Cycled Training Working With Your Cycle
Nowicki, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS
Some days you feel like Supergirl. You are crushing your workout and having a great time. Then today your workout just wish it would end, dragging along feeling discouraged. You wonder why the guy who trains the same way you do on the next squat rack never has these ups and downs as frequent as you. Every avid gym goer has bad days, but you just seem to have more. As much as girls want to be treated the same as guys, when it comes down to it, girls need to be treated different for workouts. It’s not because girls can’t take it. It’s because hormonally, they are different. It rarely gets talked about in the gym, but girls have a period…period. We can’t always explain how we feel or even notice we feel different than the week before, but it’s there.
Fitness normally follows two main guidelines: either a structured peaking and maintenance program or the less structured general physical preparedness model. Depending on the goal, they both have great potential… on paper. But life happens, especially with us ladies. Thanks to mother nature’s monthly gifts, we have a constant fluctuation of hunger, mood, pain tolerance and body weight remained unchanged, or even linear. If you are within childbearing years, you may want to consider menstrual cycle timing into your training cycles.
The Hormones That Make You Hormonal
There are 4 major and a couple minor hormones to know about in your body when it comes to your period. The major four are Follicle Stimulating Hormone, Luteinizing Hormone, Estrogen, and Progesterone.
· Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) helps that month’s egg mature move into an active state, most ready to be fertilized by incoming sperm.
· Luteinizing Hormone (LH) helps increase Estrogen and helps the release of the egg at the right time.
· Estrogen (E) is the primary female sex hormone. It initiates the creation of female sex characteristics. During the female menstrual cycle it thickens the vaginal wall. It also has great protective effects for bone density.
· Progesterone (P) helps lead sperm to the egg and plant a fertilized egg to the uterine wall
The Follicular Phase
Every month, the female body goes through a cyclic pattern in which Estrogen, Luteinizing Hormone and Follicle Stimulating Hormone all spike right before day 14 of the female cycle. The first days of your cycle, days 1 through 14 are called the follicular phase. This phase’s purpose is to set up the body to have that month’s egg fertilized. This cycle comes to an end when a female “ovulates” and is ready to be fertilized. When you put the spikes of LH, E, and FSH together, it sets the stage for the upcoming optimal time for a woman to become pregnant or ovulation.
The Luteal Phase
Right after ovulation, the luteal phase takes its course from days 14-28. Progesterone follows with a spike a little late to the party. It’s spike helps to make a hospitable environment for the possible fertilized egg to plant into the uterine wall around day 21- 28 while the other three dip low during the middle of the luteal phase. Some research has found many females that have severe PMS also suffer a drop-in serotonin levels around day 21 into day 28 (1). This drop in serotonin levels could be part why women have depressive tendencies, food cravings, trouble sleeping and irritability on these days (2). That’s a lot going on in a short period of time.
Fit The Program To You, Not You To The Program
The first two weeks of your cycle, or the follicular phase, are the best weeks for strength training (3). For starters, You are just plain stronger at this time. You will be able to lift a little heavier than before. To make these training weeks even better, pain tolerance is significantly higher in the late follicular phase when the major three all spike when compared to the luteal phase (4). This is the time to dig deep and crush those Supergirl workouts. No one really likes to workout when it hurts. Having a decrease in pain tolerance could make that extra push not so bad. I utilize this to my fullest potential in my own training. When I listen to my body and know I am in my follicular phase, that is the time I try for new PRs, push heavier weights and drive a little deeper in my conditioning.
