There are many things that people take into account when putting together their workout routine, like fitness goals, current fitness level, equipment, schedule, etc. One thing women don't but should take into account is their menstrual cycle. Many just tend to go with the flow and work out based on the severity of their symptoms. For some women, menstruation can be too painful to do anything the first few days, with excessive bloating and cramping it can be difficult to think of hitting the gym. Other women may experience very little to no symptoms at all and find physical activity a breeze! Listening to your body is key when deciding on whether you're going to hit the gym while menstruating.
You should always listen to your body, but it's worth considering planning your workout routine around your menstrual cycle. It's okay to skip a workout or two during your heavy menstrual flows, but your actual cycle lasts far longer than the blood flow. It lasts for 28 days and consists of four phases. During these 28 days, your body is going through several hormonal changes that could potentially impact your workouts. So, knowing how your body works during these four phases is a good way to plan your workouts because certain types of training may be ideal for certain phases. It will also help reduce the chances of you having an unplanned rest day that messes with your entire routine. Luckily, anyone can maximize their workouts by simply planning around their cycle! All it takes is knowing all about the phases and how your body reacts during and tracking your cycle.
Fortunately, we can help with the first bit and tell you all about the menstrual cycle phases and how to workout through each of them, plus even what foods to prioritize to support your body as best as possible!
How to workout through each stage of your cycle
There are four phases in your menstrual cycle - menstruation, follicular, ovulation, and luteal. Many people just focus on the first phase, menstruation, as many would assume it's the time when you should consider taking it easy, but we'll get more into that later... Menstruation is important, but not the only phase in the cycle. Your hormones fluctuate at different levels during these phases and knowing where your body is at during each phase will help you determine which workouts best benefit your body at that moment. Not only that but knowing more about how each phase works will help you adjust your lifestyle to better fuel your body and balance your hormones.
First five days of menstruation
That time of the month, also known as the menstruation phase, comes with a variety of PMS symptoms that can keep you away from the gym and create a habit of skipping workouts. Those symptoms include bloating, menstrual cramps, nausea, fatigue, mood swings, and even back pain. Some women may experience intense period pain that keeps them out of the gym for a day or two, while others experience mild PMS symptoms. This is typically the first 5-7 days of the menstruation cycle.
If you're feeling unmotivated to get moving, don't worry, it's normal to feel this way. During this phase, you experience blood flow due to the uterus shedding the lining it has built up throughout the month this can lead to many of the symptoms listed earlier. Your estrogen and progesterone levels are also at their lowest which explains any fatigue and inflammation.
So, how can you best support your body during this phase?
Listen to your body. If your symptoms are severe, skip your workout! But it's important to note, that it's actually an ideal time to build muscle for those strength training! That's because this phase actually leads to high testosterone levels. Plus, working out during your period can also actually help decrease the severity of PMS symptoms and get your endorphins and mood high! But, as always, listen to your body. Day one and two of your period might be too painful for you to do your usual high-intensity workout or any type of training. If that's the case, skip your workout. Move around a bit to get some blood circulation going, but other than that lie back, relax and apply a heating pad to your uterus to help with the cramping!
If you're up for some movement, then focus on low-intensity exercise. Low-intensity exercises include walking, stretching, pilates, and yoga. Now, if you're feeling up to it towards the end of this phase add some strength training. Remember, testosterone levels are high during this phase, so if you can - go heavy. Hit your go-to compound exercises for six reps, or even try going 80 percent of your one-rep max. But if you feel like that's too much, then stick to light weight lifting and then gradually increase back to your usual routine.
As for what to eat during this phase to help support your body and keep you on track, incorporate anti-inflammatory foods and iron-rich foods. Like spinach, legumes, red meat, broccoli, dark chocolate, berries, and more!
Your menstrual phase is over, period pain is gone, and now you've officially entered the follicular phase. However, the phase actually begins on the first day of your period and ends at the beginning of ovulation. So, this is phase falls between days 1-11 of your menstrual cycle.
During the follicular phase, you may start feeling an increase in energy. That's because your body creates a hormone called the follicle-stimulating hormone during this phase, responsible for signaling the ovaries to create eggs for the ovulation phase. After the menstruation phase, typically after day 7, your estrogen levels increase as your body prepares to release the egg. This boost in estrogen leads to increased energy.
