Your Cycle Could Help You Get Fitter & Stronger
For years, we’ve been led to believe we should be always ‘on’: by that we mean active, motivated and smashing all of our gym sessions. But, as Dr Emma Ross – female health and physiologist for Jennis – explains, the reality is: just as our hormones peak and trough across each menstrual cycle, so our energy levels, motivation, muscle adaptation, sleep quality and cravings naturally change. “By working with your cycle, you can improve hormone imbalance, increase energy levels, reduce PMT and provide more efficient fitness gains by working with your cycle rather than against it. By knowing what’s happening hormonally, you can capitalise on the good stuff – when motivation, energy, confidence and muscle adaptation is high.”
It’s All About Maximising The Four Phases
To sync your cycle to your fitness routine, you need to first understand the basics. While your period may be the most noticeable part of your cycle, it isn’t the only element you want to sync with your workouts. “Oestrogen levels rise and fall twice during the menstrual cycle,” explains hormone expert Dr Shirin Lakhani. “Technically, there is no stage during your cycle when hormone levels aren’t surging or plunging in some way,” she says.
Here, the experts take you through the four phases and the workouts to try…
1. The Period Phase
THE HORMONES: “When you’re on your period, both oestrogen and progesterone are low, so your hormones aren’t actually doing very much,” says Emma. “What is having an effect, however, are chemicals called prostaglandins, which can cause cramping, pain and inflammation as well as nausea and diarrhoea. Heavy legs, headaches and fatigue are also common.”
HOW TO EXERCISE: Listen to your body, says Shirin. “There’s no scientific reason you shouldn’t exercise during your period – it’s about doing what you feel comfortable with. If you feel drained, take it easy. At the same time, if you feel like doing something, know that exercise increases blood flow to the pelvic area, which can help reduce pelvic pain. If you’re not up for a run or a swim, try a brisk walk or something low-impact like yoga or Pilates.”
2. The Follicular Phase
THE HORMONES: By day five of your period, you’ll find your energy shifts upwards as oestrogen levels work towards ovulation. “Around the time of ovulation, you’ll get a small spike of testosterone,” Emma explains. “It’s very small, but as women don’t have much testosterone, you can often notice its presence. High oestrogen levels can make you feel more motivated and confident.”
HOW TO EXERCISE: Studies have shown that doing more resistance training in this phase, and then easing off in the next phase, can help you build more lean muscle than spreading strength training throughout the month. “To make the most of this, focus on more intense sessions, such as sprints and HIIT sessions and factor in regular rest days to give your muscles the chance to recover,” says Emma. “By training in this way, you can achieve up to 15% more strength gains, so it’s the time to push it. Plus, when your testosterone spikes (it lasts around 24 hours), this could be the time to reach for a PB, so tag on an extra set, add more load or really push your runs to get the most out of your hormones.” However, there is some evidence that when oestrogen is high, there is an increased risk of injury as the hormone makes ligaments and tendons laxer. If you have certain increased injury risks, be sure to warm up properly and always listen to your body.
3. The Luteal Phase
THE HORMONES: “The big hormone player at this point in your cycle is progesterone, which is known for its calming, anti-anxiety effect,” says Emma. “As progesterone rises to its peak across this phase, oestrogen is also making an appearance, albeit at lower levels than in the first half of the cycle.”
HOW TO EXERCISE: “You may find that your drive to go hard has waned, but your ability to go for longer runs, rides, swims or LISS sessions can take over,” says Emma. “Your capacity for endurance at this time is also up thanks to the shift in hormones, which favour burning fat as fuel over carbs. Focus on moving while maintaining your heart rate at a constant pace of 50-70% of your maximum.” Science also suggests the luteal phase is the best time for fat burning, although processes happening in the body at this time make it harder for the body to access sugar, so exercise may feel harder.
4. The Pre-Menstrual Phase
THE HORMONES: This phase happens between a day and a week before menstruation. PMS symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety and bloating are triggered by a drop in both oestrogen and progesterone. “Oestrogen affects serotonin (your happy hormone) in the brain, and progesterone can have an anti-anxiety effect in the brain, so it’s no surprise you may feel like you’ve stepped onto a PMS rollercoaster,” says Emma.
HOW TO EXERCISE: Listen to your body, but try and do something, Emma advises. “A review of 17 studies that looked at the impact of exercise on PMS proved it’s not the type of exercise but the regularity that can be beneficial for both physical and psychological symptoms.” Plus, if you are prone to cramps at this stage, know that the endorphins produced by exercise can block pain receptors in the brain, helping to stop the pain signals from the cramps contracting your uterus, adds Shirin.
Get Started By Tracking Your Cycle
If you’ve noticed your energy levels shifting depending on where you are in your cycle, it could be worth tracking hormone levels for a targeted fitness approach. “Tracking your cycle can help you identify where your energy peaks and troughs are, and once you have this information, you can plan your exercise accordingly for each phase,” says Shirin, who recommends the Clue app. Start by inputting the dates of your last period and note symptoms such as cravings, energy levels, cervical fluid and breast tenderness – the more info, the better. The app will then suggest what phase you’re in, and as the months go by, the more accurate it will become.
Want to get going? These are the latest launches worth having on your radar…
Lumen: Lumen – the world’s first metabolism measurement device done via the breath – has just launched a cycle tracking function. Use the industry-first tech to fuel your body optimally throughout your cycle – learn when and what to eat to fuel a workout and what to eat to restore iron levels, curb fatigue and regulate blood sugar.
Jennis: Founded by Jess Ennis-Hill and built in collaboration with top female health experts, the Jennis app offers personalised daily workouts that are mapped to the four phases of your menstrual cycle. Through HIIT, strength and yoga classes, expect better energy levels, more motivation to train and better fitness gains.
P.Volve Phase & Function: A clinically backed cycle-syncing programme, this virtual series is led by PTs as well as a gynaecologist, nutritionist and health coach to match your movement and mindset to the ebb and flow of your hormones. Fully personalised, the plan also provides bespoke workouts and nutrition plans.
Mindfulsoul Pilates: The brainchild of Olivia Brierley, this Pilates-based online platform champions intuitive movement that works in tandem with your cycle. Expect slower-paced menstrual workouts as well as energetic flows designed for the follicular phase and restorative workouts to ease PMS.
DISCLAIMER: Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.