Ever wondered why some days you’re motivated in the gym, while other times you just want to binge on pizza? Women are faced with chemical challenges every month. And due to the fluctuating nature of these hormones (particularly oestrogen and progesterone), it’s hardly surprising that your menstrual cycle can influence your metabolism, mood and exercise performance.
But don’t despair – this can be used to your advantage, so your workout schedule should take this into account.
PMS is a medical condition caused by the body’s response to a normal menstrual cycle brought on by chemical changes. PMS symptoms are closely linked to changing levels of the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone, as well as serotonin (a brain chemical that improves mood). It’s widely believed that women with low serotonin levels are likely to have symptoms of PMS, which happens around the same time oestrogen levels begin to decline, roughly around two weeks before the period (luteal phase).
Your menstrual cycle
The menstrual cycle has three phases, taking an average of 28 days. Each phase is brought on by fluctuating levels of hormones in the body. Knowing the different phases of your cycle will help you fine-tune your intensity and plan your workouts accordingly.
Follicular phase (day 1 to 13)
The follicular phase begins with menstruation, which marks the first day of your period. When you bleed, oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest. Once your period has ceased and you commence week two of your cycle (late follicular phase), oestrogen levels begin to surge, reaching a peak around the time of ovulation, although progesterone remains relatively low.
Ovulation phase (day 14)
Around day 14, oestrogen levels are at their peak. Once ovulation (the release of an egg) occurs, progesterone begins to rise.
Luteal phase (Day 15 to 28)
Once ovulation is over, progesterone levels are at an all-time high, preparing the lining of the uterus for pregnancy. Your body temperature will rise and you may experience symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). However, if fertilisation doesn’t occur, both progesterone and oestrogen levels begin to plummet, causing the lining of the uterus to thicken and shed.
How does each stage affect your workout?
Follicular phase: high-intensity workouts
As oestrogen rises during the later stages of the follicular phase (week two), the body switches to an anabolic state, meaning it’s more geared to build and grow. The rise in oestrogen also increases insulin sensitivity (the hormone that causes the storage of carbohydrates and synthesis of new proteins), so carbs are better tolerated, especially post-workout, and muscle is more easily built. Research has also shown increases in muscle strength in the follicular phase compared to strength gains in the luteal phase. For this reason, you may find high-intensity interval training (HIIT) pays off the most in this time.
Ovulation phase: endurance (cardio) activity
In the second half of the menstrual cycle, there’s a switch to a more catabolic state, which means you’re better able to utilise fat as a source of energy. This is a good time to add some endurance work to your routine while your body is burning a little more fat. Increase that time on the elliptical trainer or cycle by 5-10 minutes, or increase your walking and running distances.
Luteal phase: recovery and light strength training
Although you may be feeling more tired and less energetic than usual during the second half of the cycle, exercise gives you a natural endorphin high, which will help elevate your mood and give you an energy boost. The release of endorphins also acts as a natural painkiller, helping to increase circulation and relieve the cramps, headache or back pain associated with premenstrual symptoms. But don’t beat yourself up during this time – decreased performance is perfectly normal in the luteal phase of your cycle. As a result, this week is your chance to concentrate on active recovery or de-loading in strength training, paired with yoga, Pilates or a stretch session. Beat the overheating effect by exercising first thing in the morning, before your energy levels go down as the day wears on.
Understanding the pace of the hormonal changes during your cycle can help you adjust your workout schedule and feel more comfortable during times of discomfort. A couple of minor lifestyle changes and calendar notes can make a difference, so make sure to sync your life with your cycle to optimise your health and fitness goals.
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