It took me nearly three decades to really listen to my body and train with my menstrual cycle. Athletes out there, anyone who trains for a purpose, it can be deceptively difficult to ~truly~ listen to your body because (most likely) you're accustomed to training through pain and sustaining high level efforts in an uncomfortable state. If you've ever pushed and tested your limit, you know that feeling well.
Discomfort comes in many forms. As a woman, more research is only now surfacing on how our hormones shift month to month as well as through our lifetimes and affect physical performance. The bloating, cramping, and mood changes are linked to surges in a range of hormones our bodies produce and will vary between individuals. (Disclosure: For those who identify as female and don't necessarily feel the impact of these swings, I see you. Topics of consideration here may include gender equity, trans rights, and issues that touch on mental health.)
When it comes to training with my cycle, I've learned a few important things--the first is to track the cycle so to keep an eye on the duration, consistency, and how training feels during different times of the month.
I leveled up my training by breaking down my monthly regimen into three separate parts.
Chesca, repping PGB gear, finishing a tough workout in style and switching it up with movement at JTNP. IG: @chessquitta
Without too many science-y words, here's my three segments:
Starting my period. Everything feels awful, it's the dreaded week and things are seemingly less convenient and the day seems to mainly consist of making trips to the bathroom between holding a fetal position. The good news is that this is actually the start of prime training time. As the bleeding starts, it means hormone levels are starting to dip again. Usually after your crampiest days (this is different for everyone, but in general by day 2-4), hormones level are lower--think: similar to our male counterpart. This means we can push hard on heavy lift days, HIIT, sprint training, or some high intensity efforts. You might even find yourself hitting a PR during this time. That's right, there's power to our period.
As you finish off your cycle and approach ovulation time, hormones begin to rise but aren't too high just yet. Estrogen is carb-sparing--that means that energy stores are present for some gritty workouts.
As you near the second week after starting your cycle, hormones (namely progesterone--shout out to the nerds out there) only then begin to rise and a shift towards more endurance based programming can be helpful. This might mean lowering the weight, upping the reps. It can also mean going on distance runs, focusing on cadence and breath.
Side note: The type of exercise will vary just as our cycles vary greatly. That part about our physiology is less helpful when it comes to general advice, I know. Estrogen is great for muscle development in some ways but can hinder the integrity of ligaments too. In any case, hormones have complex functions--but I'll save that discussion for another day.
3. The final week (or weeks) leading up to bloody-o'clock are rough. Bloating happens, fatigue sets in, mood changes are exhausting, cravings kick in. This is the time to taper. During this time, if you're adamant on training, gains will be seen if focus is shifted to technique and form. This is where using a deload week is critical. Work on fundamentals--whether that's lifting form, mobility, sprint form, sport-specific mechanics...Take the rest.
Not all women are made the same. Cycles are not the same. Choices are not either.
Women who decide to take oral contraceptives (OC), in short, blunt these hormonal fluctuations. (See the middle graph above.) Some can argue that this blunts our superpower--assuming training with our cycle can make us progress through workout plans. But contrarily, taking an OC can be empowering for many. In any case, do take note that the mini fluctuations can mean physical tests or PR attempts can be affected depending on the time of day the test happens in relation to when the OC is taken. If you're taking an OC in the morning, it can be helpful to let your coach or trainer know and try running your sprint/endurance/lift assessment (or even just your average workout) to later in the day.
Even when we think we have it all figured out, our bodies continue to change. This is why learning how to feel when we're low on energy or when we feel invincible is critical to how we approach training.
As we age, change is inevitable. At some point, we'll stop bleeding and hit menopause. In the time leading up to it, hormones rage and are a bit unpredictable. During that time, it's imperative to mix up training--from HIIT to endurance, to lifting and yoga. When menopause finally hits, it's time to focus on lifting heavy, on hard sprints, and on training for power--look to our fast twitch muscle fibers. As our bodies age, we'll be physiologically prepped for long endurance runs and activity but our fast-twitch powerful-sprinty muscle fibers will wane. So that's where the focus needs to turn.
If we listen to our bodies and take the time to tune in, we have the power to become stronger, leaner, healthier, overall. We have the power to use our physiology to our advantage, whatever our health goals.
These are some things I wish I'd known sooner before I beat myself up for feeling sluggish or overtraining when I could've really taken the time to recover. Coaches and trainers need trainers too. There is a lot to discuss on this topic and I hope that this is helpful to folks training out there!
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Founder, Project Green Beard
UCSC Banana Slug