Women… how well do you know how your body works? Men, do you know how to assist the important women in your life with their fitness journey? I believe there are a lot of women out there that do not understand how their menstrual cycle can affect their performance in the gym – or even know that it affects their performance at all. Let’s take a look at why.
The average menstrual cycle will last 28 days and is broken up into three phases. The first phase occurs during days 0-14, known as the Follicular phase. During days 0-7 of this phase, the period will also occur. The second phase occurs during days 14-17, known as the Ovulation phase. The third phase, known as the Luteal phase, occurs during days 17-28.
During the Follicular phase of a menstrual cycle, women will experience an increase in testosterone, which is classified as an anabolic hormone that promotes strength and an increase in muscle size. Subsequently, there is an increase in the hormone estrogen, which has anti-catabolic properties to reduce muscle damage and promote muscle recovery. This means that during the first 0-17 days of your cycle, you will feel your best and perform optimally in the gym, whether it be through increased strength when lifting weights, working out for longer without feeling fatigued, running faster on the treadmill or cycling at a higher level on the bike. So, any training goals you have, I say GO FOR IT during this time, as you will be at your best to achieve them and push yourself beyond usual limits. Ovulation between days 14-17 is when levels of testosterone and estrogen will normally be at their peak so ladies – if you’re feeling good, this is the perfect time to go for a personal best in the gym.
Beyond this point, women will enter the last two weeks of their menstrual cycle, which is where the Luteal phase will occur. I’m sorry to have to say this, but this phase isn’t as nice on your performance in the gym as the first two. In the Luteal phase, there is an increase in metabolic rate, which refers to the amount of energy (calories) you are expending in a day (without taking into consideration calories burnt from exercise). On average, women will burn 100-300 calories more in a day. Correspondingly, food cravings will become more apparent, so men – look out for the ladies in your lives by maybe asking and/or sneaking in a few more of those treat foods they love. Now, ladies – this is the time to manage those cravings as best as you can, but if you do feel like having that extra square or two… a few pieces of chocolate will not affect you as much as you think. While you are naturally burning more calories, this doesn’t mean go wild on the treat foods, but it does mean you shouldn’t feel guilty for having that little bit extra.
In terms of gym performance, be mindful that this is where women are at their highest chance of injury/dislocations due to the increase in the hormone progesterone. Progesterone acts as a catabolic hormone that counteracts the positive effects of testosterone and estrogen. Ladies – during this time especially, please listen to your body when in the gym and if something is feeling sore (beyond just muscle fatigue) then make sure you are really focusing on your technique. It can be helpful to take some time to focus on other aspects of your health, for example – stretching, recovery, sleep, monitoring stress levels etc. Men – we can help out by looking out for our women in and out of the gym and assisting them when/if needed.
As you can see, the menstrual cycle can be complicated and has noticeable, ever-changing effects on your performance in a gym context. Ladies, what I would strongly recommend doing is taking time to really get to know your menstrual cycle and notice how you feel at each phase. At the end of the day, you know your body better than anybody else, in the same way that everybody is different and will experience varying levels of effects in performance. Once you understand your menstrual cycle, ways to improve performance will become apparent, and you can utilise this to maximise your success.