@bengreenfield I usually plan my exercise around my wife's menstrual cycle. High intensity sprints away from her.
— alanewing (@alanewing) March 2, 2015
Last week, in the podcast episode “#310: The Menstrual Cycle And Athletic Performance, How To Get Kids To Grow Taller, Fueling For Soccer Matches & More!”, I answered many questions about the mysteries of the menstrual cycle and athletic performance.
But just in case you need more, or you want to read up on the nitty-gritty details of how exercise is affected by hormones (and vice versa), in today’s guest post, Austin Whisler – a coach in training at SuperhumanCoach.com – is going to dive in and enlighten you on every complexity you need for planning your exercise around your menstrual cycle.
Whether you’re a personal trainer or coach who works with female athletes, or you’re a woman who likes to exercise, consider this a crucial article to read if you want to plan your physical activity around your menstruation cycle…and leave any of your questions, comments or feedback below!
With adult women making up such a large percentage of people at the gym and out pounding the pavement, coaches and trainers (regardless of their sport) must educate themselves on the complexities of the menstrual cycle.
Ever heard of the pregnenolone steal?
That the luteal phase of menstruation lowers your insulin sensitivity while at the same time giving you an increase in metabolism?
You may not be familiar with all these terms, or how to use knowledge of them to your advantage or your clients’ advantage for exercise, so continue reading to figure out how you can help educate yourself or your clients on factors to track during menstruation.
And trust me, don’t stop reading if you’re a guy! Us men will benefit greatly from knowing how our partners, spouses, mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and clients can plan their exercise more intelligently. But before learning ways to plan training during menstruation, let’s dive into the basics of the menstrual cycle.
The Start Of Menstruation
The menstruation cycle starts at Day 1 after the unfertilized egg causes the uterus lining to break down. A menstrual cycle lasts around 28 days but can vary depending on many factors. For simplicity, in this article I will use a 28 day cycle as the example to cover the phase variances. Body-wide fluctuations occur during this time, but we’ll pay extra attention to levels of estrogen, progesterone, and insulin sensitivity.
The follicular phase comes first (lasting roughly from Day 1 to Day 14) and occurs when the ovary releases an egg. At this point, estrogen increases, while progesterone and body temperature stays the same (See diagram below). This first phase is a time where the female body is primed to hit intense workouts that are of an anaerobic nature. Increased insulin sensitivity, along with an increase in pain tolerance, can explain this capability.
An article from The Globe and Mail by Alex Hutchinson stated that carbohydrate loading the day before an endurance competition is more important during this phase. Later in the article, Hutchinson interviewed a scientist that stated that the metabolic effects during each phase can be negated with purposeful nutrition. For example, if competition falls on this phase, carb loading during this phase is more important than other periods of the menstruation cycle. Hutchinson also found that performance during menstruation is highly variable. Supposedly, this whole carbohydrate need is due to the body’s ability to better dip into intense glycolytic efforts during the follicular phase, although it would be interesting to see if women who follow a high-fat diet have quite as high a need for carbohydrates during this phase. Regardless, you may want to try to adjust carb intake slightly up during your follicular phase, while at the same time planning your more intense, glycolytic workouts during this phase.
Some women perform unaffected, and others have phases that hinder performance if left unattended. During training in the follicular phase, coupling intense workouts with refeed meals should be utilized, preferably including carbohydrate sources such as sweet potatoes, yams, rice, or starchy vegetables such as carrots, parsnips and beets.
The American Journal of Nutrition stated that basal metabolic rate decreases at the beginning of menstruation and reaches the lowest point a week before ovulation. Doing more intense workouts and including metabolism-boosting post-workout meals in the follicular phase will help counteract this slower metabolism, says Shannon Clark in this T-nation article.
Ovulation occurs around Day 14. Estrogen has peaked and begins a decline, while progesterone surges. It is normal during ovulation for a woman to feel warmer for the remainder of the cycle. Clark stated in her T-nation article cited earlier that metabolism will start to climb, while insulin sensitivity will begin to decline.
