As women, we may have been taught to overcome pain and to go through the daily workout in spite of its unbearable intensity without giving up. Most women have learned to soldier on with our daily workouts in spite of the discomfort of period pains.
Many of us stick to the training schedule planned by our dear and beloved coach who has done his best to make us stronger and fitter. But very few coaches take a woman’s menstrual cycle into account when planning her training sessions nor the hormonal fluctuations that go along with it.
"No pain, no gain" may be the motto for many of us nowadays. But the question is: are we doing ourselves any good by working out during menstruation and not heeding our natural cycle?
Women’s energy levels fluctuate according to the phases of their menstrual cycles. Menstruation has long been and still remains a taboo in many societies as it is seen as something unclean and embarrassing. Who has not once in their lives gone up to the sports teacher to confide in him or her that they cannot attend the swimming class? And feeling shameful and so lonely ...
Unfortunately, the use of tampons in modern societies has generated more taboo, as it just creates the pretense that we girls do not have to endure the inconvenience of blood flowing or wearing bulky sanitary towels. Thanks to tampons, it has now become easy to exercise during our periods and any kind of physical training has now been rendered possible during menstruation such as swimming, cycling, and running.
Tampons however do not hide monthly hormonal shifts, and this is the point that needs to be developed. Why not train in synchronization with these hormonal shifts rather than pretend they do not exist and harm our bodies?
If implemented properly, training in tune with your menstrual cycle will make it easier to follow natural recovery periods and intensive workouts. You will thus benefit from a totally organic training plan.
What happens during menstruation?
The menstrual cycle occurs in 4 phases.
Phase one being menstruation and bleeding. During this period, the thickening uterine lining falls (hence the bleeding) and the body starts building a new one. Oestrogen and progesterone production drops, as well as body temperature. It is a time when many women feel uterine pain, feel bloated, or suffer from excessive fatigue. Energy levels are low and it is certainly not the best moment to plan your high-intensity workouts. Exercising during a period is ok but best kept gentle. This phase lasts between 5 to 7 days.
Phase two begins after menstruation and lasts about a week until day 14 (the follicular phase). This is when our bodies produce oestrogen and the hypothalamus sends FSH to the ovaries to start the growth of eggs. Energy levels and moods are generally good. It is the best time to benefit from this rising energy and focus on more intensive workouts!
Phase 3 is the ovulatory phase (from day 15 to 17). During this phase estrogen and testosterone production increase. It only lasts a couple of days, but this short lapse of time is one of high potential. Endurance training, HIT training, mountaineering... It is the time when your energies are at their highest, so make the most of it!
Phase 4 is called the luteal phase and lasts roughly from day 18 to 28. The first days of this phase are still under the positive influence of estrogen and progesterone production and energy levels are still high. If the egg is not fertilized, then hormone levels drop to their lowest and you start to feel premenstrual tension. Easy workouts are best during this period.
Setting up a training plan in sync with menstruation phases
If you make your cycle your ally and go with its flow, you will definitely benefit from its empowering energies. Training intensity and workload will evolve according to the time of your cycle. It is essential to choose the workout that is best fitted to the different phases.
Instead of fighting your body and mind when it is not the right time (working out during menstruation just because it has been scheduled is totally inefficient), tune your training plan to your hormones and things will naturally become easier.
Let's start your training plan on phase 2, once your period is over and you are on the ramp-up (the beginning of the follicular phase).
Phase 2 is a period of "rebirth" following your menstruation week. Energy levels and motivation are both back as you have not exercised excessively during menstruation. You can start training again and gradually increase the intensity of your workouts. It is good to start with aerobic, high volume, and low-intensity workouts.
As you move towards ovulation, start to include high intensity and low volume workouts. Now is the time for anaerobic and power-based activity. You can go for your favourite strength training session or push your lactic acid levels to their limits!
Ovulation time is the date to remember if you want to set up a record or schedule an intensive training weekend! Your hormone and energy levels are at a climax, so sit and pray that race day falls during ovulation!
After reaching the peak it is time to come back down again and return to more aerobic forms of workouts. You may lengthen exercise time, and go for non-weight bearing activities. It is wise to follow your feelings during this period, especially as you are approaching menstruation and may start feeling pre-menstrual symptoms.
As menstruation settles in, make the most of this gifted moment and reward your body with rest and mild activities. It is ok to exercise during a period but take it easy. Yoga, easy biking, walking, or gentle running are the best workout ideas during menstruation.
There is no scientific reason to stop exercising during a period. For those suffering from discomfort, bloating and mood swings, exercise will help to reduce the symptoms.
The secret behind health and performance is as simple as nature itself. Stay in tune with your inner self. Train hard when your body is up to it and rest when needed. Our cycles are our inner barometer. Stick to the weather.
Author: Marie-Noëlle Bourgeois, Nutritionist at Bounce Up Micronutrition
Janse DE Jonge XA, Thompson MW, Chuter VH, Silk LN, Thom JM. Exercise Performance over the Menstrual cycle in Temperate and hot, Humid Conditions. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Nov;44(11):2190-8. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182656f13. PMID: 22776870.
S. J. Solomon, M. S. Kurzer, D. H. Calloway, Menstrual cycle and Basal Metabolic rate in Women