Do you track your periods (e.g. using an app) so you know where you are in your cycle from day to day? Read on to find out how and why it can be a game changer for your exercise schedule.
For this post I’m referring to women who are still menstruating and those who aren’t on the pill or any other hormonal medication that alters their natural cycle, as this only applies to women with a natural cycle.
I started tracking my cycle a few years ago and find it SO liberating and helpful, now that I understand the different ways we can feel throughout our cycle. It helps me plan my gym sessions more effectively, lets me know when I should just be focusing on walking and some more restorative movements like yoga, and when I should be going for a PB on my squat in the gym!
I use my app to track:
- When I’m in the first 2 week phase of my cycle
- When I’m ovulating (nothing to do with trying to become pregnant, because I am not trying!)
- When I’m in the last 2 week phase of my cycle
- When I’m due on
Your appetite, energy and strength are all affected by your cycle, and understanding this can provide such liberation and understanding of your amazing body throughout the month.
Your cycle is broken up into 3 main parts, the follicular phase (including the menstrual phase as shown in the image below), ovulation and the luteal phase.
The follicular phase starts from the 1st day of your period (day 1) up until about day 13, the ovulation phase lasts anything between 1 and 3 days from around day 13-15, then the luteal phase starts at day 15 up until the day before you come on your period again. The typical cycle will be about 28 days, but this can vary from anything between 21 and 30 days for some women, and your period itself can last anything between 2 and 7 days.
During the follicular phase oestrogen levels are higher than progesterone and during the luteal phase it’s the other way around, oestrogen take a bit of a dip.
Your appetite and cravings:
From the day your period starts you should start to feel your energy levels, mood, and any PMS symptoms like bloating improving. This next 14 days are likely when you’ll have the most amount of energy and get-up-and-go. You’re also likely to feel more proactive and be more productive.
During this phase your appetite should feel more normal and ‘under control’. You’re less likely to have cravings and more likely to be satisfied from the usual foods/meals that you eat.
Once you hit ovulation day you’re likely to feel stronger cravings and be generally extra hungry (definitely the case for me!), but if you can understand this and allow your body to go with it you can free yourself from the chains of cravings and judgement e.g. “why can’t I just stop eating and have more willpower!”. When I know I’m around ovulation time I intentionally have more (good) carbs with my meals to help stave of cravings for sugar, and make sure there is optimal protein and good fats going in as well (as always). I might include oats in my morning protein smoothie and an extra tablespoon of brown rice with lunch or dinner for example.
In the last 2 weeks of your cycle (the luteal phase, from ovulation to the day you come on again) progesterone is higher and during the last 5-7 days of this phase (leading up to your period) both progesterone and oestrogen levels drop and this is when you might start to notice PMS symptoms and your energy in the gym might start to wane. You’re also likely to feel hungrier here during these 2 weeks. The trouble is though that during the first 2 weeks of your cycle your body is better at processing carbohydrates than it is during the luteal phase, and so even though you’re more hungry here just be mindful of the types of carbs you fill up on, and go for more protein, good fats and only quality carbs (e.g. brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, root veg, berries, apples, and oats).
Training around your cycle – how to make it work FOR you:
Have you ever wondered why some days you feel invincible in the gym and other days you feel like a load of poo? So many women have no idea that their cycle hormonal fluctuations across a month play such a big part in how they feel and perform throughout the month, so they beat themselves up for not feeling as strong e.g. on the days during the second half of their cycle, the luteal phase (especially during the last 5-7 days).
During the follicular phase and ovulation you’re likely to feel stronger in the gym. I structure my gym sessions each month so that I do my heaviest lifting during the first 2 weeks of my cycle, then I start to taper down and focus more on depth, form and technique during the last 2 weeks of my cycle, with slightly lower weights and some sprinting, and the 5 days leading up to my next period I tend to focus on just yoga and walking until I come on again, because I tend to feel pretty rubbish and weak on those days!
Now that I’m tracking my cycle I completely understand the way I feel in the gym across a month. I lift weights, heavy ones, and some days I am SO strong when some days I don’t even want to go near a barbell and couldn’t imagine even lifting a pair of socks from the floor! Before I figured all this out I used to beat myself up about it no end. “Why cant you just be consistently strong and effective in the gym?” “Why are you so weak and pathetic sometimes?”, these were just some of the things I’d say to myself.
Some women notice that they feel a bit (or a lot) “off” sometimes but they assume that something’s wrong with them, they have no idea it’s a result of their natural hormonal fluctuations. The trouble is, a lot of training coaches aren’t aware of this and so they don’t/can’t adapt their female client’s training plans accordingly. When it comes to training and performance women are a unique case, but I rarely hear of (both male and female) trainers addressing this with their female clients Pushing a woman to lift her heaviest deadlift or squat in the last 5 days of her luteal phase can be a recipe for injury disaster.
Let’s walk through how a month of workouts might look if you work them around your cycle:
Days 1 to 14 (from the 1st day of your period – the follicular phase)
The first day or two of your cycle, when your period starts, you might feel cramps in your tummy, feel sluggish and heavy, or fatigued. But by the end of the first week you should be feeling strong and ready to take on the world. Generally speaking you should feel pretty good in the gym during these first two weeks.
You’re likely to have more strength and be able to hit heavier weights in your sets and maybe even more reps at the heavier weight without a problem, your energy is pretty good.
Days 15 to 28 (after ovulation up until you come on again – the luteal phase)
You might not feel as amazing as you did during the last 2 weeks. Productivity, strength energy might start to wane a little. In the last week of this phase (7-5 days before you’re due on again) you might start to feel even less energetic, recovery after gym sessions seems to take longer, you lack motivation and you feel more ‘exhausted’ after your session v’s energised, and if you’re susceptible to PMS symptoms this is when they’ll start to really kick in. I personally cannot let heavy during these days and I stick to yoga, walking and getting outdoors in nature as much as I can, and I look forward to going back to barbell once my period starts again.
Your appetite inexplicably ramps up and you have carb, chocolate, or salt cravings for no apparent reason. This is due to both oestrogen and progesterone dropping, NOT because you’re weak-willed, abnormal, or a bad person!!!
If you’re like most women who don’t understand their cycles, these Week 4 challenges can be frustrating physically, mentally, and emotionally – you blame yourself and tell yourself you suck.
Please note though that every woman is different and I’m not saying all women’s cycle will pan out like this. You personally might not experience much of a difference between the two halves of your cycle, or you might find some months easier or harder than others. There are LOTS of other lifestyle related factors that influence your hormonal balance, which influences your symptoms, such as your nutrition, your sleep, and stress levels.
I suggest to start by downloading a cycle tracking app (e.g. The Flow) and start paying attention to what kind of workouts you’re doing and when and how you feel throughout the cycle both energy wise and appetite wise.
More than anything else, you’ll begin to realise that the fluctuations in your gym performance and in your appetite and cravings aren’t because of lack of effort, discipline, willpower, or skill.
I hope this blog has been helpful and given you something to work with. Let me know if its resinated with you and how its been helpful.