As progesterone surges, a slight decrease in serotonin can happen, and since carbs can boost serotonin, food cravings can often occur at this time. You can use some of these tips to avoid giving into the serotonin boosting carbohydrate gluttony. During ovulation, estrogen and overall strength is peaked, so heavier weight training can be appropriate during this phase (rather than the more difficult cardiovascular anaerobic efforts of the follicular phase) – however, the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that due to joint laxity and estrogen-induced changes in collagen structure, ACL tears are four to eight times more likely to happen during this phase.
Consider supplementing with a tablespoon of collagen in your morning smoothie, place more emphasis on your warm-up, include recovery sessions, and be aware of fatigue and proper form. More applicable recommendations that you can use for yourself or female clients will be listed below, but let’s finish the details of the menstruation cycle, shall we?
Next is the luteal phase, which begins on ovulation day, for which we will say is happening on approximately Day 14. During this phase, your body is not primed to workout at very high intensities, the body will prefer fat as its primary fuel source instead of glycogen, and you might retain more water at this time due to PMS symptoms. This might cause discomfort during short burst exercise – plan for lack of motivation here, and stick to aerobic activities as your primary exercise.
Fat burning workouts should be emphasized during the luteal phase. If you are doing a workout that is strength or glycolytic, note that the luteal phase is not ideal for these domains and you may not perform to your usual capabilities. This is the time of the phase to plan things like aerobic trail runs, flat bike rides, easy swims and other aerobic activities that are at a slightly conversational pace.
After the luteal phase, the transition back to he menstrual phase, will bring metabolism, insulin sensitivity, body temperature, and water retention back to a slightly more “normal” feeling. For a graphic representation, you can reference the first picture posted under “The Start of Menstruation” above to better understand phases.
Eight Recommendations For Planning Exercise Around Your Menstrual Cycle
So now that you have your head wrapped around the menstrual cycles, let’s jump into even more practical advice. What considerations should you take for programming for females? Here are some of my top tips.
1) Achieve Nervous System Balance.
Every week must include a slow, long distance workout of around an one hour of conversational paced work. This will help women have smoother cycles because their body won’t feel as much stress in the sympathetic nervous system. Not only will this help increase your heart stroke volume, stimulate parasympathetic nervous system growth, but it will also provide a nice active recovery for your body allowing your body to flush out lactic acid from muscle tissue. Going for an unplugged trek can be therapeutic and help build a more robust cardiovascular system. Mothers and wives – this is also a good chance to bring your family along!
2) Know Where You’re At.
Begin tracking performance during each phase for your entire menstruation cycle. Take notes on sleep, macronutrient consumption, and exercise intensity. Communicate these notes with your coach. Try the “Flow” app to make tracking your cycle easier.
3) Moderate Stimulants.
Another important stressor to monitor includes avoiding dependence on caffeine as a stimulant. Allow your sensitization to caffeine to recover after drinking caffeinated coffee by following Ben Greenfield’s habit of alternating three weeks of caffeine with at least one week of decaf, including a variety of nourishing teas, guayausa, chinese adaptogenic herbs, etc.
4) Eliminate Soy.
Along with regulating caffeine intake, eliminating commercial soy sources such as tofu and soy milk can help some women avoid estrogen dominance, which can lead to menstrual cycle irregularities.
5) Use Supplements.
To reverse the effects of estrogen dominance, Beyond Training by Ben Greenfield asks you to consider drinking 2-3 cups of organic green tea powder, consuming more fiber, supplementing with a Vitamin B/antioxidant complex, and many more found in Chapter 14 of his book.
6) Keep Moving No Matter What.
Movement (not necessarily a daily Crossfit WOD!) will help relieve cramping and headaches. The release of endorphins will help reduce crankiness. Movement can also help put you to sleep and resist cravings, as long as macronutrient needs are met depending on exercise intensity and the given phase of menstruation. But if you have cramps, excessive flow, or have a poor reading on your HRV that morning, take that day off from structured exercise or hard workouts. Now, this is not an excuse to sit on the couch all day, so don’t get too excited! Instead, try techniques like ‘greasing the groove’*, using a standing desk, reading a book, working on your mobility (especially your lower body mobility), spending some time on a rumble roller, and ensure you have proper foods prepared for the next couple days.