So, how should you work out during this phase?
Use the increase in estrogen and energy to your advantage and push yourself! If you mostly do aerobic exercise then take it up a notch on the intensity and do some HIIT workouts! High-intensity interval training requires a good amount of energy so why not burn up your energy while burning fat by doing a short, fun cardio workout?
Don't only focus on cardio. Whether you have goals to build muscle or not, strength training should be a part of your routine! Strength training is high-intensity, so during the follicular phase, you'll be able to push yourself a little more. If your menstruation phase is typically lower intensity exercise, then use the follicular phase to get you back into your usual routine and challenge yourself a little bit since you'll have the extra energy!
During this phase, you want to eat foods that help metabolize estrogen. The best foods for that are gut-friendly foods like kimchi and sauerkraut! You can incorporate them into your meals or eat them as a snack!
This phase of your cycle happens right after the follicular phase, it typically can last between 3-5 days. This is considered days 12-19 in your cycle. Ovulation is similar to the follicular phase in that it's a high-energy time. That's because your hormones are at a peak during this phase. Your estrogen levels are still high, progesterone increases, and you'll also have increased levels of the luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone.
So, how should you work out during this phase?
Since the ovulation phase is when your hormones are high then it's smart to take advantage of the increased energy! Like in the follicular phase, keep most of your workouts at a high intensity during this phase. This is the perfect time to work on progressive overload and increase the weight or reps on your key lifts or try a different technique like slowing down the tempo. For those focusing on cardio, try sprints, HIIT workouts, or go on a moderate to difficult hike, the key is to challenge yourself. But also make time to recover! Listen to your body and take a rest day when needed. High levels of progesterone have been linked to muscle breakdown so take your recovery seriously during this phase!
To support your body, eat fiber-rich foods like nuts, quinoa, and salmon. And also incorporate muscle-recovery foods to reduce the risk of muscle breakdown! That includes bananas, cherries, sweet potatoes, and more.
This is the last phase of your menstrual cycle, and right before the start of menstruation again. The luteal phase is the longest and can last up to 14 days, but it's typically between days 20-28 of the cycle. This is when things start to slow down. You most likely will still have energy at the beginning of ovulation, but it will slowly decline as you get closer to the start of your next cycle. PMS symptoms will start to creep up towards the end of the luteal phase, like fatigue and inflammation.
So, how can you support your body during this phase?
Your hormone levels should still be a bit high at the beginning, so keep your usual routine going the first few days. But don't be surprised if you hit a slump and start to feel drowsy... Your estrogen levels are lower, but progesterone is still kind of high which can cause drowsiness. Towards the end of this phase stick to moderate to low-intensity exercise, and even low-impact exercises! The mid-luteal phase is associated with the increased cardiovascular strain which can be due to the increase in body temperature that happens during this phase. So, if cardio is your go-to form of training, take it easy on the high-intensity cardio. If you can, work out in an air-conditioned gym as opposed to outdoors, and stick to steady-state cardio. Listen to your body during this phase, the beginning might be normal as usual, but towards the end remember to take it easy and give yourself a break if you need one.
As for what to eat, fill up on foods high in magnesium, like nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. Also incorporate foods high in vitamin B to help stabilize blood sugar, like eggs, meat, and legumes.
Do you need to plan your workouts around your menstrual cycle?
No, you don't need to plan around your cycle. Do what's right for you. It won't promote better weight loss or muscle growth, or solve all your health concerns. Knowing how your body works throughout the different stages of your cycle will just help you plan your future workouts in a smarter manner. If you know you feel less energized during your menstruation and luteal phase, then you can adjust those weeks to include lower intensity exercise. Planning ahead like this will help decrease your chances of randomly skipping a few workouts which can mess with your entire training routine.
So, do what's right for you. Hormones can affect your exercise performance, but your menstrual cycle is unique to you. There's no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to exercising during your period. As for the last thing, if you do want to plan your workouts around your cycle then familiarize yourself with it before starting! Download a period tracking app (there are plenty on the app store) to help you become more familiar with how your cycle works and influences you.