Menstrual cycles or periods don’t get a lot of attention, yet they are a vital function of every female body. How often do you think about your period in terms of when and how to train? Probably not that often, only when you want to snuggle up on the couch with a hot water bottle instead of going for a bike ride or lifting weights. Research shows that your menstrual cycle and the hormones released play an important part in how you should train and what you should do when.

A normal menstrual cycle has four phases:

  1. The egg develops
  2. Ovulation
  3. Uterus implanting a fertilised egg
  4. If stage 3 doesn’t happen, the uterine lining and unfertilised egg are shed – the period

During your cycle hormones play a big part in each phase:

  • Oestrogen – the primary sex hormone in women
  • Progesterone – helps thicken the lining of the uterus; when levels drop, your period begins
  • Follicle-stimulating hormone – helps follicles (which hold the eggs) in the ovaries mature
  • Luteinising hormone – stimulates ovulation

During the different phases of your period these hormones fluctuate, and research suggests this has an effect not only on your mood and energy levels but your maximal strength, muscle mass and performance are impacted as well. Below I shall go through the benefits of each part of your cycle and how you can optimise your training to reach your goals.

Phase 1 – Menstruation

The first phase of your cycle is menstruation. This is when we are bleeding and usually lasts between 3-7 days. During this phase the hypothalamus is producing gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) which tells the pituitary gland to make follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) which tells the ovaries to mature follicles (Knight, 2016). Follicles are what may become mature eggs, a pre-egg if you will. These developing follicles also signal oestrogen to be produced (Knight, 2016).

Cramps, joint and muscle pain, headaches and low energy levels are just some of the symptoms with the potential to disrupt your physical performance. Light exercise will help so try walking or cycling or Pilates exercises like Shoulder Bridge, Roll Downs, Hip Rolls and Toe Taps.

Phase 2 – Follicular

The second phase is called the follicular phase. It usually lasts from the end of menstruation till ovulation. This phase is called follicular because it is when the follicles are developing, as one reaches maturity, the others start to die off and this signals the release of luteinising hormone (Knight, 2016).

During this second phase its time to up your strength and resistance training but also increase your warm up and cool down times, because of the higher levels of oestrogen musculoskeletal injuries especially tendon and ligaments could be more likely so bare that in mind. (Sung and Han (2014) and Wikström-Frisén, Boraxbekk and Henriksson-Larsén (2017) )

Phase 3 – Ovulation

At this stage, oestrogen levels reach a peak, leading to a rise in luteinising hormone (LH) which results in the release of a mature egg. This is the stage when you will feel your highest energy levels so get out on long rides, run that half marathon make the most of your bodies natural boost in energy. Another benefit is that Progesterone remains low, meaning that the body’s overall pain tolerance increases. Go out push yourself, make sure you fuel for your workouts to get the most out of your training.

Phase 4 – Luteal

The luteal phase comes after you release an egg and before your period starts. Progesterone is now back in the driving seat to prepare for fertilisation. A drop in testosterone and oestrogen, will explain pre-menstrual symptoms, such as tiredness, acne, cravings, bloating and breast tenderness. But all is not lost.

Researchers at female health app Clue note that you might not have as much endurance during this time and may struggle to hit previously achieved goals, which can be frustrating.

This is the time to add in some rest days, work on your flexibility and mind / body connection. Roll out the mat and enjoy some relaxing Pilates focusing on building a balance, flexible body. Pilates will also help with cramps when you roll back into phase one. Stay hydrated and eat the right foods to optimise your training.

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