Article written by Nicola Joyce
Where you are in your menstrual cycle has a massive impact on your metabolic state, strength, training results and recovery. Work with your body, not against it.
Do You Know Your Cycle?
Here’s a 101 on the menstrual cycle:
Day 0 – Day 14 (The Follicular Phase)
From the day you finish menstruating, to 14 days later is called the follicular phase. Your oestrogen increases, your progesterone is at normal levels, and your body temperature is average.
Day 14 (Ovulation)
Estrogen levels peak and progesterone levels starts to increase. Body temperature increases slightly.
Day 15 – Day 28 (The Luteal Phase)
Estrogen levels start to decline, progesterone increases, and your body temperature stays higher than your baseline.
What do the different stages of the menstrual cycle mean for training, nutrition and recovery?
The Follicular Phase: Higher Carbs, Harder Training
The follicular phase and ovulation are where you’ll find it easier to work hard and focus on making progress in training. Most women report a higher tolerance for pain and training discomfort, increased endurance, and even the ability to generate higher maximum force. For lifters, this is good news. Time for a PR? Even better news is that, during the follicular and ovulatory phases, you insulin sensitivity is higher. So you can stand to eat more carbs, or have a carb-heavy refeed, paired with intense training sessions. This study in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition states that our metabolic rate is at its lowest point the week before ovulation. So training hard and using strategic refeeds during the follicular phase could help offset metabolic slow-down.
The Ovulation Phase: Surprise Yourself With A 1RM
Whilst you’re ovulating (around day 14 of your cycle, or midway depending on your cycle length), you might be surprised by your strength and power. It’s a great time to do a 1RM test, try and set a new PR, or do a max strength test. But before you go searching for powerlifting competitions based on your cycle, be aware that you could be more prone to injury from lifting during this time. Estrogen is sky-high, which can impact muscle control and negatively affect collagen. Train hard, go for big lifts, but be extra careful to listen to your body’s feedback about fatigue and minor injury. Don’t be surprised if you feel extra hungry during the ovulation phase, your metabolism is on the rise. An understanding coach will program more calories into your day. But be sure to get them from a balance of macros, not just carbs (no matter what your hormones are telling you), because your insulin sensitivity is on the way back down.
The Luteal Phase: Deload Week & A Focus On Body Recomp
The luteal phase (from ovulation to your period) can make workouts feel like an uphill struggle. You feel tireder, faster. It’s not just how you feel, it’s down to what’s happening in your body. Your body temperature is higher, you may be experiencing the very real symptoms of PMS (retained water, poor sleep, achy abdomen). The thought of HIIT workouts or reppy lifting isn’t too appealing. Your body actually uses more fat for fuel during this phase, so program in workouts that use fat (lower intensity cardio, moderate intensity strength training, active recovery sessions, outdoor walking, yoga and stretching). A well-periodized training program can work with your cycle, not against it. This will mean that you’re more comfortable and confident in your workouts. But it will also mean that you actually see better results. You can’t beat nature. So why not work with her? In terms of diet, your metabolism is on fire during the luteal phase. This article in the AJCM suggests it could be as much as 7.7% higher than normal. You’re likely to crave carbs during this phase (remember that two-day stretch when you wanted to eat nothing but bagels and mashed potato… yeah….) and you might be feeling more tired, sensitive and lethargic. Thanks, PMS! Keep an unemotional eye on your food cravings and choices if you can, because your insulin sensitivity is very low during this phase. Look for other ways to boost seratonin levels: a little extra protein, some walks outside in nature, an early night. In fact, a lower-carb and slightly lower caloric intake during this phase could result in some body fat reduction, thanks to the extra low-level cardio and the bump in your metabolic rate.
The Menstruation Phase: Back To Normal!
It seems counter-intuitive, but when our period actually starts, we tend to start feeling normal again (that’s where guys’ assumptions get it wrong!) The physical discomfort and emotional challenges of PMS have gone, bloating and water retention settle, and our body temperature gets back to baseline. Now is a good time to get back to more intense training (although on a practical level you may need to think about forms of sanitary protection which can cope with heavy squats and deadlifts!) Your metabolic rate will be on its way back to normal, and insulin sensitivity will be coming back up to regular levels. During this phase, look to get back to your regular intense workouts and balanced nutrition.
At A Glance: How To Design Your Training And Nutrition Around Your Cycle
– you might experience more cravings
– high estrogen levels mean a better ability to use carbohydrates
– a good time to increase carbs/calories slightly and up training intensity
– best time for high intensity and low volume
– low rep weight training, HIIT, sprinting
– body is more likely to add body fat
– cravings have decreased or vanished
– reduce carbs and calories to normal levels
– best time for lower intensity work or higher volume/aerobic training
– reduce weight bearing training
– a good time for a recovery or deload week with active recovery
Other sources (in addition to those mentioned within the article):
Davidson, et al. Impact of the menstrual cycle on determinants of energy balance: a putative role in weight loss attempts. International Journal of Obesity. 2007;31:1777–1785
Nakamura et al. Hormonal Responses to Resistance Exercise during Different Menstrual Cycle States. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2011 Jun;43(6):967-73
Oosthuyse & Bosch. The Effect of the Menstrual Cycle on Exercise Metabolism. Sports Medicine. 2010;4(3):207-227.
Nicola Joyce is a freelance copywriter and journalist who’s been writing for the fitness industry since 2004. She’s a former English Channel swimmer and World Champion amateur female bodybuilder (not at the same time) with a 330lbs deadlift. She lives in England and can be found all over social media as “the fitwriter”.