Periods are so taboo, right? I mean who wants to talk about the cramps, bloating, fatigue, cravings, and fluctuations in your workout performance during the month? Well, I do. The truth is your lady hormones have a huge impact on every system in your body, and affect your fitness. These natural fluctuations can explain why you struggle through a sprint session some weeks, and feel like superwoman on others. But if you learn to work with instead of against your physiology you’ll rock your workouts all month long. Here are the ups and downs of a typical 28-day cycle and the best workouts to do during each part.
Follicular Phase: Days 1 – 13
Day 1 marks the happiest time of the month: your period. No I’m not being sarcastic either. This is the time when your hormones estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest, making you physiologically ‘most like a guy’: your pain tolerance is higher, you’re fatigue resistant, and you sweat more efficiently making it easier to go harder for longer. It’s the optimal time to really push yourself at the gym to increase your strength and power, and rock those higher intensity workouts. Here’s why:
During this low hormone phase you’re better at tapping into your glycolytic energy stores, which provides your muscles with energy for high intensity sprints.
Protein synthesis is greater during this phase so you’re primed for building lean muscle and making strength gains. Remember having more muscle increases your metabolism so pick up those weights.
Basal Metabolic Rate dips, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Counteract this effect with workouts that combine strength and cardio intervals, and nourish with wholesome foods post workout to keep your body humming along.
Ovulation: Days 12 – 14
It’s hard to say exactly when you’ll ovulate, but it’s likely around this time. You’ll probably feel warmer than normal as core body temperature rises, and stays elevated for the remainder of your cycle. Your overall strength will peak at this time, but be sure to maintain good form when lifting. Your best workouts during these few days are:
Simple strength moves. Keep your feet planted on the ground as ACL injury risk is 4 – 8 times higher than in any other phase of your cycle, according to a study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. If you play a dynamic team sport, work on glute strength to ensure proper knee alignment.
Bike sprints. You’ll still be able to tap into those fast energy systems and your leg strength surges, so you’ll be a power demon in spin class. Just be sure to position yourself near a fan to stay cool.
Luteal Phase: Days 15 – 28
It’s not all gloom and doom after ovulation, but your workouts may suck more than normal. On the plus side, you’ll burn more calories overall as metabolism increases 5 – 10% before you start your period, which is why you probably feel a little HANGRY.
However, high estrogen and progesterone levels during this phase affect the hypothalamus in your brain leading to fatigue and mood swings. Everyone’s mojo is affected differently, but these simple workout and diet swaps can have you feeling better in no time:
Do steady state cardio. You’re body is better at burning fat during this phase, so opt for longer runs, rides, or swims instead of sprints.
Stay cool. Higher body temperatures can make hot yoga feel like torture, so choose a cooler practice and sip iced water throughout. The gentle movement also helps relieve cramping and boosts your mood.
After your workout refuel with carbs and protein. This standard practice is even more essential during the high hormone phase to offset lower rates of protein synthesis, and keep that hard earned muscle
Ever want to devour a block of chocolate during those PMS days? You may crave carbs and sugary foods in response to depleting serotonin levels, but giving in will only worsen the symptoms.
Avoid the blood-sugar roller coaster by opting for slow digesting carbs like quinoa, brown rice, and sweet potato combined with healthy fats and protein (think roast sweet potato, salmon, and greens). If you need a sweet hit, try a couple of squares of 70% dark chocolate because life’s all about balance.
But what if I’m on the pill?
If you’re taking an oral contraceptive, consider yourself in the high hormone phase for most of the month. If you notice that the pill is impacting your health and fitness, talk to your doctor about swapping to an IUD or vaginal ring, which deliver a localised dose of hormones and may have fewer side effects.
Umm, I don’t get my period – what’s up?
For those of you reading this sans period – never fear. There are plenty of reasons why your period goes AWOL and ways to get it back, which you can read about here. But please, whatever you do, don’t ignore the problem!
Sarah is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Pilates instructor and Personal Trainer specialising in women’s health and hormonal conditions. She offers Personal Training, small group Pilates classes, and Health Coaching focusing on nutrition, exercise, and mindset to help you reach your wellbeing goals. Visit www.skactive.com.au to find out more.