Written by Hannah Eva, Eating Disorder Recovery Coach and Accredited Clinical Hypnotherapist
Whilst the notion that exercise is effective in preventing and treating symptoms of dysmenorrhea has prevailed for many years, recent research suggests that there are limits to its efficacy. So, whilst ramping up movement may sometimes help reduce the physical symptoms of menses, is it a ‘fix-all’ for everybody?
Last Friday morning I headed to the gym, worked through 3 sets of shaky squats and then packed up my stuff. As I headed for the exit, I passed by the giant, capitalised, bright yellow mural on the wall which reads:
Safe to say, last Friday’s workout didn’t feel like a bad workout. It felt like an absolutely awful one. My legs felt weak. My mind was entirely elsewhere, and I had a nauseating stomach ache.
Though I may indeed have been able to push myself through that workout and ignored my body’s calls for a premature departure, doing so on this occasion just didn’t feel right. I love my training, and I actually get a kick out of challenging my body, but there was a real difference here. My body simply needed a break, and a strength workout didn’t feel to be in any way in line with the well-being that the movement I do aims to support.
With the knowledge of what was causing my fatigue, and equipped with curiosity and compassion for my body, upon returning home from the gym, I dove into the current research on how the menstrual cycle affects exercise capacity. Quite interestingly, the vast majority of the studies accessible online were only published within the past two years. With hardly any information available that predated the pandemic, two of my expectations of what I would find were immediately confirmed. First, due to the prevalent gender bias within the field of exercise science – with most research on effective exercise programming carried out on male test subjects – there isn’t actually that much information out there to learn. Second, there is a demand for new information, as the pressure for equality within both science and sport is mounting. Gradually, it seems, this demand for information is resulting in what appears to be an exciting new wave of research into the female endocrine system.
Anyway, without dwelling on what I couldn’t find for much longer, I’ll get straight into what was there to learn. As a lifelong exerciser myself, the recent studies revealed some insights that I, and you, may wish to consider in the future to optimise performance.
I suppose now might be a good place to say that before last week, intuitively tailoring movement to my menstrual cycle wasn’t even a consideration for me. And honestly, that’s because I haven’t really felt needed to, since I’ve never felt that my performance has been compromised by my cycle. Although I am lucky that this level of discomfort that I experience last week is not a regular occurrence for me, and has never previously limited my achievement of goals, I know from having conversations with friends and family members can induce debilitating and day-limiting pain.
Why understanding our individual cycles and is important
We women aren’t just smaller or weaker versions of men. Our entire systems are different. As a result, we don’t need to question what’s going wrong when our energy levels feel off, but rather question if the exercise programmes we are implementing are genuinely serving us, and if they have been constructed with female bodies in mind.
By gaining an understanding of our monthly hormonal fluctuations, we can ramp up our workouts when our bodies are ready for it and decrease the intensity when our bodies can’t tolerate as much of a physical load. Not only does this mean we learn to work with and not against our bodies in order to help us out physically, but we are also creating a relationship with movement that is supporting us mentally, too. These may involve moving away from (perhaps outdated) recommendations that advocate for a one-size-fits-all programming that may sometimes directly conflict with the delicate hormonal system. This isn’t worth considering simply to cut us some slack. It is based on science: previous protocols rely heavily on data that has used male subjects, and since they don’t have the monthly hormone fluctuations that women do, may be inaccurate.
Instead, the newly emerging advice seems to promote coordination of workout intensity with menses (and other wellness factors that can be indirectly affected by hormones, including sleep, mood and overall energy levels). Whether our goals are specific, or more about just general wellbeing, understanding our bodies communications is always going to be beneficial.
Phases of the menstrual cycle
To understand how I may need to tailor my training, I needed to recap some of the information I’d covered in my A-level biology class, which had most definitely slipped my mind. In case the same has happened for you, here’s an outline of what you need to know.
A female menstrual cycle averages 23–38 days and comprises 3 phases.
- Follicular phase: The first phase, the follicular phase, begins on day one of a period. It is characterized by the lowest levels of female hormones throughout the month. Because sex hormones are low, this is when the female body is most similar to that of a man. Following your period, estrogen gradually increases, resulting in the release of many hormones.
- Ovulation: Next, comes ovulation. This is when the body releases an egg.
