Training and Nutrition Planning during your Menstrual Cycle

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Rhian_Adams

Training and Nutrition Planning during your Menstrual Cycle

Posted 05 Jul 2020

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Rhian Adams

Training and Nutrition Planning during your Menstrual Cycle

Do you always feel nervous whenever your menstruation cycle is close? Or dread the thought of your social plans and training around your ‘time of the month’ because of how different you may feel in your body and also in your mind.  Menstruation is normal, and its part of life for most women and normal to menstruate each month for about 3 to 7 days. Research shows that the fluctuation and shift in hormones during our menstrual cycle can influence things like mood, energy levels, attractiveness,  pain tolerance, water retention and food cravings. Hormonal shifts can also affect our joints, ligaments and muscles.  Basically it can impact the body head to toe.

Most women know that their cycle changes how they eat, look, and feel.  In this blog I am going to help you understand each of the phases of the menstrual cycle so that you are more aware of when your body will experience typical menstrual symptoms at certain times of the cycle so that you can monitor them and  work with your body in honoring your emotional and physical state and adjust your training, nutrition and monthly program accordingly to your advantage.  This WILL BE an incredibly helpful tool on your fitness journey, in fact this will be a game-changer.  Lets begin by looking into the Menstrual Cycle Phases.

Menstrual Cycles Phases

Every woman’s body and biological response to the menstrual cycle will be unique and a multitude of factors can play a role including the use of contraceptive pills, medications, medical conditions such as Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and it can also change over the years.

Below is an example of the phases of a typical menstrual cycle lasting 28 days.

Follicular Phase (Day 1-14)

The average follicular phase lasts 16 days but it can range from 11-27 days depending on your cycle. The Follicular Phase begins with the Menstrual Period (First 7 days of the Follicular Phase) and ends with Ovulation. 

Menstruation is the elimination of the thickened lining of the uterus from the body through the vagina from when the bleeding initially starts and can last approx. 3 to 7 days.  During this time we may experience a drop in energy.

Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) is released and the hormone estrogen begins to rise gradually until it reaches its peak by the end of the follicular phase.  The estrogen levels tamp down the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol helping us feel more relaxed, at peace and happier.  During this late follicular phase we are likely to experience improved physical strength and is the best time to focus on making gains in muscle mass and strength and to really put the time, effort and intensity into our training during this phase when our body is more efficient at recovering.

During the follicular phase our appetite and cravings are likely to be more controlled and as a result a better time to do your monthly food shop, to make changes on your diet and a good time to stay disciplined on your nutritional intake.

The scale reading may be higher than usual towards the end of the follicular phase as a result of the water retention that comes with the higher estrogen levels.


The end of the follicular phase is Ovulation which is the release of a mature egg from the surface of the ovary. This phase is usually in the middle of the cycle and lasts 24hours.  At this phase, you get a big influx of hormones, a rise in testosterone and is a great time for you to compete for a personal record in your training and performance.  You may notice the scale weight decrease because of the declining estrogen levels and you may notice a rise in body temperature, an increased sex drive and a greater pain threshold during your workouts. Progesterone levels now start to rise.

Luteal Phase  (Day 14 - 28)

This phase last on average 14 days but can be anywhere between 11 and 17 days long.  During ovulation, the egg bursts from its follicle and changes into the corpus luteum.  This structure starts releasing progesterone, alongside small amounts of estrogen, progesterone levels continue to increase until they are sky-high, progesterone helps the body make the stress hormone cortisol so you may notice increased irritability and moodiness, it also causes increased sleep disruption so you may be more tired in the late Luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. 

During this phase you may start to experience other typical PMS symptoms such as energy shifts, body discomfort and emotional changes.  You may notice your body temperature increasing and experience hot flushes and you may notice an increase in water retention

This is a great time to modify your training to match the energy and mood that you feel, this may mean lightening the load, decreasing the intensity of your workouts and alternatively focus on skills, practicing techniques and regress to bodyweight exercises.  Not getting enough sleep may be the reason performance is reduced and you may be more prone to injury.

This is a great time for increasing calorie intake as you will typically expend more energy which is quite often why your appetite increases and cravings begin.

The corpus Luteum shrinks away and is resorbed, unless you get pregnant, and this causes a drop in the levels of estrogen and progesterone again which causes the onset of your menstrual period once again and the start of another Follicular phase.

