Go with your flow – why you should plan your exercise around your menstrual cycle

By Jasmine Wing

I recently made a sarky feminist joke to a friend in the gym ‘…well I’m just a baby maker’ I laughed, but this comment and some personal recent struggles in the gym got me thinking! After all our bodies can reproduce whereas the males cannot, however, how does this ‘baby-making stuff’ affect or hinder my training? I wanted to find out more and I was truly overwhelmed with what I found out.
The quick answer is yes BUT the good news is it doesn’t have to affect your ability to train hard if you learn to ‘go with your flow’. The effects that your cycle has on your energy levels, body temperature, pain tolerance, recovery rate and appetite are quite hefty let me tell you!

(So I’m going to attempt to break down this excessive amount of information without being too scientific on you!)

During the follicular phase of your cycle, which is marked by the beginning of menses (day 1 of your cycle) and ends at ovulation (day 14) your female hormones estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest point… in essence, this is when your body is almost like a man’s. Because your body isn’t preoccupied with preparing for a possible pregnancy your baseline is reset into a more relaxed mode. Your recovery rate is higher, your pain tolerance is up and you are likely to have more energy, a perfect excuse to push yourself in the gym I say.

During this phase of your cycle, high-intensity training is recommended. Also note that during your period it is not abnormal to gain 5-10 pounds of water says, researchers. Your body is relatively better at fat burning at this time… bonus! The positives seem to be never-ending, don’t they?
Interestingly research showed that although you may not feel like going to the gym whilst on your period actually this is the time where you may feel more able to breeze through an intense workout. You could ‘feel more powerful during exercise’ says Stacy Sims, an exercise physiologist at Stanford University and a leading researcher on the impact on menstruation on athletic performance. Nutrition-wise during this time, it is wise to lower your calorie intake as your cravings and appetite are at their lowest and cutting down on your portions won’t feel as painful.

Have you always wondered why you have unwanted thunder thighs or bingo wings? Well, it is important to know that estrogen also makes women store fat in more subcutaneous areas such as the arms and legs. Estrogen and progesterone impact fat gain and loss through their impact directly and on other hormones. Estrogen and progesterone have an impact on fuel storage and fuel use. In other words, these two hormones can determine what type of fuel is burned.

a dramatic and sudden spike in hormones occurs around the time of ovulation

A sudden spike in hormones, around the time of ovulation, ushers in the luteal phase. So now for the downside, the luteal phase, which starts at the ovulation (day 14) and ends on the first day of your period day 28), those dreaded PMS spells, when you feeling like crying, eating ice-cream and pulling your hair out all at the same time. During this stage of your cycle, your estrogen and progesterone are at their highest, your metabolism shifts and your body uses fat as its primary energy source which at first sounds great news, however, because those fatty acids take longer to process into energy you are left feeling sluggish, not great for that gym mode.

It’s getting hot in here…. your body temperature rises and due to the high levels of progesterone in your body, this delays your sweat responses and takes longer to expel that excess warmth.
In the luteal phase, your appetite increases and you are more prone to cravings. However on the plus side during exercise, it is said that you burn up calories faster due to your body being in more of a catabolic state. Your pain tolerance is lower and your body’s main priority, not you being able to get a good workout in, is to prepare itself to carry a fertilized egg and sustain a pregnancy. Your body may be in ‘hopefully mode’ but you’re sure as well not left feeling bloated and ready to snap at anything and anyone, followed by a flood of tears over some soppy love film!

In the luteal phase, the body shifts into more of fat-storing physiology and becomes more reliant on sugar burning. This could be associated with the fact, each month at this time your body wholeheartedly prepares to carry a child for the next nine months. During this period with progesterone relatively higher than estrogen, the female metabolism becomes more of a “sugar burner”. Long stretches of cardio are not beneficial because during this phase of your cycle your body is a catabolic stage for muscle tissue. Also, some evidence shows that the luteal phase has a greater ‘afterburn effect’ associated with it.

Overall, I discovered that you should push yourself most in the week of your period and the week after, lower your calories and don’t push yourself too much in the time leading up to your period. Instead, make up for the ‘easy’ sessions you may have had in the follicular phase. That really is the best way to train with your menstrual cycle, rather than pedaling against it, according to a recent study. One group listened to the body and the other continues as if they were male and the group who went with the flow increased their strength by 32.6% whereas the other group only increased their strength by a minimal 13%. For me, the general message for women training aside from the masses of men is to not to accept that our bodies are designed differently, but this does not mean you should feel completely defeated each month when your mind and body are combating each other.
Prior to carrying out this research, I was already convinced that my cycle would have huge effects on how my body functions (…or doesn’t should I say for some days) in the gym. Noticing that some days I would lack energy, others I would crave chocolate or carbohydrates, some weeks I could lift more than others and so on.

To conclude my article if you are menstruating normally go with your flow, listen to your body by timing your eating habits and correlate your exercising regime with your cycle. So next time a guy complains about their training, remember all women’s bodies go through each month and we still manage to get ourselves into shape despite our bodies wanting to remind us each month of our bodily functions…yes, in fact, we are babymakers and damn proud of it!

Follicular phase: (day 1-14 of your cycle)
Low hormone phase
Recover faster
Take on 5-10 pounds of water (during your period)
High pain tolerance (week after your period)
Baseline is reset into a more relaxed mode
Higher energy levels
Less hungry
Better fat burning
Less chance of losing muscle mass
Anabolic

Luteal phase: (day 14-28 of your cycle)
High hormone phase
Prone to cravings
Increase in appetite
Burn up calories faster
Body temperature rises
Pain tolerance is lower
Primary energy source is fat over carbohydrates
Lack energy because fat takes longer to process into energy
Emotional, irritable, sluggish,
Catabolic

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