If I had a dirham for every time I was asked if I should exercise during my period, I would be very rich. You may have heard mixed messages on whether you should be working out during your period, and you’ve probably had days when your cycle has impacted your workout plans – those days when you just want to sit on the sofa, gorge on chocolate, cry at a romcom, and eat anything in your way that resembles comfort food.
The taboo around periods is finally slipping away. The more we normalise and educate people on this topic, the better it will be for the next generations of women. Top athletes are talking about how their menstrual cycle affects their performance and, with all the new research available now, how working with their cycles has increased their performance.
Sports coaches of women’s teams, especially football, are now working with individual team members to enhance their performance by adapting their training according to where they are in their cycle. There is evidence to suggest it maximises the strength and ability of the team and enhances overall performance. Thankfully, research has finally caught up and studies now show that there is much more to our cycle than just the bleeding and if we work with our menstrual cycle rather than against it, it can really help us thrive. But don’t worry, you can still have those sofa days.
The ebbs and flows of hormones over the course of the menstrual cycle affect physiology, metabolism, stamina, and strength. These factors can have a massive impact on how we respond to and recover from exercise, and if we are bingeing on the wrong type of food, this can be a double whammy to us feeling crappy.
Why Are We Only Hearing About This Now?
Most of what you have learnt about exercise science, diets, calories, exercise, and fad diets was not applicable to women. How about that for a statement? The information that we have grown up with and probably implemented at one time or another into our lives was not relevant to women and their physiology.
You might be shocked to learn that studies for the keto diet – a high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carbohydrate diet long held as a controversial but highly effective method for rapid weight loss – were based on studies conducted with male participants, some women over 60, and clinical trials. It took some time for researchers to realise that men and women are different. At the time that the initial studies were conducted, women were deemed to be ‘too complicated’.
Fascinating and, more importantly, relevant research is now available to us thanks to the likes of Dr Stacy Sims and many other women in the medical/research fields, who basically have thrown away the rulebook. Thankfully, the likes of myself and other professional coaches can start applying some of these new lessons and really giving women the fighting chance they deserve.
It All Starts with Getting to Know Your Cycle
The first step towards taking advantage of your menstrual cycle’s phases is knowing when they are. Greater understanding of your own body and menstrual cycle allows you to choose and implement the right training and dietary requirements for every stage, boosting energy and overall well-being.
There are many apps out there to help keep track of cycles, but it’s important to remember that there’s more to it than just punching in the date when a period starts. Monitor the information before making changes. Some apps to help with tracking your cycle are:
What Is the Cycle?
The typical menstrual cycle is 28 days long. It can range from 21 to 35 days, and it has two phases with ovulation right in the middle. The follicular phase starts on the first day of your period and lasts for 13 to 14 days. In this phase, your oestrogen and progesterone are low. Did you know that you are at your strongest and your hormones are primed for high performance once your period starts?
Here’s why: once you are in the clear of pregnancy and your body doesn’t have to utilise all your internal systems creating that high hormone overdrive for a safe space for an egg to live, your body starts to relax and can now access those energy systems again for peak performance. So here is where you can hit the gym, go for your personal best, and do some serious strength training. Ovulation occurs and you can still hit some PBs.
Then you have the luteal phase, typically through days 15-28, when estrogen and progesterone levels are high. Your body starts preparing for pregnancy, hormones are on the rise, and this is where PMS symptoms can also rear their head. If you play racket sports, your hand to ball coordination might be a bit slower and you may feel a slump in your energy and performance levels. This is a time to relax and step back.
There is no doubt that the hormonal fluctuation impacts more than just the menstruation cycle; physiological, physiological, and emotional states are also affected. Awareness of what’s happening and adjusting your training and diet can really have amazing results on your overall health and well-being. Here is a simple breakdown of what’s happening in each phase and tips on how to structure your training.
There’s no reason you can’t exercise on your period if you feel up to it. We are generally stronger in this phase, so maybe a mindset change to how we used to train might work. We are all different, so maybe if you are bleeding heavily, a walk or something light might be more practical. Most of my clients who train on their first day of period definitely do have an uptick in their performance. Also, training can help with the cramps.
