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Let’s talk periods

Let’s talk periods, or more specifically the menstrual cycle. Our reproductive years are marked by the regular occurrence of a menstrual cycle. Like it or loathe it, the menstrual cycle and the hormonal changes that drive the cycle, lie at the core of a female’s health and well-being.

Some of us are really in synch with our monthly cycles, others (me being one of them) not so much. But there is much to be learnt from tuning into your menstrual cycle and then to use this knowledge to your advantage, particularly if you have specific strength, performance or physique change goals.

The cyclic hormonal changes involve a number of important organs in the body that are instrumental to the development and regulation of the reproductive and immune systems. These hormonal changes influence your mood, energy fluctuations, cravings, body shape and performance. By having an understanding of your cycle it can provide you with a useful “snapshot” into the status of your overall health, and therefore how to potentially make a few tweaks to your lifestyle to see positive changes.

The following is a brief summary of the menstrual cycle, the hormonal changes and how exercise prescription can be altered to take advantage of these fluctuations. It may also explain why you feel stronger one week and like you’ve hit a brick wall the next.

A normal menstrual cycle can be anywhere between 28 and 35 days. For the purpose of this article let’s use 28-days as that fits neatly into a 4-week period. A cycle can be divided into 2 main phases – the Follicular and Luteal Phase. Each phase is characterised by a change in the ratio of the two main sex hormones – oestrogen and progesterone.

Follicular Phase

This first phase occurs between day one (first day of bleeding) and ovulation (when an egg is released from the follicle). When you have your period oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest levels. Interestingly, this is the time when women are physiologically “most like men” which explains why you may feel strong and good when exercising.

Oestrogen levels rise gradually during the first 10-days of the cycle and peak just prior to ovulation around day 14. Oestrogen has a positive effect on mood and energy, muscle strength and force production, and has a protective quality in mitigating muscle damage.

In regards to exercise and training – this phase provides an opportunity to build muscle, improve strength and train at higher intensity. The body can handle more pain, can produce more muscle force and recovers well. Therefore, high intensity, short duration interval sessions are effective, as is training for strength and hypertrophy gains.

Interestingly, during this phase the body utilises more glucose and is more insulin sensitive – the body’s cells readily absorb glucose out of the bloodstream to use as fuel. It is therefore important to fuel the body with adequate amounts of carbohydrates to meet any increase in energy demands.

Ovulation

Ovulation – when an egg is released from the follicle – occurs around day 14 and is characterised by a sharp increase in all hormones, including testosterone.

Luteal Phase

The time between ovulation and menstruation is the luteal phase. Initially there is a dip in oestrogen levels, but this rises again, along with the hormone progesterone.

Progesterone is known to be “catabolic” in nature – it “breaks down” molecules – as a result increasing core body temperature and a switch in fuel source from carbohydrate to fat.

If you are in tune with your body, you may notice subtle changes that occur after ovulation – energy shifts, mood changes, maybe you don’t recover so well after training. And, as you near your period, you may experience symptoms of PMS and/or cravings.

This is potentially a time to switch down gears and reduce intensity and loads to match your energy level and mood, and honour how your body is feeling. In the lead up to your period, you may find switching towards lower intensity, longer duration intervals and exercises, circuit training and general play may be more beneficial than short, sharp intense sessions. If you suffer from bloating, cramping and other premenstrual symptoms, the ability to activate your inner core may be impacted and could leave you vulnerable to injury without adequate preparation.

And finally, if you really are feeling crap – give yourself permission to rest. A few days of lighter training or relaxation will actually improve your overall health.

Some women are more prone to cyclic changes than others. Understanding how you respond to your cycle can make it easier to adapt your lifestyle – exercise, nutrition, sleep and stress levels in particular – in order to work with rather than against your cycle.