7 Things You Can Start Doing Right Away

1. Track your cycle using a journal for the next three months
This is the most important application you can make.  This is helpful for women who want to know exactly what’s going on with their cycle and become more in tune with their bodies. Include in your journaling the length of your cycle, how you feel in energy, in your body, in your mind and your performance.  Pay attention to patterns that may clue you in to making choices that are right for you.

2. Track morning body temperature regularly
A jump in temperature signals the phase in which you feel you need to eat more calories, which can help you feel better about your increased appetite and understand that body actually needs the extra food intake.  The temperature increase is usually experienced just before bleeding.

3. Sleep and rest more
Sleep deprivation tends to lead to overeating.  Following the application of Point 1 you will know when you need more rest and sleep.  If you can get more sleep, not only will you feel more energetic in your work- outs, but you will be less likely to overindulge. It’s a great way you can make things a little easier on yourself.

4. Plan out meals and grocery shop accordingly
Follow the nutritional suggestions below fill your baskets with healthy nutritious foods and delicious snacks that you can look forward to.  Following the application of point 1 you will know in advance when your hunger and cravings may tend to go a little out of control and this will help you manage them.

5. Have an open and honest conversation with your coach
We all have a story to tell when it comes to our menstrual cycle experience however it’s something that’s rarely talked about between client and coach.  Communicating with your coach and having an open and honest conversation on this topic means that together you can modify your training approach which could mean better results and more consistency in training.

6. Adjust your training program
Following point 1 and following the workout suggestions below tailor your exercise program to get the most out of your training routine to bring you optimum results.  i.e. PMS symtpoms in the late luteal phase such as bloating swelling and abdominal cramps affects your ability to activate and engage your deep inner core muscles leading to poor performance and risk of injury so instead you can use this stage of your cycle to concentrate on skills, practice techniques or focus on bodyweight exercises. 

7. Weigh at the same point in your cycle each month
Two obvious stages of our menstrual cycle means our scale reading may be higher than expected as a result of hormones and water retention, being aware of this alone means less feelings of discouragement and a more of an accurate reading to indicate if progress/maintenance has been achieved.  Three days following our menstrual period is an example of when your measurements could be recorded each month.

Workouts and Training Structure

There are several studies on how basing workouts around the menstrual cycle affects strength, muscle growth, and fat reduction but its important to remember that every woman is unique and each woman will be affected differently by their period.   Some women feel strong and able to exercise at a high intensity or with heavy weights during all phases of their menstrual cycle and others need a lighter session or even rest at certain stages.

Helpful workout suggestions

1. Plan a ‘go-to’ training session for the days you feel tired and need to lighten the intensity and volume, this could be moderate intensity walking or a yoga session.

2. Plan an activity to do on your rest days to release those endorphins on the days when your feeling PMS the most.

3. Compete for those personal records at the time of the month that you feel the best.

4. Tailor your program so that you are focusing on your big lifts or intense training sessions during your follicular phase.

Nutrition and Eating Habits

As your knowledge on this topic deepens and you learn how hormones can impact your body you will stop thinking of your eating preferences as a lack of discipline and feeling guilty afterwards, but as a normal part of your cycle that you have now found ways to manage and can help others manage too. 

Helpful nutrition suggestions

1. Continue to follow a healthy and nutritious diet throughout your menstrual cycle and prepare for hunger and cravings by planning meals and having nutritious food on hand.

2. Pay attention to limiting salt and caffeine to reduce troublesome PMS symptoms. Avoiding salt can help reduce fluid retention, abdominal bloating, breast swelling, and avoiding high caffeine intakes can reduce irritability, poor sleep, and menstrual cramps.

3. Increase your source of iron intake by eating lean red meat or green vegetables, especially if you experience  heavy periods (iron supplementation may also be advised by your doctor to help with iron levels and magnesium may be recommended to help alleviate symptoms of PMS and improve sleep).

4. Drink more water and herbal teas and consume lots of green vegetables (i.e asparagus) to help rid of water retention.

5. Prepare by having some of your favorite delicious foods on hand and plan to eat them slowly and savor them.

6. Eat from smaller plates or with smaller utensils if you have a big appetite and avoid buffets or all-you-can-eat meals.

