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 the 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 more insulin resistant 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, during the first half of your menstrual cycle, you need less insulin to keep blood glucose levels in the normal range and keep your body’s cells supplied with glucose. During this time, carbohydrates are used more efficiently. As a result, doing higher intensity training like sprints efforts and strength training is ideal.
Studies also suggest that your basal metabolic rate decreases during the follicular phase, hitting its lowest point one week before ovulation. Doing higher intensity training during this time will counteract this change, and give an added boost to your metabolism.
On the contrary, when the body is less sensitive to insulin (or, more insulin resistant), it has a hard time properly storing glucose. In other words, glucose uptake in muscle and fats cells is impaired. As a result, steady-state exercise efforts—ones that do not require fast access to glucose—are more advantageous during this time.
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.
Please note: this is not an absolute! This is my opinion based on what the literature says and my personal experience. The “ramp up” begins when the menstrual cycle begins to taper off because most people feel the worst the last few days of their cycle (because of PMS symptoms) and the first few days of menstruation. Furthermore, not everyone ovulates on day 14, so the highest intensity week occurs around ovulation (between days 10 and 16). If you need to shift this slightly to better fit your needs—please do!
Week 1 (Days 3 – 9): The Ramp Up (Increased Load or Intensity)
Week 1 occurs in the first half of your follicular phase. During this time, you can increase the intensity of your training and start lifting heavy. Think of it as a week to “prime” yourself for maximum load and intensity. This is a great time to do interval workouts. Be sure to include a sufficient warm-up, as you’re coming off a down week.
Week 2 (Days 10 – 16): High Load or Intensity
This week is the second half of the follicular phase and ovulation. During this time, you may find that your energy is at its peak. To take advantage of this, you can incorporate a few workouts that use max efforts. Now’s the time to attempt a PR. Doing shorter, “all-out” effort sprints is great during this time if it is within your ability.
Week 3 (Days 17 – 23): Aerobic Efforts
This week is the first half of luteal phase. During this time, you may find you do better with aerobic training. Moderate loads and longer, less intense workouts are ideal. Bike rides, trail runs, or circuit-style training are all great options. As you start to move towards the end of this week, taper your training off according to how your body is feeling as you experience PMS symptoms. Be sure to remain hydrated and be mindful of the fact that your core temperature has increased.
Week 4 (Days 24 – 2): The Down Week
This phase starts when your PMS symptoms start to become more 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 aerobic 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 higher 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!