Your periods, your training and you
Updated: Aug 8, 2019
As a personal trainer and coach, I've noticed some common themes among female clients, in relation to training and their menstrual cycle. It seemed the best way to really understand the impact of these hormonal changes, would be to ask as many women as possible about the role they feel their menstrual cycle plays in their fitness performance.
And it's a conversation women are eager to have. More than 100 took part in a survey I created to find out more and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who completed and shared it. I hope this summary provides some basic information and strategies for creating hormonal balance. To caveat, I’m not a medical professional, this is an area of personal and professional interest and the following is an overview of a complex subject.
The survey was designed for women participating in any physical activity, who are still menstruating. However, as people started to respond, I quickly realised there’s more to a woman's experience of the menstrual cycle throughout her life time, than I had considered. Pre and post-natal, amenorrhoea (the lack of menstruation) and peri and post-menopause to name but a few brought to my attention during the survey being open. As I don’t have enough direct experience or understanding of these specific areas – I’ve kept things general. However I would recommend the book ‘Period Power’ by Maisie Hill as an accessible resource and sign post for most of the key issues affecting female reproductive health.
The menstrual cycle 101
Menstruation takes place on average every 28 – 35 days, with ovulation around day 14
Periods begin for most women in their early teens and repeat regularly until menopause around 50yrs old, though this can vary for natural reasons, surgical intervention or illness
Polycystic ovary syndrome, extreme weight-loss, over exercising, weight gain, hormonal contraceptives and stress are factors that can affect the regularity, heaviness and pain experienced during a period
The menstrual cycle is controlled by specific hormones, key ones being oestrogen and progesterone.
It is thought that excess oestrogen can (among other things) reduce a woman's ability to burn energy after eating, resulting in more fat being stored around the body
On average, women have 6 to 11 percent more body fat than men to support pregnancy
The phases of the menstrual cycle
The menstrual cycle takes place roughly over a 28 – 35 day period. It is split into four phases, during this time various hormones are released which may affect mood, energy and appetite.
Day 1 – 7: Menstruation
Day 1 of a period kick-starts the cycle. Menstruation lasts about three to seven days. Some women experience mood and energy changes, bloating and abdominal cramps which may have started the week before.
Tip: focus on self-care, align training with the body’s needs and energy levels
Day 7 – 10: The Follicular Phase
When the body prepares for pregnancy each month. Oestrogen levels rise dramatically during the days before ovulation and peak about a day before the next phase starts.
Tip: start to increase training intensity. Tolerance for discomfort may be higher along with endurance capacity
Day 11 - 16: Ovulation
During a textbook 28-day menstrual cycle, ovulation occurs around day 14. As menstrual cycle lengths vary, ovulation can happen 11 to 16 days before a period.
Tip: maintain good form, as increased oestrogen can affect neuro-muscular control, increasing the risk of injury
Day 21 – 28: The Luteal Phase
The luteal stage begins post ovulation. Progesterone becomes the predominate hormone. If pregnancy hasn’t happened, the lining of the uterus is shed, a period takes place and the next menstrual cycle begins.
Tip: the body switches to fat as a fuel source. Be mindful of sugar cravings during this time. Longer duration, lower intensity and restorative exercise may be preferential to high intensity and more supportive of weight loss efforts
Body temperature may increase prior to menstruation
What you said
110 women shared their experiences of the changes their bodies went through over the course of a menstrual cycle. The following are some key points
80% were between the ages of 25 – 44
60% participated in exercise 3 – 5 times a week
58% took a rest day from training at least once a week – most more frequently
Responders enjoy a wide variety of activities from spin, yoga, dance, team sports and CrossFit
80% have what they consider to be a ‘normal’ period, with the causes of irregularities ranging from menopause, amenorrhoea, pregnancy and hormonal contraceptive use
The week before their period (luteal), over half of women experienced, sugar cravings, bloating and fatigue. Over a third experienced muscular pain. 10% had no noticeable differences and just 3% felt ‘energised and focused’
‘I have trouble focusing and feel more emotional about things’
Training the week before their period. Equal numbers felt more easily fatigued and noticed no noticeable difference to their training. 20% said they found aerobic and weightlifting activities harder during this time.
‘I gain weight and feel it is much harder to run i.e. more out of breath after just a few minutes and can’t go for as long as I normally would’
Experiences during menstruation (days 1 – 7) varied widely, though leaning towards the negative, with over 30% reporting fatigue, bloating and cramp during this time. 28% had sugar cravings and it could be assumed these symptoms have carried over from the luteal phase the week before. 16% reported feeling energised during this time.
‘Cravings seem to have gone down.’
'I’m in too much pain to go to the gym’
‘Feel fitter and slimmer, all-round healthier. Probably a bit happier too, either caused by the above or in addition to it’
In the two-weeks after menstruation, over 30% of the women reported feeling ‘energised’ in contrast to just 16% feeling this way during their period and 2% feeling this way the week before their period. 22% found aerobic activities easier and 17% felt weight training was easier. Compared to 4% finding aerobic exercise and 2% finding weight training easier the week before their period.