There is only so much control we can have over biological changes.  There is nothing wrong with you or your body if you need more rest days, more hours of sleep, more time alone or if you experience fluctuations in cravings/eating habits or lose the desire to workout but the female physiology is not a weakness and it certainly doesn’t have to impede our training goals. 

My Personal Experience

I’ve been responsible for my training and diet in the last 8 years and I’ve learned to consider my menstrual cycle and use it to my advantage.  Here are a few things I’ve learnt from dedicating time to journaling and tracking my Menstrual cycle which has helped me understand when my body is entering each phase of the menstrual cycle and allowed me to adjust my training and diet accordingly.  This has been an incredibly helpful tool on my fitness journey.

I have Polycystic Ovaries (PCOS) which means my cycles are longer in length and are generally pretty painful.  I consistently gain an estimated 4-5 pounds a week or so before my menstrual period begins, my high-waisted black leggings are my ‘go-to’ clothes during this phase of the month and I feel quite grouchy and irritable.  Even on my worst period days I’ve found that exercising helps me feel a lot better but I do prefer to lighten the load and shorten the duration of my workout sessions.  Feeling bloated, swollen and experiencing abdominal cramps means that my ability to activate and engage my deep inner core muscles for some big lifts may be affected and make me more prone to injury so instead I use this time to concentrate on skills, practice techniques or bodyweight exercises, for me this means things like; kneeling on the swiss ball, hanging from the bar, practicing the crow pose etc.

I require a longer warm-up on my knee joints during the last week of my cycle and into my menstruation week, commonly I would feel aggravation in my knee joint that may make me back off an exercise and focus on safe exercises like wall squats instead.  I often wonder if the cause of my ACL tear in my knee and cartilage tear in my other was during the phase of the month I am more prone to injury, when estrogen levels are at its highest and our hamstrings are more pliable absorbing less force from the joints meaning an increased risk of knee injuries.

Having competed in ten physique competitions, organizing fitness photoshoots around my menstrual cycle was a good habit that I developed.  There is nothing worse than not taking it into consideration and turning up to a photo shoot with PMS looking and feeling ‘not great’ and having to pose in front of the camera. 

Following my period is a time where I usually feel at my leanest and lightest which is when I use this to my advantage for photo shoots.

Between ovulation and my menstrual period I experience a lot more hunger and cravings for naughty foods this is usually accommodated with an increase in body temperature and a higher basic metabolic rate.  . I allow myself to be a little more flexible on my diet and consume an extra 200-300 kcals of slow releasing carbohydrates and it really helps keep my cravings under control. However I do allow myself foods that I crave and I’ve learnt that planning is a lot more effective than spontaneous indulging and so I usually decided in advance what delicious foods I will eat, I eat them slowly and savor them.

***

I hope this blog has helped you learn more about the phases of the menstrual cycle, the hormonal changes caused by your menstrual cycle and how we can manage them and use some of those changes to our advantage when planning and structuring the content of our training and diet plans.  Tracking and journaling does require time, dedication, and persistence, listen to your body at all parts of your cycle and whenever your exercising, and as your hormones shift pay attention to patterns that may clue you in to making choices that are right for you.  I promise you it will bring greater body awareness, increased consistency in training, a healthier eating pattern and greater results.

Yours in great health

Rhian

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2 people have commented this blog.

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Tasha

Tasha says:

4 weeks 1 day ago
Hello Rhian - thank you for responding. I tried what you recommended in the last week, and it seems to be working. I definitely don't feel as fatigued as when I was commenting on your post. Thankyou, Tasha
Tasha

Tasha says:

1 month 1 week ago
How to do number 3 when you've got children and are a working mum?
Rhian_Adams

Rhian_Adams says:

1 month 1 week ago
Hey Tasha, I hear you! The last month with my seven month old teething in the nights and my 2 and a half year old now dropping her afternoon nap, and working, it’s so tough. I try and get to sleep as soon as possible in the evenings (so those days I limit caffeine after 12 midday instead of 2) and don’t look at my phone an hour before bed so I can clock up more hours of quality sleep before baby wakes for a feed. It’s so tough, not getting that sleep in really affects health and body composition so we need to do what we can. Would love to hear if it makes a difference for you. :) Thankyou for your response I really appreciate hearing your thoughts

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