The Female Cycle and Strength Training: When to Push and When to Hold Back

From ovulation to menstruation, it’s important to factor your female cycle into your training plan.

(Men, feel free to sit this one out):

The cramps are crippling. You feel bloated, and you keep running to the bathroom between sets of squats. You’re not sure if it’s the coffee or just period poo, but you start praying the Midol you popped 30 minutes ago will kick in soon so you can salvage a decent training session. 

As a woman, it can be really challenging to listen to our body and back off, or even rest completely, during the high-cramp days of our menstrual cycle. Even though our body is telling us to lay low, our mind still want to go. 

American weightlifter Mattie Rogers spoke about this openly in a recent Instagram post.

“I think something that’s not talked about much from the perspective of elite female athletes is the importance of acknowledging, understanding and working with the changes in your body and performance when on your period. (Sorry boys, but also all male coaches should understand as well). There are very real differences that no matter how much you ignore them, pretend it’s not your time of the month or want to push through, sometimes it just puts ya on your ass,” she wrote. 

The other aspect about our time of the month is that it can be very unpredictable. Some months cramps are worse than others. I recently discovered that when it comes to eggs being released, our ovaries alternate months. So it appears I must just one angry ovary, which explains why one month I’m symptom-free and the next month I want to curl in a ball all day on Day 1 and eat soup. 

[Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional.]

The point is, if you’re a woman who trains hard, you’d be silly not to factor your menstrual cycle into your training plan. And not just during your time of the month, so to speak, but during the rest of your cycle, as well. 

Although everyone is different, here are some training and diet tips for the various times of the female cycle:

Training and Menstruation

Day 1 to Day 7: Menstruation

As you know, the first four to seven days of our cycle is when we’re on our period. It’s the time of the month when our hormones—progesterone and estrogen—are at their lowest, which can make us feel low on energy and more tired than usual.

Obviously if you’re cramping, it’s best to be gentle with yourself and take is easy, but research—like a 2015 study—actually suggests that continuing to be active might actually help alleviate those cramps. (1)

It’s also important to note that although we might feel not at our best during these days, it’s actually a time where we’re able to make some serious strength gains. These first seven days of our cycle are part of the follicular phase, a phase that ends after ovulation around Day 13 or 14. During phase, our pain tolerance is higher than normal and our body is prime to make muscle gains. So once the cramps subside, this is a good time for hard training, especially strength training.

It’s also important to note that we lose a lot of iron through our blood—as much as 5 to 6 mg each menstrual cycle. So, in the days leading up to menstruation, as well as during menstruation, it’s especially important we’re getting enough iron from our diet. 

Red meat, spinach and other leafy greens, pumpkin seeds and oysters are great sources of iron. Vitamin B12 is also useful during this time because it helps produce red blood cells. Foods high in Vitamin B12 include eggs, cheese, fish and chicken. 

Day 11 to 14: Ovulation

While ovulation varies between women, it’s generally around Day 11, and it’s when a new, mature egg gets released—aka fertile baby making time—and our hormone levels are high. As a result, so are our energy levels.

At the gym, this is prime PR time. So take advantage of this time train hard and give your ego a little boost because you’ll probably be feeling pretty good physically. 

On the other hand, it’s also a time when our joints become less stable and susceptible to injuries. This is because when our estrogen is high, it impacts collagen metabolism and muscular control.  If you experience loose joints during this time, take the time to warm-up properly and include some stability exercises to prime your joints before lifting heavy.

Diet wise, we often feel hungrier than normal during this time because our metabolism has started speeding up. That being said, it won’t hit its peak until the luteal phase.

Day 15-28: Luteal phase

The luteal phase is the time between the end of ovulation and menstruation. Initially, there’s a decline in estrogen, but then it begins to rise again, along with progesterone.

Towards the end of this phase—Day 25 to 28—our hormone levels decline again as we prepare for menstruation. Many of us experience bloating, cramping, headaches or mood swings during these days. One thing to consider is to increase protein intake from Day 25 to 28 to promote serotonin production—a hormone that regulates mood, appetite and digestion.

As much as we don’t always feel amazing during this time, it’s actually when our metabolism is at its peak. With this metabolic peak come food cravings, often for sweet carbohydrates and fatty foods. 

Generally, the last three days of our cycle isn’t the time to push, push, push at the gym. Certainly we can still train and maintain, but often it’s a good time to lay off the heavy weights and focus more on metabolic conditioning. This is especially true if you’re someone who suffers from premenstrual cramps, as they hurt your ability to activate your inner core muscles, which can lead to injuries if you’re lifting super heavy and can’t brace as hard as normal. 

Another thing to be aware of is that your body temperature is sometimes a bit higher during the end of the luteal phase, so you might feel hotter and more tired during metabolic conditioning workouts. This is normal.

Final Tip

If you haven’t paid attention to your cycle and how it affects your training and your emotional state etc, it’s worth journaling about for a few months.

Take note of:

  • Training (Note your mood, energy levels and physical performance)
  • Sleep (Are there times of the month you sleep better than others?)
  • Mood (Are there times of the month you’re more prone to pick arguments with loved ones?)
  • Food cravings
  • General energy levels
  • Physical symptoms

In recent months, I started tracking the above. After a few months, I found a pattern that repeated month after month on Day 25 to 28. Those are always the days I feel the most anxious and often unable to cope with certain stresses as well as I normally do. 

Basically, I just worry about everything for three days and feel like the sky is falling. They are also the days I am most likely to get into an argument with someone I care about over nothing all that important. Just becoming aware of this has helped me relax and be less anxious because I can take comfort in knowing it’s just my hormones and the state is temporary. 

Similarly, a friend of mine did the same and realized Day 25 to 28 were the days she had trouble sleeping, so she started reducing her caffeine and taking magnesium before bed those days, and said it has made a big difference.

The point is: Pay attention, take note of your body and your mind, and then use this information to put forth a training plan (and life plan) that will allow you to be successful. 

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

References

1. Kannan, P. et al. Vigorous exercises in the management of primary dysmenorrhea: a feasibility study. Disabil Rehabil. 2015;37(15):1334-9.

Emily Beers

Emily Beers

Emily Beers is a freelance health, fitness and nutrition writer. She has also been coaching fitness at MadLab School of Fitness in Vancouver, B.C. since 2009. A former college basketball player and rower, Emily became heavily involved in CrossFit after finishing her Masters degree in journalism at the University of Western Ontario. She competed at the 2014 CrossFit Games and also worked with CrossFit Inc.’s media team for 8 years. You can also find her work at Precision Nutrition, the Whole Life Challenge, OPEX, and a host of other fitness and nutrition companies and media outlets.

Leave a Comment