Ladies, let’s talk periods.
Women have very unique hormonal patterns month to month, and many of us feel the effects that often go with it, like fluctuations in hunger, energy and emotions.
However, many people tend to focus on the hormonal changes that occur during our period week only, rather than understanding the cycle as a whole.
Understanding these shifts can help us make changes in our diet and activity to better meet our body's needs, relieve our symptoms and feel empowered in making these decisions.
We take a deep dive into what's actually occurring during the menstrual cycle, and discuss how you can adjust your training and nutrition to best work with your body and your cycle throughout the month.
The menstrual cycle
First, let’s breakdown the phases of the menstrual cycle.
The average cycle lasts about 28 days, but every person's body is unique so it can range from 23 to 35 days.
Each month your body goes through 2 distinct phases controlled by hormonal changes. The first half of the cycle is the follicular phase, and the second half is the called the luteal phase.
The follicular phase starts with your period on day 1, which can last for two to seven days, before moving through ovulation and into the luteal phase.
The main sex hormones governing when these changes occur are Estrogen, Progesterone, Lutenising Hormone (LH) and Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH), and the concentrations of these hormones tells your body when to move throughout each phase.
There is big a spike in Estrogen and LH right before ovulation, which usually happens around day 14 of your cycle.
Then the luteal phase occurs where Progesterone levels rise, which usually lasts around 14 days. If no fertilisation of the egg occurs, then both Estrogen and Progesterone levels drop abruptly.
The luteal phase ends with the start of menstruation, and your cycle begins again.
The most commonly reported menstrual symptoms relating to training and nutrition include an increase in appetite and food cravings, as well as a reduction in energy levels and strength at different stages of the cycle.
In addition to this, many women also experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS) about a week or two before their period begins, which includes a combination of symptoms such as bloating, pain, increased appetite, headaches and moodiness.
While these symptoms will vary in type and severity person to person, they can definitely impact our performance in the gym and our food choices - so it’s certainly worth learning how these symptoms may affect your own body.
You can download a period tracking app, such as Flo, to track your periods, log your symptoms, and learn about when your body is going through each stage of your cycle.
How to maximise training during your cycle
Gynecologist Dr. Prudence Hall says that mid-cycle, around ovulation time, is when you will feel the most energetic and strongest in your workouts.
She explains, "Around ovulation, we have very high Estrogen levels, which can promote muscle-building. Also, Progesterone can increase flexibility of the muscles". This is a great time to prioritise your strength and endurance training.
However, during the last phase of your cycle leading up to your period, you may feel more tired and have less energy for your workouts, due to the drop in progesterone.
This time when we have a drastic drop in hormones is the lowest point in our energy levels and often in motivation too.
Some people may experience PMS symptoms at this time, and some may not, so it's important to get in touch with your body and let your awareness guide what type of exercise feels right for you.
Research suggests that doing light aerobic exercise can actually help improve PMS symptoms and reduce pain, by releasing endorphins that boost your mood and act as a natural painkiller.
If you've got the energy for a high impact session, go for it! But if you feel the need to take it easy or just rest, that's perfectly fine too.
When it comes to exercising on your period, Dr. Hall said, “Exercise is extremely beneficial to decrease menstrual cramps because it increases blood flow,” by moving the blood circulation from where you’re feeling pain, and also helps minimise bloating, abdominal swelling, and headaches.
You don't have to put a pause on your regular training routine during your period,
doing any type of exercise is fine.
During this time it'll be easier to find motivation to do exercise that you actually enjoy, so choose whatever movement feels good for you, whether that's a weighted session, light yoga, or getting your heart rate going with some cardio such as walking, running or cycling.
Always remember to properly warm up prior to exercising, stay hydrated throughout, and stretch after activity to cool down and reduce soreness.
If you're feeling a bit of fatigue or nauseous, listen to your body and take it easy. You may want to opt for lower training loads or more rest and recovery time during your period week, and that's completely fine too.
Eating throughout your cycle
Unfortunately, the quality of research and evidence available related to nutrition and the menstrual cycle is a little limited.
However, if you often feel more hungry in the days leading up to your period and have your eyes set on something sweeter you are not alone!
Some evidence suggests that high calorie foods are more appealing during your luteal phase, and additional studies have shown a slight increase in Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) during this time.
This combination may result in increased feelings of hunger and food cravings, leading to an increase in your overall energy consumption leading up to your period.
So, how can you manage this?
If you find yourself feeling ravenous right before your period, it’s absolutely fine to add an additional snack (think roughly 100-150 calories) to your day to satisfy your hunger.
This approach is going to have a much better outcome for you physically and mentally than ignoring these feelings and restricting your intake, which typically leads to over consuming later on.
Plus, having a little treat is a positive way to increase our feelings of happiness and comfort during this tough time of the month.
If you don’t tend to experience any food-related symptoms in the lead up to your period (lucky you!), there is no need to make any changes at all - simply stick to your current nutritional goals.
Remember, the key here is to be mindful that any increase in RMR (the energy your body is using day to day) is often quite small, so it’s important to balance your increased intake with this to prevent overshooting the mark.
It's also important to note that women have an elevated iron requirement as a result of menstruation (more than 2x that of men!), so it’s particularly beneficial to prioritise eating foods that are high in iron, such as red meat, poultry, fish, dark leafy greens, fortified cereals and legumes within a healthy diet.
Knowing how our bodies change throughout our cycle and having an awareness of the symptoms you experience is a helpful tool to inform decisions when it comes to your training and nutrition plans.
Having this understanding will help set yourself up for success when it comes to reaching your health and fitness goals, so we encourage you to always listen to your body and do what feels best for you.
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