If you’ve ever dedicated weeks, months, or years to following a workout program or training for a specific race or event, you know how unfortunate it can be to have the first day of your cycle coincide with a rather long, intense, or important workout.
Despite it seeming like a game of chance, there is a way to train with your menstrual cycle and optimize your workouts so that you can take advantage of the changes your body experiences regularly.
When it comes down to it, the menstrual cycle is simply a series of hormonal shifts, and those shifts can be used to your advantage, specifically when it comes to fitness endeavors.
When implemented properly, training with your menstrual cycle can make it easier to stick with a training plan, decrease recovery time, and as a result—improve your performance. It also means not fighting your body or working against it, which as a general principle, I’m a rather big proponent of.
The Phases of The Menstrual Cycle
Before we dive into how to train with your menstrual cycle, let’s first review the phases of the menstrual cycle, and what’s happening in your body during each phase.
In general, the menstrual cycle occurs in two phases. The first phase, which starts the first day you get your period and lasts until the day you ovulate, is called the follicular phase. During this phase, estrogen increases in order to stimulate follicle growth (hence the name, follicular. Thank you, science).
The second phase is called the luteal phase. This phase starts the day after you ovulate, and goes until the day you start your period. During this phase, progesterone increases (as does your body temperature), estrogen increases slightly, and both taper off in the event the egg isn’t fertilized to start the cycle over again.
Breaking it down even further (which becomes important when talking about how to train with your menstrual cycle), the first 5 days of the follicular phase are known as menstrual phase when the uterus sheds its inner lining. In between the follicular phase and the luteal phase is the ovulation phase, which is the day the ovary releases a mature egg cell.
Figuring Out the Length of Your Menstrual Cycle
Most conventional establishments break down the phases of the menstrual cycle according to the day(s) they occur; however, this can be incredibly inaccurate as the menstrual cycle can last anywhere from 23-36 days. While the average cycle length is 28 days, most women will vary from this, and occasionally experience shifts in cycle length from month to month.
In order to figure out the length of your cycle and when each phase occurs, there are a few simple things you can track on your own. As outlined in Taking Charge Of Your Fertility, once ovulation occurs, you experience a significant rise in your Basal Body Temperature (BBT). This rise is typically 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature shift is sustained until progesterone begins to drop off and menstruation starts over again. The day just before this temperature shift is the day you ovulated.
Tracking your temperature shifts, along with a secondary metric such as cervical fluid, will give you a clear picture of your cycle length and what day ovulation typically occurs.
This information is not only valuable when it comes to training with your menstrual cycle, it’s also incredibly important when trying to conceive, or prevent a pregnancy. In fact, this method, also known as the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), is what my husband and I used for birth control for 6 years, and is also how we conceived and became pregnant shortly thereafter.
To track your cycles, you simply take your BBT each morning at the same time before getting out of bed with a basal thermometer. You can track your temperature changes on a printable chart, which also includes space to note changes in cervical fluid.
How to Train With Your Menstrual Cycle
While there is limited research regarding training with your menstrual cycle, studies shows there are factors that may affect your training.
First, the rise in core body temperature that occurs after ovulation can affect how quickly you fatigue. One study showed that during the luteal phase, time to fatigue was reduced in hot and humid conditions.
Additionally, studies suggest that insulin sensitivity changes throughout your cycle. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that escorts glucose out of the blood stream and into muscle, liver, and fat cells.
Estrogen and progesterone mildly influence insulin and cortisol, which can change the way your body utilizes and stores fuel. For example, one study showed that in healthy women, insulin sensitivity was higher during the follicular phase due to higher levels of estrogen. Supporting this idea, another study showed that carbohydrates are used more efficiently in the follicular phase.
While these changes are important to note when it comes to optimizing your training, studies show that these differences do not alter overall performance capacity. In other words, you can work with your changing patterns of insulin sensitivity, but your immediate performance capacity is not affected by these physiological changes.
In short, your body is more insulin-sensitive at the beginning of your cycle when estrogen is higher, and becomes less insulin-sensitive during the second half of your cycle when progesterone is higher.
