The female menstrual cycle is a complex web of events, hormones and emotions and so it is no wonder that most women (let alone men!) do not have enough awareness of this. This post aims to shed some light on how to adapt your training and nutrition around this hormonal hurricane. But first, let’s get down to the basics!
A ‘normal’ menstrual cycle consists of four phases:
- Menstruation (the monthly nuisance that is our period).
- The Follicular phase (between 0-14 days on the graph below).
- Ovulation (lasts about 1-2 days).
- The Luteal phase (between 14-28 days in the graph below).
The graph shows these phases and the corresponding hormonal fluctuations present during this time. Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) are also present, but not depicted below (I will discuss them later).
The hormones that affect your menstrual cycle the most:
Let’s start with the basics first before we start thinking about how these hormones might affect our training and nutrition.
As you can see, the two main hormones present during our cycle are Estrogen and Progesterone. These hormones fluctuate throughout the ‘typical’ 28 days which CAN cause havoc with how we feel. It must be noted that a “normal” cycle can vary from 21 days up to 35 days.
What is Estrogen?
The one that gets the most attention is Estrogen, and that is for a fair reason, as it’s often associated with things that make women, women.
It is produced by the ovaries and plays a huge role in the development and maintenance of breasts and the regulation of the reproductive system.
This hormone is also responsible for preparing the female body for pregnancy each month. this leads us to feeling a little bit more ‘flirtatious’ and ‘spunky’ during the estrogen-dominant half of our cycle (follicular phase) than we do in the latter part of the cycle.
What is Progesterone?
The latter half of our cycle is typified by the rise in progesterone. Whilst estrogen is the flirtatious ‘Lolita’ of women’s hormones, progesterone is more of the ‘mom-jean’ hormone.
Progesterone is released by the corpus luteam in the ovary and helps the body prepare for the possibility of embryo implantation. Women tend to feel hungrier, sleepier and more relaxed than they do at any other part of their cycle.
We feel this way as our bodies are preparing for the possibility of growing another human being in the very near future.
What happens at Ovulation?
Our ovaries have follicles that are like little homes for our eggs. During the first phase of the cycle, these eggs are maturing within the follicle.
Around the midpoint of a cycle, when estrogen is still high and progesterone is low, this prompts a surge of another two hormones called Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH). It is these two bad boys of fertility that are responsible for the maturation and release of the egg from its follicle.
The egg then travels down the fallopian tubes where fertilisation by sperm/pregnancy can happen. If fertilisation does occur, the egg will implant in the endometrium. If not, it will slowly dissolve and pass out of the body along with the uterine lying in your next period.
Phases of the menstrual cycle and its effect on nutrition and training
So far, I have discussed the general psychological and behavioural characteristics associated with these wondrous hormones. Now, let’s discuss how we can optimise our nutrition and training around our cycle and be the best versions of ourselves despite the hormonal fluctuations.
Your period and the Follicular phase:
The first day of menstrual bleeding is considered Day 1. Estrogen and progesterone are low during this initial phase. Typically, after the first few days of our period, when the PMS subsides, our mood and cravings tend to improve. We feel stronger and more able to push ourselves in the gym.
As our hormones are essentially ‘low’ (see graph above), though you might still be bleeding, you may be able to use this time to train hard. This is only if your body allows it and the bloat and pain has subsided enough (but please note* some women cannot train during this time at all).
As the days progress and we get further into the follicular phase, our estrogen levels increase. This means increased energy levels which peak at ovulation.
→ Training considerations:
You guessed it! More estrogen is good news for your training. It means more training intensity and strength. Perfect time for you to push for that personal best! You could also find it easier to add in extra cardio or sessions into your programme.
One thing to be mindful of is that the closer we are to ovulation (typically around mid cycle), the more the hormone relaxin is secreted. Relaxin is a hormone that increases the laxity in our joints but also, if fertilisation occurs, relaxes the uterus in anticipation of pregnancy.
So be mindful of plyometrics and training that could lead you susceptible to injury. If you are new to exercise and are training unsupervised, it might be wise to stick to resistance training machines that guide you through the movement!
→ Nutritional considerations:
As estrogen is dominant, women are more insulin sensitive. This means that we can handle carbohydrates better in our diet. This ties in nicely to the fact that we can train harder during this phase as more carbs means more energy to train!
So look to include oats, sweet and white potato, rice and other forms of unprocessed carbs to incorporate into your nutritional program (Check out this link to some delicious PROATS recipes).
