Updated: Feb 5, 2020
A few years ago I took a Female Athlete Wellness class (through the Integrative Women’s Health Institute) and I became fascinated by how much I didn’t know about the nuances of my own menstrual cycle - which I have had for over half my life and never really paid attention to! How if you understand it and listen to your body, you can actually improve your health, change your hormone balance, and tap into your cycle for more power in activity. That's right, I said “power”! And ever since the World Cup finals, there has been an article circulating about the US Women's National Team and how they were trained to pay attention to the details of their menstrual cycle to IMPROVE their performance. You can read it here:
Finally - something out in the open about this topic! As women, most of us are not taught much about what our menstrual cycle actually means, or what actually happens in our body. We hear "it's a burden"...."just deal with it each month".... "ignore it”….”take birth control to skip it”….”all it tells you is if you're pregnant or not”….or that symptoms (i.e. the things our body is trying to tell us!) are "just PMS”. There is SO MUCH fascinating interesting research on this topic that has more recently been applied to female athletes of all ages. Did you know that ACOG recently named a woman’s menstrual cycle as another VITAL sign for women (along with things like heart rate, blood pressure, etc)? It is a marker for overall health. And can you imagine how learning about it on a deeper level as a pre-teen could influence your decisions about your own body throughout the rest of your life? With my daughter about to be 10 this has been on my mind a lot lately and I want to make sure I am educating her and giving her the tools to put her in control.
Athlete or not, this applies to all women and can be so useful to understand when you are trying to improve your overall health. Of course, we are all different, and some women notice no changes in themselves throughout the month, period or not....and others ride a wave of mood changes, discomfort, and cravings. It all starts with awareness and attention to self. Two easy questions are: Are you regular? Do you have any pain or discomfort during your cycle? The answers can help figure out where you may need to start thinking differently.
If you are interested in understanding your hormone cycle to enhance your exercise performance or are looking for ways just to listen to your body and honor what it needs, here are a few of the BASICS to know. Each phase lasts approximately one week in the average woman, but of course there are variations.
Day 1 of your cycle is the day you start bleeding and you enter the Menstrual Phase: During your period, it’s the best time to get extra rest and drink extra water. You may feel more fatigue. It’s also a great time for self-reflection and evaluation. Resting during this time when your body is naturally a little “low” will actually let your hormones restore to enable you to go bigger and harder during the natural “rises”. Vise versa - if you keep pushing, it’s easier to deplete yourself over time. But RESTING does not mean stopping (unless you feel like you need to!), it just means shifting to restorative, lower intensity exercise. Movement can actually be energizing in a natural way. Everyone is different so it’s important to honor what YOU need. In terms of diet, prostaglandins are higher in your body during this time so inflammation, pain, or discomfort may be increased (hello headaches and menstrual cramps). Eating an anti-inflammatory diet and increasing omega 3s and healthy fats can help. Try changing your diet before reaching for the ibuprofen! Also, foods that stabilize mood and cravings are helpful (think grounding veggies and healthy fats), and make sure you are eating iron-rich foods since you are losing blood.
The Follicular Phase comes next: Estrogen is rising so it’s the perfect time to do anything active because you will naturally have more energy. This is an advantage - go get the PRs, set goals (at life, work, or sport), work hard at boot camp or running, or just feel great taking care of your kids and having enough energy to also exercise! In terms of diet, eat to thrive! Fat is the preferred substrate now and the body will burn more of it, but that only works if you don’t eat too much sugar or too many carbs because these are always the easiest things to burn for energy.
Then we hit the Ovulation Phase: This is the top of the hormonal roller coaster (estrogen and testosterone peak) so keep enjoying that higher energy level and ability to rock more intensity in your exercise. In terms of diet, eating lots of raw fruits and veggies and thinking along the lines of clean eating and focusing on detoxing foods can help your body to break down these higher levels of estrogen, which can lead to improvement in PMS symptoms as your period approaches.
And finally we move to the Luteal Phase: It’s time to start preparing for a shift into more intuitive time, and a shift from performance gains to maintenance and recovery phase (both are equally important!). If you are paying attention, you will start to feel yourself naturally need more rest and quiet time over this week - and if you take it when you need it, your hormones will be able to better balance. Switch to more restorative exercise. As you get toward the end of this phase and closer to your period starting, it is an opportunity for intuitive awareness, connection with friends and loved ones, and lower impact activities (you can still get a great workout!) as you start to approach your period. Athletes take this time to do more mental imagery exercises and down-training. In terms of pelvic floor issues or prolapse, this is the time when your uterus is the heaviest so it is not a good time for high impact activities if you have symptoms! In terms of diet, women have normal carb cravings during this phase so you can support yourself with healthy options.
So, as women, should we change our training depending on where we are in our hormone/menstruation cycle? The answer is “it depends!” (I know, I know). Right before your period, tissues tend to be looser, diastasis more soft, pelvic floor more heavy, so don’t feel frustrated if some symptoms return. Be aware of loading the front of your body, stretching deep into your joints, and doing heavy lifting. And if you’re tired, rest to restore! If you’re not tired, then exercise, but monitor how you feel. Movement is good - but maybe you need to change it up and go at a more sub-max level. A lot of the way you feel depends on individual hormone fluctuations, stress level, and diet, so pay attention to YOU. Paying attention in this way will better balance your hormones over time, thereby shifting your symptoms and likely making you more tolerant to changes.
You can dive DEEP into this topic if interested, but these are some of the basics. Having a better understanding of natural fluctuations in your own body can be a gateway into better overall health! And it gives you an idea of how to ride the wave by doing different things at different times in the month. And it’s FUN….at least I find it that way, but then again I’m a body nerd :)