Periods and Training: Ladies and coaches, here is a topic that is not discussed enough in the fitness world but can have a huge impact on your training and mentality.
You all know those training days that feel horrible for no apparent reason? Well, there might be a bit more rationale behind the frustrating “off days” we experience every so often. While there isn’t much we can do about what happens naturally in our bodies—hormonal events that leave us feeling weaker and more out of shape than normal—there is a way to support ourselves. When your training aligns properly with your cycle, those god-awful, the-bar-feels-extremely-heavy, why-did-I-fail-that-weight kind of days will be fewer and farther between. And with that comes a stronger mentality based upon a training plan that will set you up for success.
Female hormones: Let’s talk about what is actually going on inside the body during what should be the 28-day cycle. This piece is crucial to understanding how to sync a training plan with a 28-day cycle in order to get the best results.
Day 1 of your cycle represents the first day of bleeding, which begins when the uterine lining starts to shed. This is the beginning of the follicular phase when the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) causes egg follicles to develop. This results in estrogen rising steadily throughout the first half of your cycle and is the phase in which estrogen is most dominant.
Elevated estrogen levels cause the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone (LH), which results in ovulation. This occurs somewhere around day 14 of your cycle.
Once ovulation occurs, the second phase of the menstrual cycle begins. This is known as the luteal phase, when estrogen begins to decline as progesterone is released by the outer remnant of the released egg (corpus luteum). During this phase, the lining of the uterus continues to thicken in order to prepare for the implantation of a fertilized egg. If no egg is fertilized, both estrogen and progesterone will decline as the follicle shrinks and your body prepares to shed the lining.
At the end of this phase, progesterone should drop low enough to signal to the uterine lining that it is time to begin shedding. This is when you start bleeding and the cycle continues, every 28 days for approximately 40 years, yay!
(An abnormal cycle or the experience of amenorrhea can be caused by various things such as undereating, adrenal dysfunction, hormone imbalance, birth control, etc. It is important to work towards achieving a normal cycle but this article will not provide that information.)
During the first half of your cycle (follicular phase)—when estrogen levels are elevated—your appetite will feel normal, whereas in the second half of your cycle (luteal phase) you may feel hungrier and experience more cravings than usual. This is due to elevated estrogen levels affecting the secretion of leptin, a hormone that communicates to your brain to stop eating.
Now, what does all of this have to do with training? Depending on where your hormone levels are throughout your cycle will depend on how you perform inside the gym. The ebbs and flows of your training are a natural part of any cycle and it’s simply impossible to feel utterly invincible every single day. Once we can accept this, the sooner we can stop beating ourselves up over the days we feel less than. Let’s face it—women are the world’s best perfectionists—which means it’s hard to give ourselves a break. But the more we learn about ourselves, the more we can overcome this limiting belief that we have to out-perform every second of every day!
Physiological rhythms are inevitable and can be observed during a quality night’s sleep consisting and rotating between rapid eye movement, non-rapid eye movement and deep sleep—all of which have very important roles in removing and strengthening various neural connections. The 24-hour circadian rhythm is responsible for the physiological processes of all living beings, even ultradian fluctuation exists, which is regulated by the HPA axis and can last anywhere from 90 to 110 minutes. In the simplest and most basic description, when ALL of these cycles are working adequately, even the menstrual cycles of women, we see alignment with health and human optimization, thus achieving better results in body composition, performance, decreased pain and increased longevity.
Unfortunately, many women and coaches alike are unaware of these processes and lack the understanding of how to account for the rising and falling of various hormones within the female body in relation to a training program.
Let’s talk training around your cycle!
During the first few days of your cycle you may feel a decrease in energy and alertness, but fortunately you’ll begin to note an increase in your liveliness in no time! Generally, the first few weeks of your cycle are when you feel invincible. You may even hit a personal best or be surprised by your capabilities. This is the time to focus on strength training while increasing volume and/or intensity.
It isn't until estrogen and progesterone begin to decline (day 21) when you might notice the feeling of invincibility slowly dissipating. During these final 7 days of your cycle, you may experience a decrease in strength and the inability to drive deep into your nervous system. This is normal and may be a great time to dial back the intensity.
It’s important to note that the rise in progesterone will increase the laxity of ligaments and tendons. Due to this, it is best to include heavy lifting and more complex movements during the first 14 days of your cycle, whereas the final week is an ideal time to focus on lighter lifting, movement technique, increasing aerobic capacity training, and recovering the nervous system. This will help to avoid any unknown variables and injuries that could be based around the decline and rise of various hormones.
Every woman is different, so it’s important to understand and listen to your own body as it relates to your training program. But, if you feel stuck or find it difficult to put all the pieces together that support long-term growth both inside and outside the gym, schedule a strategy session with a Central Athlete coach to learn how personalized fitness can support your individual needs and goals.