1. Expert Advice
3rd of April, 2024

Training Through Your Menstrual Cycle

Training Through Your Menstrual Cycle - Athena Nutrition

Should we adjust our training to align with the fluctuations of the menstrual cycle? Understanding the impact of these fluctuations may be crucial for active women striving to optimise their training and performance. These variations in female sex hormones not only influence how we feel but also regulate protein, carbohydrate, and fat metabolism, affecting our performance and recovery. It's becoming increasingly apparent that active women may need to consider these hormonal changes when designing their training regimens. However, given the significant individual variation in the menstrual cycle, each individual's experience will differ both physically and mentally. Nonetheless, tracking, acknowledging, and adapting to these fluctuations could greatly enhance training outcomes and overall well-being.

The menstrual cycle is our bodies report card

The menstrual cycle serves as a comprehensive assessment of our body's well-being. It acts as a feedback mechanism, alerting us to any irregularities that may indicate underlying issues affecting our health. The hormones involved in the menstrual cycle play multiple roles, influencing mood, motivation, metabolism, and bone health.

Irregularities in the menstrual cycle, such as prolonged absence of periods, indicate that something is not quote right. If menstruation ceases for three consecutive months, it's important to seek support from your doctor. Dismissing the absence of periods as a consequence of increased training intensity is unacceptable, as it may indicate an underlying health issue.

Follicular Phase

The follicular phase marks the beginning of the menstrual cycle, initiating with menstruation. Initially characterised by low levels of estrogen and progesterone, as the phase progresses, estrogen gradually rises, peaking just before ovulation occurs. This phase, which can vary in length from 10 to 22 days depending on the individual, is often termed the 'low hormone phase.'

While exercise in the early follicular phase may present challenges due to menstrual symptoms such as cramping and headaches, these discomforts typically diminish as menstruation subsides.

As the follicular phase progresses women may experience heightened energy, motivation, spatial awareness, and improved recovery capacity. Enhanced utilization of stored glucose from our cells may contribute to increased energy and performance. Additionally, the late follicular phase may optimise the benefits of resistance training, potentially facilitating better muscle strength and mass gains. However, it's important to note that each person's experience throughout their cycle varies significantly. This emerging evidence does not dictate how we actually feel and what we experience.

Luteal Phase

The luteal phase starts after ovulation and can vary from 7 to 17 days in length. This phase, known as the 'high hormone phase,' is characterised by elevated levels of estrogen and progesterone. During the mid luteal phase, progesterone levels surge above estrogen, peaking before both hormones decline in the late luteal phase, signaling the onset of menstruation. During this phase, women may experience symptoms such as bloating, gastrointestinal discomfort, increased appetite, and decreased coordination, potentially increasing the risk of injury. Closer to menstruation, a range of premenstrual symptoms can arise, potentially impacting not only training ability but also motivation.

The body's focus shifts during the luteal phase towards preparing for potential pregnancy, leading to adaptations aimed at conserving energy. Muscle building becomes more challenging due to metabolic prioritization focusing on energy conservation. Metabolism is altered, so fat utilization is favoured over carbohydrates. This shift could make high-intensity exercises feel more challenging, given their reliance on carbohydrates, although endurance performance might benefit.

Progesterone increases muscle breakdown, reflecting the body's energy-saving efforts. While adequate protein intake is always essential, the increase of muscle breakdown in the luteal phase may warrant an increase in protein intake. Meeting carbohydrate needs across the whole menstrual cycle is also very important for performance. If this is achieved, the next step could be to increase carbohydrate intake during the luteal phase due to reduced ability to use stored carbohydrate during exercise.

Our hormones can also influence how our bodies manage fluids and electrolytes. During the luteal phase, heightened levels of progesterone can elevate the risk of experiencing low sodium levels (hyponatremia). Additionally, women typically have less fluid for sweating compared to men, amplifying the severity of fluid loss. Hence, it's crucial to prioritise hydration strategies consistently, not just during this phase. Opting for hydration methods such as electrolytes or incorporating salty foods with water can be beneficial.

What does this mean for those on hormonal contraception?

Active women may opt for hormonal contraception for various reasons, including for contraception itself, to manage severe PMS symptoms, or to skip periods during specific times such as competitions. However, it's important to recognise that the hormones in hormonal contraceptive pills differ from those naturally produced by the body. Unlike natural hormone fluctuations, hormonal contraception maintains a consistent hormone level throughout the cycle until a withdrawal bleed occurs due to the absence of synthetic hormones (like when taking the sugar pill). This bleed doesn't signify menstrual well-being or indicate irregularities in menstruation.

Common side effects associated with hormonal contraception include irregular bleeding, headaches, mood changes, and reduced motivation.

The impact of combined oral contraceptives (COCs) on training or performance varies depending on the specific type and hormone levels they contain. Some research suggests that athletes using high-concentration COCs may experience decreased glucose tolerance, meaning their cells may not be able to take in glucose as efficiently and use it for energy. Additionally, female athletes on COCs may exhibit higher levels of oxidative stress compared to non-users, potentially resulting in chronic inflammation and impaired muscle regeneration post-exercise. However, this effect will be different for everyone, and many women could experience no effect at all.

To counteract potential effects of COCs, it's been recommended in research that women should increase carbohydrate intake during the active pill weeks.  This helps ensure adequate fuel supply to muscles during exercise.

Women will consider various factors when deciding to use hormonal contraception, ultimately everyone will make a choice that is aligned with their circumstances.

Tracking is key to managing menstrual cycle associated symptoms

The first step of effectively managing menstrual cycle symptoms begins with diligent cycle tracking. This practice enhances self-awareness regarding symptom occurrence and timing. With this knowledge, we can anticipate and mitigate symptoms during different phases of our cycle, optimizing training, recovery, and preparation for competitions. Additionally, tracking allows us to have a deeper understanding of our bodies, letting us connect the dots to the reasons behind fluctuations in mood or performance and improving confidence.

Given the variability between individuals and from cycle to cycle, tracking also allows you to identify patterns and correlations. This could be the influence of travel on your menstrual cycle and also recognizing the signs of increased injury risk, by detecting changes in coordination. Anticipating the onset of menstruation and applying strategies to alleviate symptoms can be a great tool. Experimentation may be necessary to determine the most effective methods for symptom relief, such as using heat packs or painkillers like ibuprofen or paracetamol. For example, consistent use of painkillers, taken preemptively, can help manage pain effectively. Understanding your cycle enables you to anticipate peak period pains and plan accordingly. The method of tracking chosen should align with your individual preferences and needs.

How does this change my approach to training?

Essentially, it highlights the importance of tracking your cycle and being aware of its potential influence on your training regimen. Each person's response to different phases of the cycle varies; while some may experience minimal changes, others may need to adjust their training accordingly. Understanding these variations is crucial, as the menstrual cycle's effects can vary widely from person to person and cycle to cycle.

Given this variability, cycle tracking and using this data to inform your training schedule becomes fundamental. While research on the menstrual cycle's impact on exercise performance still shows inconsistent results, attributed largely to a lack of comprehensive studies. Attuning yourself to your body's cues and identifying periods of heightened energy or fatigue allows you to understand how the menstrual cycle affects you personally.

Conclusion

The menstrual cycle serves as a valuable indicator of overall health and well-being for active women. Understanding its hormonal fluctuations can help optimise training regimens and performance outcomes. By tracking and acknowledging these changes, we can adapt our training accordingly, potentially enhancing energy, motivation, and recovery capacities. While individual experiences vary, the insights gained from cycle tracking empower women to make informed decisions about their training, ultimately leading to improved performance and overall health.

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