Even Flow: Your Menstrual Cycle and Your Workoutsby Jennifer Blake
Hi, my name is JVB. I’m 39, just a few months shy of turning 40, and I’ve just now started paying attention to my period.
(Are you eye-rolling so hard at me right now? I am.)
The truth is I’m very lucky: ever since I got my period at age 12, the whole experience has been pretty low-key. I didn’t (and still don’t) get cramps and my period arrives pretty regularly and lasts 3-5 days. My flow has always been in a manageable range (can we all agree that day two is the worst, though?) and over the years I’ve moved from being self-conscious about pads, to feeling super annoyed by tampons, to absolutely loving my menstrual cup.
My period has been only mildly annoying when she appears, like a friend who you really like and value but who is an uncomfortably close talker when they come over to chat.
But it turns out that periods are just one part of our hormone stories! (I am so late to this game.) Lately, likely due to the increased demands of this powerlifting cycle, I’ve noticed how strongly and specifically my hormones impact the energy I have for my workouts. Some days I feel like a got-damn superhero who can lift all the weights while needing minimal recovery. Other days, I don’t feel like a long workout is in the cards but I could squat, bench, or deadlift a heavy single—and quite likely set a new PR. Still other days I feel like I did today: when simply arriving at the gym feels like a big win and I want to LOL at the iron loaded on my bar.
At least I don’t have cramps?
For the first time in my life I’m now using a cycle tracker which asks me to log what’s going on with my body daily: If I’ve had sex, if I’m experiencing any physical symptoms like cramps, bloating, or fatigue, and what my discharge looks like (you could also call this The Diary That Would Horrify Most Men).
I’m also reading up on how hormones impact strength training and not surprisingly, I’m not finding an abundance of scholarly articles to choose from. Most sports-related research uses men as subjects while studies involving women focus on endurance activities. However, most of the articles I found correlate what we do know about female hormones with anecdotal experiences of women lifters.
Which is not to say that what I did find wasn’t valuable. What I read did, in fact, line up with my own experiences:
Please note: What follows is a recap of the hormone cycle of a women who is not living with conditions like PCOS or amenorrhea, the effects of which fall outside my scope of practice. If your menstrual cycle has been infinitely more troublesome than mine, please always take the advice of your trusted OBGYN over anything I have to say.
Menstrual Cycle and Strength Training: The Basics
The Follicular Phase: Days 1-14
What happens with your body: Your uterus begins to shed its lining and you get your period. After your period is complete your ovaries get ready to drop another egg and your uterus begins building another cushy home to welcome it.
What happens with your hormones: Estrogen increases, progesterone is level, and body temp is average.
How does this impact your workouts? For me, this is the period—and I hope you see what I did there—where I feel like I can lift hard and often, and where I see the most consistent progress in my training. This observation is right in line with THIS study which found that “training that is concentrated to the first two week of the cycle [has] more of an effect on muscular strength, power and muscle mass,” than the remaining days of a woman’s cycle.
This means that the building blocks of strength—sleep and nutrition—matter extra hard in this phase. Prioritize protein, don’t shy away from carbs, and for heaven’s sake: get to bed!
The Ovulation Phase: Day 14-15-ish (can last 16-32 hours)
What happens with your body: Your egg barrels down from your ovary to your uterus and, snug as a bug in a rug, has about 12 hours to get itself fertilized, if that’s what it’s looking for (but since sperm have a longer shelf life than eggs, fertilization is most likely to happen within three days before ovulation. You may also experience what’s called “mittelschmerz” (literally, “middle pain”) and feel a dull pain on one side of your lower abdomen.
I don’t get mittelschmerz but if you did you can bet I would hold my hand on my abdomen and bellow, “ AHHHHH, MIIIIITELLLSCHMERZZZZZZ!” at random intervals.
What happens with your hormones: Increased estrogen stimulate a dramatic surge in luteinizing (egg-dropping) hormones.
How does this impact your workouts? On this shining day, baby, you’re a superstar. Go forth and crush. If I could schedule all my powerlifting meets on the days I ovulate I assure you, I would.
And according to THIS post, “Your metabolism will also be starting to climb at this point, so if you’re feeling a little extra hungry, understand that this may very well be why. Consider adding a few more calories to your diet to fuel this increase, but get those calories from a balanced mix of proteins, carbs, and fats.”
The Luteal Phase: Day 16-28
What happens with your body: Your uterine lining thickens in case it needs to catch an embryo. Mucus in your cervix thickens, making it harder for sperm to penetrate your uterus, and your body temperature increases slightly.
What happens with your hormones: Estrogen stays high but progesterone also increases for the majority of the luteal phase. This is when you may feel physical symptoms like cramps, bloat, and breast tenderness. If there is no egg fertilization, after about 14 days both estrogen and progesterone decrease and you get your period.
How does this impact your workouts? The further you move into the luteal phase the more you may feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle. At the bottom of this hill is where I found myself today: unable to budge even 90% of my current 1RM, a weight I can normally rep for multiples.
Listen, maybe today’s not the day, OK?
That may be due to a change in fuel sources. From “The Hormone Cycle and Female Lifters”: “Your body will also rely more heavily on fat as a fuel source during the luteal phase instead of muscle glycogen. . . This all points to utilizing lower-intensity cardio training coupled with moderate intensity strength work.”
Why is it important to pay attention to your cycles: both hormonal and training? It’s helpful to know when and why it’s easier to go harder and longer—and conversely, when that feels impossible, exactly why that is.
Tracking both your workouts and your cycle in a journal or an app is invaluable, and so is planning the intensity of your workouts to coincide with your hormones, when that’s possible.
Giving yourself grace is another biggie.
The workout I wanted to have today wasn’t happening. And that’s OK. I went to our neighborhood pool and floated and felt my feelings about everything and dove off the diving board with my kids because playing like a kid is a great way to work off stress. My strength is still there, biding it’s time.
And I’ll be ready for it when it returns. . .any day now.
This blog post originated as an email to my subscribers (and, if you’re interested in getting me in your box, sign up here for the Big 3 e-course HERE) and I received a most helpful reply with the recommendation to read ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Physiology, by Stacy Sims. I’ve found it to be tremendously helpful in learning more about how hormones impact my training. Let me know what you think, if you give it a read!