- The luteal phase: The final phase is called the luteal phase. This phase occurs right after ovulation and lasts for the second half of your cycle, bringing with it the hormonal parade. Estrogen has a moderate second rise, but more importantly, progesterone surges.
The effects of fluctuating hormones
With the understanding of how hormonal changes define the menstrual cycle, the physiological changes that can affect exercise efforts become clearer.
- 1. The follicular phase: During the follicular phase, (the low hormone phase), studies suggest that this is the appropriate phase to get our high-intensity workout modalities in, be this interval, heavy weightlifting, plyometrics, long runs, hill repeats. Since time to fatigue is generally longer, the ability to add extra reps and sets can also potentially boost your muscle growth further.
- 2. Ovulation: The event of ovulation can be marked by a slight rise in the body’s temperature. The time to aim for a personal best is generally around ovulation as this is when oestrogen levels are at their highest – right between the follicular and luteal phases, day 14 of the menstrual cycle.
From this point in the cycle onwards, the female body may feel more sensitive to exercising in hot environments and require more fluids to cool down and feel comfortable. Studies suggest athletic performance can really take a hit if steps aren’t taken to overheat so ensure you are paying attention to adequate and cooling hydration.
- 3. During the luteal phase: it becomes more important to respect our body’s elevated hormonal load. Aside from raising our core temperature, progesterone increases our resting heart rate and breathing rate. It is during this time that most women report water retention, too. All four of these symptoms can feel to be additional strain on the body, meaning work can feel much harder than usual. Progesterone’s detrimental effect on endurance during high-impact activities, this by no means implies we must stop exercising altogether but having the ‘rest when we are dead’ or ‘white knuckle through the pain’ mentality might not be the most supportive one at this time for your mind or your body.
Thus, rather than pushing our bodies to their maximum capacity in this second half of their cycle, it may be useful for us to prioritise more moderate forms of exercise such as outdoor walks, modest moderate weight and higher rep strength training, and Pilates here. We could also prioritise the gentler movements which better your flexibility and mobility here, too.
If any ‘heaviness’ feels like it’s limiting you, a light cardiovascular workout that gets your body moving and reduces cramping might be more appropriate, like cycling or walking. Long-distance or other low-impact training may also help to reduce the symptoms associated with pre-menstrual syndrome too, which is a bonus. For your comfort, it may also be worth considering wearing looser tights or shorts that don’t push into the abdomen at this point too.
Additionally, studies show that another characteristic of progesterone is its catabolic effect. In short, this means that tissue breakdown happens at an enhanced rate. Progesterone can also reduce this protein regrowth, negatively affecting the process of muscle repair. We need to take both of these factors into account when it comes to doing heavy strength training during the second half our cycles. Since, muscular tension from repetitively lifting a challenging load leads to microscopic tears within your working muscles, healing time between workouts may be longer. We also may not see as much progress, since as a body heals the tears by regrowing muscular tissue, hypertrophy occurs.
To support our bodies as best we can here, the advice is to a little more priority on oour nutrition here, in particular, elevating our protein take. This will not only replenish protein stores and aid with muscular repair, but also provide a quick boost of energy when levels may feel low. During the late-luteal phase, blood sugar levels are more likely to fluctuate than elsewhere in your cycle. If you are experiencing signs of this, be sure to incorporate sources of healthy fats to help maintain their stability as much as possible. Avocados, nuts, seeds, and tahini are all good options that are easy to add to most meals.
It is important to note that the menstrual cycle can affect each individual in varying ways; hormonal changes can have minimal impact on some, whilst be the source of a great deal of distress for others. Listening to our bodies and finding what works for us as individuals is always going to be the most important element of achieving our fitness goals. Here are a few takeaways from this blog:
- Through knowledge of your menstrual cycle, you can feel empowered to make adjustments to your regime that help you exercise efficiently and avoid failed workouts and self-criticism.
- Because hormone levels are at their lowest on day one of your period, this is when your body is most resilient and ready to work hard.
- After mid-cycle ovulation, hot exercise environments should be avoided, and moderate intensity, gentle movement is most beneficial. Great options include easy cardio, yoga, Pilates, walks, bike rides, and hike.
- In the second half of your cycle, intaking enough protein should be a priority to aid compromised muscular repair. As ever, ensure healthy fats are being added in in good supply too.
- Work with your body, not against it. Though it may not feel it, especially when we feel physically weakened), they are on our side and consistently working for us.