‘Same as before really - just happier and feeling healthier/more successful in exercise goals than pre-period’
The survey concluded with this question: Reflecting on a full menstrual cycle (1 - 28 days) and relating it to a training month. What are your observations of changes (positive or negative) in either your general well-being or physical performance?
Over 70% of the women who took part shared their experiences here’s what some of them had to say;
’I have never thought previously that how I feel with regards to eating/training would be related to the menstrual cycle. I don’t tend to notice much either with my diet, if I feel like eating something I will. I don't tend to eat a lot of sweet things but must admit there are some days I love chocolate, but this is about twice a month. If truth be told I don’t really know from one month to the next when the next period is coming and that has been the case since, I was young.’
‘One week before tired, and lack energy. Bloated.’
‘This survey doesn’t cover the emotional side of menstruation i.e. PMS. I suffer badly from PMS and it makes tearful and irritable. The survey does not cover heavy periods. On the first day of my period I avoid exercise because my period is so heavy.’
‘Generally, find that days 14-21 are when I'm feeling most energised. The few days before my period starts tends to be the worst for aerobic/endurance activities, while days 7-10 I find it hardest to commit to aggressive/max effort activities like power lifting.’
‘I get moodier and sometimes I don’t feel like training. I go anyway.’
‘I feel more energetic before and after my cycle.’
‘Few days before period, I am bloated, and breasts feel tender. The day before my period I feel completely drained, no energy. After couple of days of period I feel lighter more energetic.’
‘I noticed that before period I feel more tired even can get angry from little things. Everyone annoying with stupid questions:) no energy to train at all.’
‘On the first days I feel moody and not very keen to train, after the second week of my menstrual month I feel more energised and very motivated!!’
‘Energy levels decrease as period gets closer More bloated in run up to period Energy levels are best when finish period and feel like I train harder and better Can suffer cramps during period so don’t feel like training or exercising. Sometimes energy feels too low to do it.’
Many of the women who responded seemed to be in broad agreement (with a few exceptions) that mood/energy levels dropped leading up to their period, bloating and some cravings increased and during the first few days of menstruation, especially if experiencing heavy bleeding or cramps they felt less likely to want to do anything much less exercise.
What does this mean for me?
Your menstrual cycle is exactly that, your cycle and unique to you. The only way to understand what’s ‘normal’ for you, if/how it affects your training, when to seek medical advice and how to care for yourself throughout the duration of your cycle is awareness.
A simple way to build awareness could be to note the first day of your period, and monitor your mood, food cravings and energy levels against the four phases listed above. This could be writing down a few words every day expressing or rating your energy level (1 – 5), how you feel physically and emotionally, so you have something to refer and compare to.
‘Many negative hormonal symptoms are driven by oestrogen dominance. Oestrogen dominance isn’t necessarily about having too much oestrogen but more the ratio of oestrogen to progesterone is too high. As such, most women may benefit from increasing progesterone and decreasing their oestrogen load to get a healthier ratio/balance. Even the healthiest of women with great hormonal balance will experience some symptoms throughout the cycle and it’s just the extent of them that vary from woman to woman. In a nutshell, every woman would do well to increase the things that help the body to process and eliminate oestrogen effectively and remove/avoid the things that cause the opposite. ‘
Francesca Liparoti, Registered Nutritional Therapist
Redress the balance
The following are some simple tips to help maintain a healthy hormonal balance throughout the menstrual cycle
Reduce or avoid
Plastics, where possible use BPA free containers. Avoid freezing and heating foods in plastic containers. Keep plastic water bottles out of the sunlight and avoid reusing them
The liver is the main organ that processes and eliminates old and used hormones. Avoid toxins & chemicals as they will, place a burden on the liver and can mimic oestrogen inside the body increasing the oestrogen load
Switch to chemical free skin care, hair care, and household cleaning products
Filter/boil tap water or drink bottled where possible
Stress (physical, emotional, mental) increases the production of cortisol in the body. Elevated cortisol can lead to increased belly fat
Hormonal birth control may affect the menstrual cycle in unintended ways, be aware of any potential side effects, particularly those that affect mood
Healthy fats especially omega 3 (DHA&EPA) from oily fish
Cycle awareness. Track your cycle to understand what's 'normal' for you and treat it as a health marker, noting any changes against it. Pain that immobilises, excessive bleeding, very short or long cycles, mid cycle spotting, absent periods (outside of menopause) are cues to seek medical advice
Vegetables from the cruciferous family (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, bok choi, B.sprouts, watercress) help with the various liver detoxification pathways that process oestrogen
Fibre for a healthy bowel - the organ that eliminates waste once the liver has played its role (ground flax, root veg, and all veg, oats, buckwheat, brown rice, beans & legumes, berries)
‘Me time’ the week before and during menstruation if nothing else. Especially for the more naturally introverted. Use this time to recharge. If you don’t feel social or energised, spend time with yourself, slow the pace and reflect. Consider switching to low intensity exercise like jogging and restorative practices like yoga and Pilates.
Talk to your trainer/coach if you have one. Ensure they understand the changes you go through month to month so they can support you with the appropriate nutrition and/or training advice. Share with other women who are likely to understand your experience.
Re-frame things. See training as a way to support your cycle and hormonal balance and vice versa, as opposed to an week of interruption to your routine.