Using Your Menstrual Cycle to Optimize Diet and Training
In this post:
- Menstrual Cycle Review
- Estrogen: A Hormone with Perks. Training in the first two weeks of your cycle.
- Progesterone: The Wet Blanket of Workouts. Training in the last two weeks of your cycle
- Recap: Sync training and your cycle
- There’s an App for That! An app to track your cycle
It’s been linked to a myriad of things: Cramps. Moodiness. Sore boobs. Endless numbers of ruined underwear.
Half the time it feels like we’d be better off going back to the days of yore and being banished to the red tent of the unclean rather than deal with people when it’s “that time of the month.”
But what if I told you that we can actually use our menstrual cycles to our advantage? And no, I don’t mean as an excuse to get out of sex with your husband.
I mean, using our cycles to benefit the journey to health and fitness.
A Review of the Menstrual Cycle: What You Might Not Know
Let’s talk about the process of menstruation for a moment. Unless you were absent “that day” in middle school or were born in a bunker with Jon Hamm as your captor (that wouldn’t be so bad, would it?), chances are that you are all too familiar with the process leading up to Aunt Flow. But just in case, here’s a quick rundown of how a normal menstrual cycle usually occurs:
- Each month the ovary releases an egg.
- The egg journeys to the uterus where it plans to rendezvous with a curious looking fellow called a spermatozoon (that is truly what a single sperm cell is called, who knew?!).
- Meanwhile, in anticipation for the egg’s arrival and its upcoming date with said spermatozoon (why do I hear this sound whenever I say that word?), the uterine wall grows a thick lining of blood just in case the date is successful.
- If a love connection is made, then guess what? You’re pregnant!
- However, more times than not, the spermatozoon is a no-show and in response the uterus – bitter that all of her work was for naught – tears down the lining of blood and banishes the egg to the outside world.
- At this point, the human host – the innocent bystander in all this mayhem – begins to bleed for a handful of days.
- When the bleeding is done, like a personal “Groundhog Day” experience, the process begins all over again.
However, what you might not know is how complex the menstrual cycle really is, occurring in phases that not only impact the receptiveness of the reproductive system, but the entire body. All the time.
There are two main phases of the menstrual cycle: The follicular phase and the luteal phase (depending on who you ask, some sources indicate that there are actually four phases;
- the menstrual phase
- the follicular phase
- the ovulation phase
- the luteal phase
However, there is a lot of overlap between the first two and the last two phases, so for the sake of simplicity, I’m focusing on the two primary phases.
The follicular phase begins on the first day of your period. You start bleeding; you are now in the follicular phase. This phase lasts until your next ovulation – in other words, the next time the ovary releases an egg. In a perfect world of a 28 day menstrual cycle, women are in the follicular phase from day one of their period to day 14. You might consider the follicular phase the “I feel good” phase.
Once the egg is released (ovulation), the body then begins to enter the luteal phase. This phase lasts until your period begins, around day 15 and lasting until day 28. The luteal phase is when you experience the majority of your premenstrual symptoms, so I think it’s fair to say it’s the “ivebecomeamonsterandeveryonethinksimcrazy” phase.
Knowing what phase you are in can make a huge difference in your physical and metabolic activity.
Estrogen: A Hormone with Perks
Estrogen, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone, and progesterone are the primary hormones that control the menstrual cycle (though testosterone makes an appearance too, more on that later). However, estrogen and progesterone in particular cause significant changes to the body depending on which is dominant at a given time.
At the very beginning of the follicular phase (the day your period starts), estrogen levels are low, though they slowly rise each day, increasing as you come closer to ovulation. Estrogen peaks when the egg is released. Throughout the follicular phase, progesterone remains low.
Once the egg reaches the uterus, estrogen drops and progesterone begins to take over. You are now entering into the luteal phase. Progesterone is the more dominant hormone at this point, though estrogen does make a bit of a comeback halfway into your mid-luteal cycle (about the week before your period starts). The luteal phase ends once your period starts, causing both progesterone and estrogen levels drop significantly.
Here’s a graphic of the whole process:
Why does this pattern matter? Because estrogen is known not only to have a positive influence on mood, it has been linked to increased performance, endurance, and recovery. Check this out:
- Studies indicate that estrogen levels play a role in how the female body metabolizes macronutrients. When estrogen levels are high, the body has been shown to increase the use of fat for fuel over glycogen (carbs) during endurance activities. So if you have a goal of shedding some body fat, doing moderate aerobic activity (HR under 65% max) when estrogen levels are highest may amplify this goal.
- Since the body chooses to use fat as its primary source of fuel during these high estrogen times, our glycogen storage is not depleted as quickly; so you may find your endurance during steady state activities is increased. Some runners consider this an ideal time to participate in long-distance events.
- Higher levels of estrogen have also been linked to increased insulin sensitivity. This means that your body maximizes the use of carbs during anaerobic activities such as heavy lifting or HIIT. This is a good time to implement a high-carb refeed into your diet as the body is more apt to shuttle that glucose into your muscle, giving you an extra boost in strength and performance the next time you workout.
- Many women have reported that they feel the strongest when estrogen is at its peak (right before/at ovulation). The exact reason for this is unclear, but many suspect it is because testosterone levels are at their highest at this time as well. So if you are looking to set some new PRs, do it around the time of ovulation.
