We're here to tell you that although previously perceived as something that can hold you back, your menstrual cycle can actually benefit your performance - if you get in tune with it. It's all about understanding your cycle so you can harness your power at the right time.
For decades women were considered as 'small men' in regards to training, nutrition and recovery. Most generic training plans or studies, up until recently, were based upon the male form and the female anatomy was not taken into account.
Despite only using men as test subjects, it was believed that the male and female bodies responded the same to stress and recovery. Recently though, we're pleased to report that women have been put into the forefront of new research and much has been discovered.... including how working with your hormone production can do wonders for your performance.
The ebb and flow of women's hormones mean that one week you will feel strong and have lots of energy, the next you may feel more flexible or have increased endurance, whilst on another week you may be more tired and less agile.
Tracking these feelings and symptoms can help paint a picture of your menstrual cycle, which can be related to the specific 'phases'. And once you get to know which phase of the cycle you are in, you will be able to understand when to push your body, how to give it a boost and when to relax.
Of course, every woman's TOTM is different. PMS can be horrendous for some and kinder to others. Some women are debilitated in the lead-up to or during their period whilst others seem to get away scot-free. So, you may still need to cosy up with a hot water bottle from time to time, but understanding the different phases means you can plan which exercises are best suited to your energy levels, and what may help get rid of PMS symptoms.
The phases of your Menstrual Cycle
Phase 1: Menstruation
The menstruation phase starts on the first day of your period. When you bleed, your estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest, which can sap your body of energy. Studies have shown that during this phase, your body needs more sleep. This would be a great time to rest and recover and keep training sessions more gentle. Training to lower heart rate zones will be beneficial here.
Phase 2: Follicular
This phase starts when your period has ended. Your estrogen levels will rise and your body starts producing serotonin - the feel-good hormone. Because of this, you are likely to be in a better mood, feel less discomfort and have more energy. A higher level of estrogen will see you get the most gains from strength and endurance training as well as recover quicker, so this is a good time to push a little harder, lift heavier and aim for PBs!
Phase 3: Ovulation
This is the phase when your body releases an egg for fertilization, but it is also the time when you may feel energised because your hormone levels start to peak. Use this time to try higher intensity workouts, exercise for longer and again push for those PBs, but be sure to warm up properly before you exercise and stretch afterwards. Ovulation is when you are most likely to pick up injuries if you don't prepare. There is a statistic from the American Journal of Sports Medicine that women are 4 to 8 times more likely than men to have injuries to the ACL because hormone changes can impact tendon laxity.
Phase 4: Luteal
The luteal phase is when you are due on your period and may experience signs of PMS. Your energy levels may start to lower as the body releases estrogen and large amounts of progesterone to get your body ready for a fertilized egg. If there isn’t a fertilized egg, those hormone levels drop. This is a great time to practice low impact exercises that gently increase overall strength and stamina while also releasing muscle tension. Exercising is proven to relieve some of the symptoms of PMS but as motivation can be lower, why not meet with a friend to help get you out the door.
There are many different apps and tools out there now to help you feel more in control of your health and fitness. But for women who partake in regular physical activity, sports watches such as your Garmin Connect app allow you to track and monitor your monthly cycle alongside your fitness. Whether you are regular, irregular, going through menopause, have no period or are pregnant, the app will let you note symptoms, moods and start to track trends.
The app will then give you personalised data based on which phase of your cycle you are in. It will offer you insights about where you are in your cycle and suggestions to get the most out of your training. This is when understanding your body will become a blessing, your training can be tailored and your performance will begin to improve.
The more you log, the more tailored your insights will be, making Garmin’s app more than just about predicting the first and last day of your period.
The more you can track signs and symptoms and compare them to your cycle, the better you’ll understand your body and your mind and be able to train accordingly.
When it comes to training and fitness, we all love being given snippets of valuable information about our performance. It's why the majority of us wear a smartwatch or use Strava! What I love about the Garmin app is that you get interesting advice and suggestions about exercise and nutrition in each phase of your cycle.
For example on day 12, I had this insight "Carbohydrate loading the day before exercise is important during this (the follicular) phase." The research is linked in the app too so that you can read more about it. Whilst carb loading isn't a new fact for me, I'm often impressed with the new information I'm presented with.
Did you know that if you stack your strength and resistance training in the first half of your cycle, it’s possible to build up to 15% more lean muscle compared to if it’s spread across the whole month? Me either - but the research is now out there.
I've also had suggestions to eat magnesium-rich foods (leafy greens, dark chocolate, nuts, seeds and spinach) to help fight fatigue, and fatty foods, alcohol, caffeine and salty foods that can worsen PMS. Insights like this are invaluable to help me get the most from my training (Read about the Wiggle X Hoka Flyers).
Benefits to your performance
Now you know the different phases that you'll enter during your cycle, and how they'll affect you, you can start to use the information to your advantage.
Switch up your training. If you know you're going to be feeling fatigued when you are on your period, don't feel like you have to go to your weekly HIIT session. Or if you do go, be okay with the fact that you might not get as much done as the week before. Zone 2 heart rate running or cycling will be good to keep you active without overdoing it.
For those of you worried about resting or taking it easier on certain weeks, thinking you will lose fitness - be sure to know that recovery is just as important to improve as the workouts themselves. Your slower weeks are best known as 'active recovery'. Keep the blood flowing, help muscles recover and rebuild yourself physically and mentally ready for your next week.
By doing this, you'll be ready to storm the follicular phase. Do those extra sets and reps in the gym, push harder on your interval runs, get out for longer on your bike - it's this phase where you can grab the bull by the horns and use your hormones to your advantage. Why is this a good thing? An overall step up in your activity will help you get those gains in your fitness and this will keep building.
Exercising to relieve symptoms
Exercise has actually proven to be one of the most effective ways of relieving some of the symptoms of PMS. Exercise not only releases good endorphins to help tackle any feelings of anxiety and stress, but it also improves blood circulation in the pelvic area which can ease physical period pains.
Exercise will also help you to sleep, which will massively help with any feelings of fatigue.
If you are keen to find out more about this topic, firstly I would highly recommend you start tracking your own menstrual cycle (check out the Garmin Connect app) and reading the insights.
Secondly, I would highly recommend reading ROAR by Dr. Stacy T. Sims to get an understanding of 'Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology'. (check out these other top book recommendations about women in sport.)
Thirdly, it's always great to chat about real-life experiences with others and get hints and tips. The 'Wiggle Women In Sport' Facebook group is a safe space to openly discuss everything related to your sport including the menstrual cycle or menopause with likeminded people. No question is a silly question and the community are here to help.