Taking Advantage of the Menstrual Cycle: Maximize Strength, Endurance and Recovery
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
The menstrual cycle is an often overlooked aspect of female physiology with respect to training and nutrition, but it is the key to client success.
If your client has a menstrual cycle, you’ve probably noticed some of the ways that it impacts your training plans. PMS symptoms like low energy or mood might mean poor performance, while cramping and headaches lead to cancelled sessions. But the hormonal fluctuations that females experience offer many benefits for training, and working with this monthly cycle can yield fast, profound results.
Until recently, research done on sports and fitness performance focused on male athletes and was extrapolated to reflect a wider population (ie- females). It was assumed that everyone would react to training in the same way. Given that males have a 24 hour hormonal cycle and women have a monthly cycle, it’s no surprise that there are several key differences between the sexes when it comes to weight loss and optimal performance.
A growing body of research is exploring the connection between hormonal fluctuations of eumenorrheic athletes, and physical performance. It appears that the monthly ebb and flow of hormones has the potential to improve strength, endurance and recovery. The trick is to curate your training plan based upon your client's menstrual cycle. To capitalize on these benefits we suggest not only considering the cycle when making a training plan, but knowing your individual clients' cycles and planning accordingly.
Ignoring hormonal fluctuations and sticking to a monotonous, conventional progressive training schedule can lead to injury, burnout and non-compliance. Here’s what you need to know to work with hormones instead of against them.
The Follicular Phase (Days 1-14)
We start counting the cycle from the first day of bleeding, when all hormones are relatively low. Generally, females feel slow and lethargic at the beginning of the cycle. We may find it difficult to motivate ourselves to get to that early morning spin class and that’s ok: taking a break from training for the first three days of the cycle is beneficial.
Estrogen begins to increase steadily around day 7 and energy and mood tend to improve along with it. We typically feel the most energized late in the follicular phase (days 8-14), and testosterone is also starting to increase.. Take advantage of that energy and ramp up your training routine with cardio and heavy lifting. Resistance training during the follicular phase has been shown to increase strength and muscle mass more than regular training schedules or those that emphasize activity during the luteal phase. Concentrated estrogen may also contribute to faster recovery by protecting against exercise-induced muscle damage. In addition, estrogen is anabolic- suggesting its efficacy in promoting muscle growth.
The Luteal Phase (Days 15-28)
Ovulation occurs in the middle of the cycle. For a standard 28 day cycle, ovulation happens around day 14. Around this time estrogen and testosterone are high and we feel energized, creative and social. Now is the time to try a new workout or activity as your clients may be feeling more open and adventurous!
When it comes to strength training around ovulation (days 13-16), it’s advised to decrease weight and increase reps to avoid injury. Be aware that knee ligament laxity and risk of ACL injury peak around ovulation as hormonal fluctuations can cause a temporary weakening of connective tissues. The focus here is on strengthening the connective tissue with balance and proprioceptive exercises.
After ovulation, estrogen and testosterone taper off while progesterone is increasing. Energy begins to fade at this point in the cycle.
The late luteal phase is characterized by high progesterone levels which spike around day 21. Go easy on your clients: progesterone causes the body to lose sodium, which contributes to PMS symptoms like cramps, headaches and vomiting. Meanwhile, blood plasma levels fall by 8% thickening blood and slowing the transport of oxygen to muscles. This means earlier muscle fatigue and a lower threshold for working out in the heat.
This is generally a good time to start scaling back the intensity of your training. Endurance performance tends to decline this week so now is not the time to try to beat any records. Focus on slower strength training or pilates and definitely incorporate rest days. Post-exercise recovery tends to take longer right now, as progesterone is catabolic and breaks muscle tissue down at a faster rate. Replace training days with more restorative activities like long walks and yin yoga as your client's period draws nearer.
If your client is taking oral contraceptives, hormonal fluctuations will vary and benefits for training will depend on the pill taken.
By synchronizing your clients training routine with the body’s hormonal fluctuations, you can tap into synergies that will allow you to accelerate performance. The best part is, because you’re working with hormones, mood and energy levels, it will be easier to stick to the plan, build strength and recover from workouts.
Week 1: Rest for the first three days, begin training at a lower intensity
Week 2: Peak performance, maximal training
Week 3: Strength, HIIT, proprioceptive training
Week 4: Scale back, lower intensity exercise
When we begin to look at nutrition, and dive deeper into the physiological mechanisms that underlie the menstrual cycle- we are able to create efficient protocols that take into account, energy systems, macro and micronutrients to maximize performance and results. Watch out for an in-depth course on Nutrition for the Female Athlete to learn more about how to incorporate hormonal fluctuations into a training routine to maximize strength, endurance and recovery.
Camila Montaner is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner dedicated to supporting those in search of balance in a demanding world. Camila’s background in communications launched her into a busy career before she had developed tools to manage the pressure. Decades of stress and anxiety led her to the world of holistic nutrition where she learned, through much trial and error, how to develop a more grounding routine. Today, she uses her communications background to bring the wellness techniques she learned to others struggling to find their own equilibrium. Her approach to wellness harnesses the power of plants and accessible lifestyle strategies to restore energy, mood and wellbeing.
In the rare moment she’s not cooking, eating or writing about food, you’ll find Camila getting lost in the woods, the waves or the pages of a good book.