So, what does this mean when it comes to your training? When the body is more insulin-sensitive, it means you need less insulin to get fuel into cells. As a result, the body shifts to burning fatty acids for fuel more readily, making slower, steady-state exercise efforts more advantageous during this time.
On the contrary, when the body is less sensitive to insulin (or, more insulin resistant), it shifts into a more glucose-burning state. As a result, doing higher intensity training like sprints efforts and strength training is ideal, especially since both interval workouts and weight lifting improve insulin sensitivity.
Studies also suggest that muscle-building capacity is higher during the luteal phase, which supports the recommendation for higher intensity workouts during the second half of the menstrual cycle.
These factors, combined with the general shifts in energy and fatigue that can occur throughout the menstrual cycle make structuring your training according to your cycle a potential rock-solid strategy for optimizing your workouts long-term.The hormonal shifts of the menstrual cycle can be used to your advantage when training.Click To Tweet
Training With Your Menstrual Cycle: Week By Week
Now, let’s get into specifics. As a general guideline, training with your menstrual cycle is broken down into a 4-week period (pun intended). While the days are set to a 28 day cycle, this can absolutely be customized to your cycle and your needs. The type of workouts you choose to do isn’t what matters. What matters is the intensity.
Week 1 (Days 8 – 14): The Ramp Up
Week 1 falls on the second half of your follicular phase. During this time, you can do longer, sustained efforts like tempo or endurance workouts. You can also include one workout with a bit more intensity, like an interval workout. Be sure to include a sufficient warm-up, as you’re coming off a down week.
Week 2 (Days 15 – 21): Increased Load or Intensity
This week is the start of your luteal phase. During this time, build your overall load by adding in one more workout if your body feels ready to do so. You can also increase load by increase the overall time of your workouts, or by making slight increases in the weights you use for conditioning or strength training. Be sure to remain hydrated and be mindful of the fact that your core temperature has increased.
Week 3 (Days 22 – 28): Highest Load or Intensity
This week is the second phase of the luteal phase. During the start of this week, you may find that your energy is at its peak. To take advantage of this, you can incorporate a few workouts that maximize your loads and intensities. As an example, doing shorter, “all-out” effort sprints is great during this time if it is within your ability. As you start to move towards the end of this week, taper your training off according to how your body is feeling as you enter menstruation.
Week 4 (Days 1 – 7): The Down Week
This phase starts when menstruation occurs, and/or when your PMS symptoms start to become prominent. During this time, you can do light activities like swimming, easy biking, yoga, or just chilling hard.
Customizing Your Training Plan
To reiterate, these weeks are a general guideline that is simply meant to break down the menstrual cycle into four phases of training. If your cycle is more or less than 28 days, your specific days will likely vary. For example, if you have a 30-day cycle, you may choose to add an extra day or two to your “down” period according to your symptoms.
As an example, I tend to have fairly intense abdominal cramping 48-72 hours before the first day of my menstrual cycle, which is aggravated greatly by high-intensity training. As a result, my “down” week begins on the last few days of my cycle, and my “ramp up” starts on day 4 or 5.
It’s also important to note that this concept can be adapted to your individual goals and the specific type of training you’re doing. Long term, you absolutely want to be periodizing your training so that you aren’t doing the same thing week after week, month after month. As you shift into different training phases, you can implement the general strategies of training with your menstrual cycle.
When in Doubt, Don’t Stress
Rest assured, if your period falls on the day of a important workout or on race day, you aren’t doomed to failure. The most important thing you can do is show up well rested, fueled, and with a positive mindset. Furthermore, if you’ve done the proper training and prepared your body for success, your body will perform appropriately, even on day 1 of your cycle.
Finally, because the effects of chronic stress can greatly interfere with sex hormone production, the best recommendation for training with your menstrual cycle is to be mindful of managing overall stress. Too much stress can result in chronic cortisol output, which can disrupt your menstrual cycle and lead to symptoms of overtraining, including fatigue, decreased performance, and loss of motivation.
For more information on stress management, including how to build a training plan that’s right for your body and your stress levels, check out my comprehensive program Strong From Home.
Do you shift your training according to your menstrual cycle? Tell me about your experience below!