We all know exercise feels easier some days than others. It’s likely a multitude of factors — diet, sleep, stress — but have you ever considered the role your menstrual cycle might play? As taboos around periods disappear, conversations around menstruation are becoming more mainstream. More and more women are tracking their bleeds and living in alignment with their cycle. This includes adapting their fitness routines. Interested in giving it a go? Here we break it down.
Understanding the menstrual cycle
The menstrual cycle lasts between 21 and 40 days with 28 days being the average length. Day 1, the start of the cycle, is when the bleed — or period — begins. From then until your next bleed (the last day) is one full cycle. There are four main hormones involved in the regulation and events of the menstrual cycle: follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinising hormone, oestrogen and progesterone.
“During a cycle, the levels of these hormones fluctuate, with each performing a specific role. As the length of the cycle can vary from woman to woman so the exact timing of these changes can differ,” Dr Ellie Rayner, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist and founder of The Maternity Collective, explained.
Why the menstrual cycle impacts exercise
These fluctuating hormones have a huge impact on how energetic we feel. Always need a mid-afternoon nap in the day running up to your period? This is why. “Oestrogen is responsible for an increase in cortisol and testosterone levels which naturally increases our energy levels while progesterone levels ensure a more balanced mood and a feeling of calm, being more in control and a little slower,” hormone expert Dr Martin Kinsella explained.
There are four phases of menstrual cycle: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. Here Dr Elle Rayner explains the process: “During the first part of the menstrual cycle, often called the ‘Follicular phase’, follicle-stimulating hormone is released. This encourages an egg to mature in the ovary and causes oestrogen to be produced. Oestrogen levels rise gradually throughout the first half of your cycle, thickening the lining of your womb, peaking at around mid-cycle. Once oestrogen levels reach a peak for they trigger a surge of luteinising hormone (LH). This surge of LH causes ovulation to occur around 9-12 hours later, releasing a mature egg from the ovary. After ovulation, during the second half of your cycle or ‘Luteal Phase’, the hormone progesterone is produced, maintaining the lining of the womb in preparation for a fertilised egg to implant and to support a developing pregnancy. If conception does not occur, the levels of progesterone will reduce and menstruation will occur, starting the cycle again, usually around 28 days later.”
The benefits of aligning your fitness routine with your menstrual cycle
Working with your energy levels not against them helps you feel more in tune.
When you start to live more intuitively in line with your menstrual cycle, you start to see your body as everchanging — not a machine that can achieve the same thing day in day out. A recent global survey of active females, conducted by Strava and St Mary’s University, reported that 74% of women had experienced a negative effect on performance as a result of their menstrual cycle and the results also revealed a lack of knowledge in this area with 72% receiving no education related to sports performance and the menstrual cycle. You approach fitness with a more holistic outlook and are kinder to yourself. Working with your energy levels not against them helps you feel more in tune. You can push yourself harder when you know you have the capability and be more mindful during times when you can’t.
You might also notice strength gains if you work out at certain times of the month. “Some research suggests that strength training during the follicular phase can result in higher increases in muscle strength compared to training in the luteal phase,” Dr Kinsella commented.
Exercising according to your cycle can also help with period pain or cramps. You might not feel like getting off the sofa, but you will be sure to reap the rewards. “During exercise, your brain releases endorphins (happy hormones). Endorphins block pain receptors in your brain. This can help to stop the pain signals from the cramping contracting your uterus. Any aerobic exercise, even a walk, can release endorphins that provide pain relief,” Dr Kinsella highlighted.
What exercise to do when
Here, Dr Ellie Rayner suggests the best styles of fitness to try throughout the cycle:
Menstruating phase: During your period try and undertake some light aerobic or cardio exercises to encourage the release of endorphins but without overdoing it. Yoga, walking and pilates are great here.
The follicular phase and ovulation: In the time leading up to ovulation, as your energy levels are at their highest you might want to push yourself with higher levels of exercise than at other times of the month, particularly in the 48 hours around ovulation. It also plays a role in substrate metabolism, enabling us to access our carbohydrate and glycogen supplies more readily and break down fat supplies quicker, to convert into energy. This is the time to try HIIT, strength, cycling and running.
Luteal phase: After ovulation and in the time leading up to your next period you may find your energy levels affect your motivation and performance. It is important to know that this is temporarily related to your cycle, rather than a reduction in your overall fitness. Undertaking activities like yoga, pilates or moderate-intensity exercise that are less physically demanding than high-intensity activities may help support your body at this time and help relieve symptoms of ‘premenstrual syndrome’ or PMS.
How to do it
Want to align your fitness routine with your menstrual cycle? Well there’s a couple of ways to do it. You can do it the old fashioned way using pen and paper. Simply use a calendar to plot the days of your cycle and attribute your exercise accordingly. You could also use an app. Either an app like Clue or Flo which tracks your period and menstrual cycle symptoms or an app that’s specifically designed for menstrual cycle and fitness (like FitrWoman or Jennis CycleMapping). Online fitness platform P.volve has a special online program especially for women wanting to work with their cycle — it’s called Phase & Function. London-based fitness studio Psycle recently launched ‘Psycle with your Cycle’, a 30-day online programme combining spinning, barre, yoga and strength sessions to work in harmony with the different phases of your cycle.
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