Eat well as during this phase – your body is more likely to need some iron. Meat eaters can opt for red meat, chicken, and shellfish. Other sources of iron can come from legumes like chickpeas, lentils, beans, soya beans, and whole grains. Heavy bleeding can also deplete your iron levels, so help your iron absorption by upping your vitamin C.
After your period has finished, your body is primed to use the energy from stored carbohydrates and is better at metabolising carbohydrates and using them for energy. If there’s ever a good time to treat yourself with some good carbs, it’s the follicular phase.
This is also a good time to push yourself in your workouts. Your increased carbohydrate tolerance in this phase also makes it easier for your body to use glycogen for fuel during exercise and hit higher peaks of intensity. Ramp it up with higher-intensity workouts that build fitness. Focus on resistance training to build muscle.
Additionally, consume iron-rich foods and vitamin B12. For vegetarian sources of iron, opt for more dark leafy greens. You can enhance the absorption of plant-based iron by adding a vitamin C source, such as lemon or other citrus fruits in addition to beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. The goal is light, fresh, and colourful foods.
Boost probiotic-rich foods in this phase to support gut balance – think: fermented and pickled veggies, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Meanwhile, getting enough omega-3 fatty acids will help fight increased inflammation, so dine on salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardine along with nuts, seeds, and plant oils.
As with iron, you can use supplements to get what you need, but getting these nutrients from food is best and popping them without knowing your levels won’t help much. Magnesium is always a safe bet. Above all, stay hydrated – water is your best friend.
Like the follicular phase, ovulation tends to be a higher energy time. If that’s the case, make the most of it by getting some high-energy workouts in. Take this time to switch things up – you have the energy to do it! Estrogen’s appetite-suppressing effect causes women to be less hungry and optimally energised during this phase. As a result, a woman’s need to rely on carbohydrates for quick energy dramatically decreases. Go for small quantities of carbohydrates and choose lighter varieties such as quinoa, amaranth, and red lentils.
Focus on proteins and fat to help sustain energy, and lots of fibre to detoxify increased hormones. Fibre-rich veggies like asparagus, Brussels sprouts, chard, dandelion greens, okra, and spinach as well as antioxidant-rich fruit such as raspberries, strawberries, coconut, and guava help to increase glutathione and support further detoxification of rising hormones in the liver. Get plenty of sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, pecans, and pistachios, all of which you can sprinkle on salads, mix into smoothies, or simply enjoy on their own as a snack.
It’s time to back off with the high intensity. Your body is in prep mode, so it’s not a great time to go hard on your training. Switch to low-intensity workouts or yoga, and give yourself more recovery time between sessions. Listen to your body; this is a time to concentrate on your food. During these weeks, you will probably feel hungrier than usual. This is completely normal. In fact, your body uses up 5-10% more calories during this premenstrual phase. Don’t fight it and listen when your body is telling you to eat.
That said, this is the danger zone. A strong mindset to eat well is needed, calling for nutritional food, protein, and complex carbs to help combat those cravings. Do allow yourself a little indulgence. Hit the water, too – It can be more difficult to stay hydrated during the luteal phase, so keep water at hand, especially during and after workouts. To help with PMS, take magnesium five to seven days before your period starts. A daily dose, meanwhile, helps with cramps, recovery, and sleep. Increase your omega-3 fatty acids and if you do suffer, take a low dose of aspirin and zinc.
The Bottom Line
It doesn’t matter if you are a seasoned gymgoer or a budding athlete; taking a closer look at how your body changes throughout your cycle can be an incredibly helpful tool to enhance your performance and get the best out of your time in the gym. When we understand what’s going on inside, we can set ourselves up for success in a personal and professional capacity, optimising our health and fitness goals.
Sharon James is a women’s health and well-being coach specialising in menopause wellness. Visit www.sharonjamescoaching.com for more information or connect with her via Instagram and Facebook. You can also get on the waitlist for her Menopause Mastery workshops here.