*Popular movements to ‘grease the groove’ include: jumping jacks, band pull-aparts, strict pull-ups, bodyweight squats, lunges, or something as simple as going up and down the stairs a few times, refilling your water bottle, and holding a few stretches. Movement throughout the day is very important for overall health because GLUT-4 will shuttle more glucose into the body and lipoprotein lipase will be produced by muscle tissue when leg muscles are being flexed. A lack of lipoprotein lipase is associated with many heart problems, including heart disease, so please get an adjustable standing desk.
7) Know Your Fat Burning Zone.
Know your fat burning zone for that luteal phase! Superhuman-approved example fat burning workouts, most especially for the luteal phase of a cycle, are a great way to shred fat at a time where your body is primed to do just that. For example, you can perform 8 sets of 5 minutes at 60-70% of your VO2 max of running, biking, swimming, rowing, hiking, brisk walking or elliptical, with 3 minutes of easy movement between each bout (as opposed to a follicular phase workout, which might be something like 20 sets of 1 minute bursts at the same pace with 30 seconds of recovery in between, or an ovulatory phase workout, which might be a 5×5 style weight training routine).
How do you find your fat burning zone? Many tests exist to approximate your VO2 max, but the one Superhuman Network coaches use is a 20-30 minute run at a maximum sustainable pace while wearing a heart rate monitor and taking the average heart rate that you had, then subtracting 20 beats for your fat burning zone (more details here). Even though these are easy, fat-burnign workouts, you should not perform these or any workouts without following up with proper post workout nutrition if you have a history of missing your period.
8) Go Beyond Training.
A few more lifestyle basic tips from Ben’s book would include: do not skip meals, consume a high protein breakfast on your harder workout days, eat a diet high in ancestral meats such as liver and bone broth, consume a high amount of healthy fats, get proper quantity and quality of sleep, and track your HRV. These are all small ways to enhance your performance and can also lead to a more consistent menstrual cycle, along with better exercise sessions and better recovery. Maintaining low energy movements throughout the day, eating enough carbohydrate to fuel workouts as well as support menstruation (e.g. timing your carbohydrates to happen in conjunction with your workouts – here are some good post workout nutrition ideas for endurance and strength athletes.), consuming fat from healthy nut butters or MCT oil, and performing no more than three very intense workouts (like Crossfit wods, Tabata sets, longer track sessions, etc.) per week can also be helpful, especially if you tend to miss periods.
If you’re reading this and you’re an exercising female, it’s possible that you simply are not regular. Your periods are on and off. You’re amenorrheic.
Spencer Nadolski from Precision Nutrition cites in Fitness & Menstrual Health: How to Stay Lean, Healthy, and Fit without Losing your Period states that women need to avoid excessively restricting calories, daily intense exercise causing an overstress on the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ nervous system, losing too much body fat, and other factors that lead women to miss a menstruation cycle called hypothalamic amenorrhea. In short, your body responds to this state of deprivation and physiological stress by deeming your period as unnecessary and not vital for its own survival. Fertility goes out the window. As I’ve heard Ben Greenfield say in many a podcast, our ancestors didn’t run from a lion every day – and neither should we.
If you’ve dug yourself into this type of hole, research clearly has shown the fix: eat more and exercise less. It really is that simple. This is tough for many women to hear, but it simply works. This is also important for hormone balance and aesthetics. Women need to avoid excessive training and overall stress from everyday life. The hormone precursor, pregnenolone, can be shuttled into cortisol production instead of progesterone production. This causes disruption of your body’s naturally-occurring anabolism and fat utilization for energy production. Excessive cortisol, pregnenolone steal and estrogen dominance are factors that coaches, personal trainers, and women need to understand not only due to their effect on performance, but also because they can indeed make women gain body fat.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that planning exercise around a 28 day menstrual cycle is still meticulously being researched, and exercising around and during your period is very individualized depending on your sport, symptoms, stress, and nutrition. Micronutrient deficiencies, thyroid problems, and the mystery of how important carbohydrates are still being researched but the recommendations above and the insight gained from this article will be a great start for you.
If you want even more reading on this topic, one of the more comprehensive books out there is “Running For Women” by Jason Karp, the article “What Really Causes Irregular Menstrual Cycles In Female Athletes” and Ben’s recent podcast on the topic. Leave your questions, comments or feedback below!