Changing the type and intensity of your exercise sessions according to the phase of your menstrual cycle is a relatively new concept.
Traditional strength and conditioning approaches to exercise don’t tend to consider the phase of a woman’s cycle and science is still catching up with what is inherently known and observed in women – that the fluctuating hormones has a big impact on our overall mood, energy levels, hunger, motivation, and of course – on our ability to exercise.
Fortunately, new research regarding the effect of the menstrual cycle on female performance is emerging. However, it is still primarily targeted at athletes and not the every day woman, which is why it is necessary to open this discussion.
Instead of ‘pushing through’ each week of training without consideration to the phase of your cycle, a new approach would be to work with your body – i.e., to cycle your training with your cycle. So, to optimise your results in the gym here is one approach to consider.
As you recall from part one, the first phase of the menstrual cycle is called the follicular phase, and it is typically during this stage where you are physically at your strongest, you feel good, your mood is elevated, you feel focused and have optmium energy levels. With this in mind, this first phase is a great time to focus on weight training using conventional strength and hypertrophy style training (i.e., working 3 to 4 sets of 4 to 12 repetitions, with a moderate to heavy load of compound exercises).
During the second phase – the luteal phase – oestrogen decreases while progesterone increases and as a result, energy levels, mood and physicality starts to change. Perhaps you have experienced this yourself, where one or two weeks out from your period you start to feel slower, maybe you can’t work out as hard, or your recovery takes longer. If so, this may be due to the hormonal changes taking place. Then, as you are days out from menstruation you may experience a variety of PMS type symptoms – anything from tender breasts, to discomfort, increased food cravings, and changes in mental state.
As I mentioned in part one, although PMS symptoms may be common, they should not necessarily be considered the acceptable. It is normal to experience slight discomfort and moodinesss but it is not normal to experience crippling pain, severe breast tenderness or symptoms that cause you to miss work (these symptoms require further investigation). Yet many women are suffering unnecessarily due to thinking that those kind of symptoms are the norm and, therefore, acceptable.
Remember, your menstrual cycle is a snapshot into your hormonal health and if you notice any changes in your cycle or start to experience more severe symptoms than usual, then you should seek advice from a suitably qualified health practitioner.
In terms of training during the luteal phase, it is recommended that you switch your focus from strength or hypertrophy training, and reduce the load (i.e., weights used). Of course, intensity should still be a key component, however the intensity will be generated from a mixed training approach. In other words this is a great time to participate in high intensity group fitness classes, circuit style or modified strongman type classes, and weight training with higher repetitions. This modified training is designed to match the fluctuations in your hormones during this phase.
One of the most important training factors when cycling with your cycle, is the pre-menstrual and menstrual phase. Once again, this is a time where women traditionally push through with gritted teeth; however, doing so is a prime example of working against your body, instead of listening to it, and nurturing it with what it needs. Performing light, gentle sessions in the lead up and through menstruation will be helpful, particularly if PMS symptoms are being experienced. Walking, Pilates, light technique work and yoga are ideal options to consider. As menstruation comes to an end the cycle starts all over again. You can enter the next cycle feeling refreshed, restored and ready (physically and psychologically) to boost the training cycle once again.
By changing your training approach to match your natural hormonal changes, you are more likely to see better results, because you are allowing for the natural ebb and flow of your hormonal state.
Article by Nardia Norman