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How To Balance Your Menstrual Cycle with Your Fitness Goals

Ever felt like your energy can be super inconsistent when you’re training in the gym? This can often be due to your menstrual cycle. Depending on where you are in your cycle, you can find your energy and strength at the gym seriously affected (some days you’ll feel great, others you’ll be struggling to stay awake in the squat rack).

But if you can learn to work with your cycle, you’ll find your training that little bit easier! To help you understand how to manage your menstrual cycle with your fitness goals, we spoke to Dani Bulian from Dani Bulian Health and Fitness, who has dedicated her career to helping people balance fitness and their lifestyle, in particular their menstrual cycle. She’s answered your most-asked questions about how the menstrual cycle affects your training, and what to do about it!

So how does the menstrual cycle affect training? 

With hormones changing throughout each day-to-week of the menstrual cycle, it’s important to adopt the habit of cycle tracking, to be one step ahead of what your body is going to need. Menstrual cycles (naturally) are made up of four different phases for most people based on a ‘textbook’ 28 day cycle.

Note this is not applicable for everyone and is depending on your health conditions.

The four phases: 

  •  Follicular Phase (Days 1-14)
  •  Ovulation (Day 12-16)
  •  Luteal Phase (Day 16-30 days of cycle)
  •  Menstruation Day 1-7 (first day of menstruation & follicular phase)

During each of the phases, our energy, our sleep, our power, our nutritional requirements and cravings will alter depending on your cycle day. It’s super important to get familiar with these phases to learn when to rest and when to push the throttle to reach your next personal best. 

How should I train in each phase?

Tracking your menstrual cycle will let you slightly adjust your training as necessary, depending on how you’re feeling that day or week, and where you are in your cycle. Below are the four phases and all the useful factors to consider.

Follicular Phase (Days 1-14)

This phase is when the follicle-stimulating hormone (Tells the ovaries to produce estradiol) starts to surge following your menstrual phase & leading up to ovulation, transporting more serotonin to the brain.  You feel good, you’ll have higher energy and increased strength

  • Focus on conventional strength or hypertrophy. 
  • You may find you feel stronger, and can train better & harder. It’s a good time to focus on strength work and HIIT workouts.
  • You’ll have a higher pain tolerance. 
  • You’ll be more insulin sensitive. This is a great time to increase carbs and caloric load to reflect your resistance training.

Ovulation (Day 12-16 in most women)

This is your time to shine! During this time, you’ll have sharp increases in all hormones; estrogen and progesterone and testosterone. Quite simply this is the best time to set a strength PB in the gym. 

Luteal Phase (Day 16-30 of cycle for most women)

You’ll have increased body temperature after ovulation due to increased progesterone, which is how you can track if you’ve ovulated. Your metabolic expenditure will increase, which means more calories burnt per day - up to 200 extra calories!

  • Use moderate weights / exercise. Reduce overall load and shift towards metabolic conditioning/circuit-style training as you lead into week 4 (menstruation) of the cycle
  • You’ll find it more challenging to train in general with decreased power. Your cravings will also increase and PMS symptoms will present, compromising your recovery.
  • You may have to train at lower intensity here due to quicker fatigue. Try LISS, slower runs, pilates, yoga & stretching. 
  • You’ll be less insulin sensitive, so your body may work better with higher fats.

Menstruation Day 1-7 (first day of menstruation & follicular)

  • Honour your cycle. Take note of your emotional / physical state and exercise accordingly.
  • Give yourself permission to rest / recover
  • Support the body with nourishing foods.
  • Try light exercise with bodyweight movements.

Should I just take it easy and rest? 

The short answer is, it depends.

The late luteal phase is the most demanding on your body as recognised through PMS, so your energy and endurance may be lower compared to your follicular phase. You may not hit your maximum lifts or feel as great, so this is definitely a time to listen to your body as needed. Decreased performance is normal due to lower hormones, and that’s okay! You can’t expect to be doing your best all the time! 

Honour your cycle, including your emotional / physical state and exercise accordingly. You may need to reduce your strength training at this time if you feel the need. Generally, light exercise is most suitable during menstruation, such as body weight movements, lower volume resistance training, yoga, walking, swimming or pilates. 

You don’t necessarily need to stop training, just adjust your routine to suit how your body is feeling!

How do I know when to push myself and when not to when I'm on my menstrual cycle? 

For those who have debilitating pain, give yourself permission to rest and recover. For some, light exercise actually helps their period symptoms, and the endorphins can help their mood. Both estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest during the length of menstruation, which can make you feel more tired and less energetic. Listen to your body, allow yourself the rest if you think you need it, and consult with a health professional if you think you need additional help!

What are your top tips for getting through the menstrual cycle? 

  • Listen to your body. Your body is always sending you signs and signals. If you need to rest, do not feel guilty doing so.
  • Make sure you’re eating enough - we cannot live in a calorie deficit for the rest of our lives! We must adopt the mindset of an athlete and eat to fuel our body. We should feel empowered from our menstrual cycle rather than see it as a burden. We must learn to use it to our advantage! 
By Sean Nunan

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