→ Training and nutritional considerations:
As a reminder, Ovulation occurs when estrogen hits its peak along with a surge in LH and FSH. Women tend to feel energised and focused. This could be the perfect time to channel this energy into a good gym session and even max strength testing. (But be careful! recall the Relaxin!) Because estrogen is still relatively high during this time, we tend to feel more satiated and wonderfully energised. Furthermore, as insulin sensitivity is still quite high, we can continue to fuel our gym sessions with carbohydrates!
It’s important to be aware that your bodyweight may increase around this time too. Indeed, there is evidence that “Women’s perception of puffiness or bloating gradually increases, starting before and continuing on a steady increase after ovulation”. Do not let that discourage you, especially if you are trying to lose fat! Instead of looking at daily weight fluctuations you may want to calculate your weekly average bodyweight. This will go a long way towards feeling better about your progression!
The Luteal phase:
Post ovulation and into the Luteal phase, estrogen is dropping and progesterone is on the rise. Your body is now preparing your uterus lining for egg implantation. We might start to get those pesky PMS symptoms as progesterone hits a peak (generally around 5 days before menstruating). Interestingly, progesterone is catabolic, and it counters estrogen with regards to refuelling glycogen, so we need to be mindful of our nutrition at this time. Here’s how to cater to it:
→ Nutritional considerations:
We are less insulin sensitive/more insulin resistant during this time. Time to switch up your carbohydrates for more fat. Having more fat (think avocado, cheese, dark chocolate, olives – yum!) will also help with satiety levels.
Our energy expenditure and metabolic rate increases slightly during this phase explaining why we feel more peckish. This means that we burn around 100-200 calories extra a day! So based on that information, those extra fat calories to your diet (mine come from 10-20gs of dark choc!) shouldn’t do any harm!
In some instances, I have had female clients whose cravings were so bad during this time of their cycle, that I have tried lowering their protein goals to factor in more carbs and fats into their diet. This has allowed them to get the ‘fix’ that they so crave, whilst remaining within their calorie targets to still reach their goals.
Alternatively, you could even try cycling your calories to fit where you are in your menstrual cycle. This could help you cope with fluctuations in cravings and training effects throughout. For example, you might try lowering your calories for the follicular phase of your cycle (if wanting to lose body fat) but eating closer to maintenance for the luteal phase. This could help with a more sustainable, long term fat loss goal! If you need help calculating your maintenance calories or calories for fat loss, try using an online Calorie Calculator.
→ Training considerations:
I’d be lying if I said that exercise won’t feel harder during this high hormone phase before our period. We tend to feel weaker with less strength and more muscle fatigue. Meaning that we do better with lower intensity workouts and more recovery. Therefore, consider lowering the weights, reducing the reps and sets, or increasing your rest period at this point in your cycle.
It is also a good time to hold back on long bouts of cardiovascular exercises! Nevertheless, it is certainly still safe to train during this phase, but with the onset of PMS symptoms looming, it might be a good time utilise a deload week or include more rest days in your training program.
What does this mean for you?
It means that women are not just small men! And we need to consider other things when programming their training and providing nutritional guidelines!
By being aware of all the hormonal fluctuations that happen within the female body, this enables us to tune in with how we are feeling at different times of the month. It gives you a great opportunity to learn more about yourself and your reproductive health. A great start would be to use a menstrual cycle tracking app, like Flo or Clue where you can log your symptoms, mood and even basal body temperature (BBT).
Here at https://anthonypaulhe.com/ our bespoke online training service takes into consideration every aspect of a woman’s physiological functions. By tracking our female client’s cycles, along with some specific biofeedback markers we can evaluate how they feel at different times of their menstrual cycle.
This allows us to cater to their needs and cravings on a weekly basis via our weekly calls. This way they get the mental support they need without having to overthink, or worse, feel guilty when they need to satisfy these cravings. Don’t be at the mercy of your hormones! Learn to work with them and take your health to the next level for good!
Lesley Belanger et al. (2013). Anterior cruciate ligament laxity related to the menstrual cycle: an updated systematic review of the literature. J Can Chiropr Assoc 57(1): 76–86.
Colin P. White et al. (2011). Fluid Retention over the Menstrual Cycle: 1-Year Data from the Prospective Ovulation Cohort. Obstet Gynecol Int.
Sarah E. Hill, PhD (2019). This is your Brain on Birth Control. The surprising science of women, hormones, and the law of unintended consequences. Penguin Random House LLC.
DR. Jolene Brighten (2019). Beyond the pill. Harper one.