Hormones: Embrace them and use your cycle to your advantage!
Written by Hannah Warne
We’ve all had those days. You know the ones, you just want to get back under the covers and hide away from the world, never mind getting that training done! Hormones have a lot to answer for but it’s not just our mood they affect. If you can learn to work with your body and its cycle, instead of against it, you can really maximise the impact your training has, from how to train, how to recover and what to eat at a particular phase!
So how do we do this?
To begin with, it is a useful exercise to track your cycle for a few months. As well as tracking the length, make a note of mood fluctuations, spot outbreaks, energy (or fatigue) levels, sleep quality, food cravings, how your training has felt and whether you notice any swelling in your hands and fingers. You’ll notice certain patterns begin to emerge. As well as pencil and paper, there are plenty of apps around that can help you do this – my particular favourites are the menstrual tracker on Garmin, and a free app called Wild.AI. I believe Fitbit also offer period tracking but I have no experience of it.
Tracking and noticing the patterns that emerge can be particularly useful if your cycle isn’t regular. You begin to notice things you wouldn’t otherwise during a busy lifestyle.
The next thing is to look again at the phases of our cycle and what happens within each phase. We can then look at how this affects our training and how best to work with it.
The menstrual cycle and its phases
A typical cycle is around 28 days but it’s important to note they can be anything from 23 to 36 days. There are 4 phases, however they can be grouped into follicular and luteal. The follicular phase can be broken down to menstruation and follicular, and the luteal into ovulation and secretory.
During the first phase, oestrogen increases to stimulate follicular growth ready for the egg to be release at the next stage – ovulation, with the first (approximately) 5 days being menstruation itself. The second phase begins the day after ovulation (when the egg is released) and this is where progesterone increases, along with slight elevations in oestrogen.
Ok, but how does this affect my training and how can I make it work for me?
During the first half of your cycle your body is able to most effectively use carbohydrates. Doing high intensity training like sprint efforts (interval) or strength training is perfect. Although some women are uncomfortable about running during their period, as long as you’ve found a sanitary method that works for you, it’s actually a great time for races!
During menstruation, testosterone is at it’s highest. This is a great time to learn a new complex skill where good coordination is required. It’s also the best time for strength training since lower levels of progesterone (which is thought to impair the way muscle builds and repairs) mean the body has an increased muscle building capability.
It is vital during this phase to put in place injury prevention measures. Include sport specific warm-ups, focussing on landing drills and muscle activations. As well as making sure you warm-up sufficiently, be sure to include adequate recovery time – don’t neglect sleep during this phase!
The second week (or phase – the follicular) is the perfect time to do high volume training. It is still important to include a good recovery time, but you may find it quicker this week. Increasing levels of oestrogen and low levels of progesterone mean adaption after exercise is boosted. In a nutshell, your muscles build strength more effectively. This is the best time for strength, resistance and HIIT training. This is the very best week for you to race if you’re a runner. You’re most likely to grab a PB during this week.
During ovulation body temperature increases, along with heart and breathing rate. Because of these increases it’s vitally important to pay attention to your hydration during this phase, especially if you’re exercising in warmer weather. Higher levels of progesterone mean recovery may take a little longer than usual to recover so you might like to think about foam rolling and stretching. Cold water immersion therapy (which is more beneficial for women than men) is also supposed to be excellent! Ovulation is good time to really consider endurance training because higher levels of progesterone make it harder to build muscle.
There is a lot going on during the final phase of your cycle. A decline in hormones leads to an inflammatory response which is a trigger in PMS. Progesterone is also high and this makes the body less sensitive to insulin, impairing its ability to store glucose. This is why aerobic efforts (such as running) feel harder during this phase of your cycle. Despite making exercise feel tough during this phase, exercise has been shown to be greatly beneficial in reducing PMS symptoms, so don’t give up! Light aerobic exercise (such as a brisk walk, gentle run, swimming yoga or pilates) is the best option. Sleep can be greatly interrupted because of the (not so!) wonderful effects of progesterone – including higher body temperature, and psychological stress due to PMS so be sure to do everything you can to minimise the effects of these.
During this luteal phase it’s important to include additional recovery strategies. Increased inflammation associated with PMS can be counter-acted with good food – that is food that is rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Think about plenty of fresh fruit (blueberries are great) and vegetables (beetroot is a superfood with well known health benefits), fish, eggs and nuts.
Is there anything else that’s useful to know?
Well yes actually.
Omega 3 (1000mg), magnesium and zinc can help with PMS symptoms such as cramp.
Higher intake of Vitamin D has been shown to reduce poor mood due to its heavy involvement in synthesis of serotonin (a neurotransmitter involved in balancing the mental state) so it’s a good idea to take a supplement during the luteal phase. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on your vitamin D levels in general since too little of it can lead to stress fractures.
During the second phase of your cycle, your body naturally craves more protein. Lentils, nuts, chicken, fish and yoghurt are all good sources.
So what have we learned?
By knowing where you are in your cycle and paying attention to what is going on with your body, you can begin to maximise the benefits of your training.
- The first phase (menstruation) is a great time to learn a new skill that requires co-ordination, due to higher levels of testosterone.
- During the second phase (immediately after menstruation) is the best time to focus on higher intensity efforts or strength training due to increasing levels of oestrogen and relatively low levels of progesterone. Alternatively – go and grab that PB with both hands!
- Ovulation is the best time to concentrate on endurance because higher levels of progesterone make it harder to build muscle.
- The late luteal phase is hard work because of high levels of hormones as well as PMS, but exercise is well known to combat PMS symptoms, so don’t give up, but keep it gentle!
We all know the disadvantages to being a woman. Hopefully this blog has given you a small insight into how you can make your hormones and cycle work for you. BUT, this is just the beginning. If you want to read or know more, the book ‘ROAR’ by Dr Stacy Sims* is a must have in any female athlete’s library.
We also recommend following Venus225 on Facebook or Instagram where they often offer valuable insight. We have no affiliation with this brand, just enjoy their content and find it informative.
*the link provided is an affiliate link which may earn a small commission for Ruby Fury, however will not cost you any extra.
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