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Maximising Your Workouts by Studying Your Menstrual Cycle

by Sarah Hughes

Some days are harder than others when it comes to exercising aren’t they? There are times we can spring out of bed, into our trainers and straight to the gym. Other days just the thought of getting a sweat on fills us with dread. You might be surprised to hear that it isn’t just us mere mortals who feel this way… even athletes report having energy dips at times when their motivation goes AWOL. I’ve been training women across a variety of exercise disciplines for more than a decade and I’ve yet to meet one who has a 365 days a year love affair with working out! Exercise science has proven that for females, the effects of the menstrual cycle have a huge bearing on how keen we are to work out, and how efficient those workouts may end up being.

Fran Kirby, England and Chelsea FC footballer recently made headlines when she talked about how she and her teammates sync their training schedules to their menstrual cycles. It’s hardly surprising when you hear that certain stages of the cycle make you more prone to injuries, others affect your coordination, and others play havoc with that all-important reaction time.

Low energy levels, joint pain and muscular aches can all make an appearance at different points throughout the month and these bugbears often intensify throughout the perimenopause. But since we’re all aware of the countless benefits of regular exercise for both our mental and physical health, throwing in the towel and doing nothing doesn’t feel like an option either.

This conundrum is part of the reason a new range of period tracking apps such as MyFlo or FitrWoman have become so hugely popular. Once used mainly to track ovulation to either conceive or avoid pregnancy, these tools can now answer a range of questions when it comes to managing our overall health. Once you’ve been tracking your cycle for a while, the idea is that you will be able to anticipate, for example, that pesky day 12 mood swing or day 25 lack of energy. They can help you regain some level of control and plan ahead, meaning your period interferes less with the rest of your life!

Obviously, cycles change month to month. Not all of us are lucky enough to have a regular cycle, especially as we head into our forties. Plus the experience of the period itself will differ from person to person. Some people escape with a few days of light bleeding while the less fortunate ones are wiped out with a week of headaches, cramping, and heavy bleeding.

For now, let’s look at a typical 28-day cycle and see which workouts might give you the best results during each phase.

Days 1-7

How you might be feeling: Crampy, irritable, tired, low in energy.

Which workouts to try: During your period it’s less likely that you’ll feel in the mood for high intensity exercise. Try dialling down your cardio to include brisk walks or just shorter versions of your usual cardio exercises. Focus on mood-balancing exercise such as Pilates and Yoga which should leave you feeling calm and re-energised. If you’re experiencing a particularly heavy period, don’t beat yourself up about taking a couple of rest days. Be kind to yourself.

Days 7 - 14

How you might be feeling: You may have more energy during this follicular phase as the body prepares for ovulation.

Which workouts to try: This is a great time of your cycle to focus on strength training! You may feel like you have more stamina and can achieve greater gains in terms of the weights that you lift and the number of repetitions you perform. It’s worth noting however that this is the phase of the cycle where we are most likely to suffer a joint injury, possibly due to the increased oestrogen production. Protect yourself by always undertaking a full warm-up and a thorough cool down and stretch.

Day 14/15: Ovulation day

How you might be feeling: Full of energy! Progesterone levels are low meaning that the pain threshold is higher.

Which workouts to try:Your ovulation day is a great day to push yourself to achieve more perhaps with a tougher HIIT or weights session than you’d usually do, or by increasing the distance of your regular run.

Days 15 - 28

How you might be feeling: The luteal, or pre-menstrual phase often sees us feeling bloated, tired and more emotional. It’s also the time when the stress hormone cortisol spikes, meaning we’re more prone to pesky cravings…usually for high sugar treats.

Which workouts to try: While many women will manage to maintain their usual fitness regime up until around day 24, now is a good time to schedule some rest days in order to prepare your body for menstruation. Lower impact workouts such as barre and Pilates are great in this phase, and trying out a fun dance class might be a quick way to lift your mood if you feel it’s dropping.


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