar to stage 1 the body is primed to adapt to strength training, you can expect to feel primed and alert during this phase so make the most of this phase and align your testing up with it.


Ovulation phase


The ovulation phase marks the approximate midway point in the cycle when an egg is released from the ovary into the fallopian tube. During this time there is a brief window when estrogen levels pull back while progesterone begins to rise quickly to reach a peak at the end of this phase. The hormonal changes being experienced - in particular the increase in progesterone - have been shown to increase both heart rate and internal temperature, both of which are likely to make workouts more challenging than in previous weeks. With this in mind, you should be particularly diligent with your hydration levels during your workouts as well as accounting for a longer recovery time between sessions as your body responds to additional strain. As alluded to in the previous phases, progesterone will make protein synthesis more difficult, for this reason, the ovulation phase is an ideal time to place emphasis on other aspects of training such as the cardiovascular system that aren’t as reliant on this psychological change in order to progress. Furthermore, with muscle-building already under stress be sure to keep protein levels elevated to support this bodily function.


The luteal phase

The final phase in this process occurs in the time since the egg has moved into the fallopian tube, the hormonal changes occurring are associated with common premenstrual symptoms that makes training increasingly difficult. During the luteal phase it is important to acknowledge that the inflammation in your body will impact your performance and attitude towards training, if you are heavily affected by the premenstrual symptoms then re-adjust your goals to be reflective of how you feel such as striving or daily movement instead of back squat PB’s. These changes will also carry on into your recovery routine. Unfortunately these symptoms are known to disrupt or diminish the quality of your sleep, to offset this try to allocate more time than usual to sleeping and focus on a whole foods diet that contains anti-inflammatories.




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