- Estrogen also appears to influence serotonin (the “feel good hormone”) levels, so this is likely why you may feel more energy and confidence as estrogen levels rise in the follicular phase. Ride the wave while you can!
- While estrogen seems to be the cat’s meow relating to fitness, it’s not entirely the perfect performance solution. Estrogen has shown to make ligaments lax, so there is an increased risk for injury when levels are high. Push yourself, but make sure you are mindful of form as injury is a greater possibility during this time.
Here’s the takeaway on estrogen: Whether you are looking to set some new PRs, hope to really kill it in the gym, or want to increase your fat burning potential, do so when your estrogen levels are at their greatest (around the time of ovulation though levels do rise again mid-luteal phase) . However, be aware that you are vulnerable to an increased risk of injury if you aren’t careful.
Progesterone: The Wet Blanket of Workouts
After ovulation, we begin to enter the luteal phase. Unfortunately, its contribution to our workouts is not quite as illustrious as its estrogen counterpart:
- During the luteal phase, estrogen levels drop and progesterone levels become dominant. You are likely all too familiar with progesterone as it is one of the culprits for moodiness, cramping, cravings, and all the other PMS symptoms men think we are making up. If you are feeling low energy, that’s probably because your estrogen has abandoned ship. This would be a good time to adapt your workout to be less-intense as your overall strength and performance may be compromised.
- Due to decreasing estrogen levels, your serotonin is likely also waning. This can contribute to low energy and be the reason you may find your self-confidence has gone to crap. Stay strong and know that you aren’t imagining things; chemicals are to blame and they will readjust after a week or so.
- If you haven’t guessed already, progesterone’s effect on the body is in direct opposition to that of estrogen. The body now prefers sugar for fuel, which might explain those extra cravings leading up to your period. It would seem that since sugar is now the body’s preferred fuel source that this would be a good time for carb loading. However, some studies show that insulin sensitivity is reduced in the luteal phase, so the body is not able to shuttle carbs into the muscles as effectively. Save the refeed for the follicular phase.
- Speaking of food, progesterone has a catabolic reaction to protein. This means that if enough protein is not consumed while in the luteal phase, you risk losing muscle through muscle protein breakdown. Make sure to eat as much, if not more, protein than usual during this phase.
- Progesterone increases a woman’s core body temperature, which means you are likely to fatigue more quickly with activity. You might want to avoid that 100 mile bike tour right now.
- However, thanks to the increased body temps, our metabolism speeds up as well. This might be the time to be in a very small calorie deficit to take advantage of this metabolic increase.
Here’s the takeaway on progesterone: The closer you get to your period, the more likely you are going to experience fatigue, cramping, cravings, [insert your favorite PMS symptom here]. Now is not a good time to pursue strength gains, run a marathon, or make a trip to Cold Stone. Adjust your workouts to accommodate your energy level and make sure you are eating plenty of protein each day.
Recap: Sync training and your cycle
Use This as a Guide, Not a Given
While I’d like to tell you that basing workouts around your menstrual cycle is an exact science, it’s not. In fact, you will find more contradictions on this subject than agreements, proving that this information is still murky at best. Factors such as contraception, age (especially those who are near or in menopause), insulin sensitivity, fitness level, and body fat percentage can all impact menstrual cycles and the hormones associated with it. I recommend tracking your basal body temperature, mood, energy level, and overall strength/performance for a couple months to see if any patterns become apparent. You might just find that your cycle really does make a difference.
Days 1-14. Step it up. Follicular phase
This is the phase of your menstrual cycle and the week leading up to ovulation. During this phase you are able to utilize carbs better and train harder. During the follicular phase, your insulin sensitivity is higher so carb up! Your tolerance for pain and discomfort are higher as well and your capacity for endurance and and strength is increased. Time to try for some new personal records!
Around day 14. Beast mode. Ovulation phase
Ovulation occurs around day 14 (give or take). You are a powerhouse this week! A study in the Journal of Physiology shows this time to be it to attempt PR’s. Take advantage of this increased power and strength and train hard but be diligent to listen to you body. Estrogen is high which can make you prone to injury. Metabolism is ramping up but insulin sensitivity is starting to decline. Eat a balanced diet and listen to your body.
Days 15-28+. Chill and eat some fat. Luteal phase
During this phase, you may feel a little more tired, less efficient when lifting and can fatigue sooner. Your body also tends toward burning fat for fuel and insulin sensitivity is lower. It is best to eat some more healthy fats.
This is a great phase to do lower intensity steady state type training such as steady state cardio, yoga or high rep/ lighter weight resistance training.
PMS symptoms creep up toward the end of this phase and may make training uncomfortable.
There’s an App for That!
Are you clueless about your menstrual cycle and have no earthly idea when you’re follicularating (I made that word up) or lutealating (made that up too)? Well you’ll be pleased to know that there are a zillion apps out there to help you map out your cycle. While most are designed with fertility in mind, many go beyond and help you identify mood patterns, blood flow, and ovulation times. I am not currently using one of these to provide a suggestion on which works best, but you can bet I’ll start. In the meantime, here is a great article summarizing the various period tracking apps available: http://www.refinery29.com/period-tracker-apps#slide-1