Knowing your body and cycle is key in knowing how hard and when to push. There are a lot of training benefits that could happen just by knowing more about yourself. Consider starting a training journal to record this information. Even state which dates you don’t train and why. For heavy PMS ladies, the late luteal phase, days 21-28, may be a great time for a deload week. This is that part again when you crave foods, feel crampy, and tired. When you don’t feel confident or are thinking clearly about your outcomes, without a doubt training will suffer, and a possible injury may occur. Again, the last week of your cycle is where you might not have the same emotional pep in your step and not getting enough sleep. A distracted, discouraged athlete is a dangerous athlete. For my heavy PMS athletes, communication and motivation is key. I keep them going to the gym, decreasing the weights and volume to manageable point. This sets them up to be resting when they should be and ready to get after their workouts again when they are strong in the next follicular phase. When they need longer cycles to accommodate for a competition date, using percentage or rep ranges can be an effective way to easily alter based on the time of the month.
The figure above shows a graphic representation of when to train hard, when to deload, and what your hormones are doing during the two phases. You can see that right after your period is over, it is time to start training hard. Right before your period is when you should consider a deload week. When your progesterone spikes, it is where you start to become irritable, cramping, tired and food craving.
Recover The Right Way
Sleep and recovery is one of the largest trends currently to benefit your workouts. Why? Because it works. It is no secret that lack of sleep can make you feel fatigued, lead to poor decision-making skills, and hinder your workout performance (5). In general, females have more midnight wake ups and sleep disturbances in the Luteal phase than the follicular Phase (6). Even if you get the same number of sleep hours, you might need more in the Luteal phase to get enough quality hours. A deload week in the late luteal phase right before your period means you could utilize the decrease in training time for a couple extra hours of lights out to accommodate for the loss of sleep quality. Additionally, you will be putting less stress on your body at a time where it is already stressed out enough.
Weigh to track, not to obsess
Ladies, you can’t fight the scale. It’s going to change as your cycle goes through the phases. From personal experience with some of my clients, their cycle can alter their weight up to 3 kg monthly! For those of you watching the scale every day, don’t sweat the little changes. Proper weight changes take time. Weight loss will not be linear; focus on the TREND, not the day to day. Consider putting your weigh-ins into a tracking app. It will help you see the bigger picture. A female will usually be at her heaviest weight the couple days leading up to her period, and start dropping off immediately after to the lowest weight during the first week of the follicular phase.
Weight gain during your cycle doesn’t mean you are getting fatter. Females that are not on a diet and listen to hunger cues take in about 500 calories a day more post ovulation in compared to pre-ovulation (7). Now you might not need ALL of those extra calories, but some might be helpful. The week before ovulation, your body heats up and increased its caloric needs about 1kcal/kg of body weight a day (8). You might be getting hungry since your body is trying to catch up to what it was losing.
Working with weight class sport athletes, these weight and appetite changes become critical to keep in check. Especially with individuals with PMS, food cravings can play a huge role with stabilizing a training weight. When ladies with PMS enter into the follicular phase, they crave higher carbohydrate items. One way I have counter-acted this is by adding an extra 20g of protein for the seven days leading up to their period, and two days through it. Protein has this highest satiety out of any nutrient and current research is showing that even if an individual is reaching their protein needs, a small increase in protein intake has little to no effect on body weight or composition9. This means that the client can have more calories, less hunger, and less weight fluctuations. I have found this has a huge beneficial effect for food cravings for multiple individuals and had large decreases in food cravings and weight gain.
Take Home Points
Overall, as a fit female with goals it is important to consider your menstrual cycle as you train. Your hunger, caloric needs, and training potential change constantly. Change your exercise routine to accommodate for these changes. Put it these changes into practice by starting the following:
· Use a deload week during Late follicular phase, especially if you tend to get moody
· Use a daily training journal to get a deeper understanding and REALLY get to know how your cycle affects you. Put in cycle day, weight, mode, training performance, and sleep. It’s amazing what you might find.
· Use training ranges of weight or reps to easily accommodate for what phase of your cycle you are in
· Add a protein shake and get some more rest the week during the late luteal phase (days 21-28).
1. Dye L, Blundell JE. Menstrual cycle and appetite control: implications for weight regulation. Human Reproduction. 1997;12(6):1142-1151.
2. Wurtman RJ, Wurtman JJ. Brain Serotonin, Carbohydrate-Craving, Obesity and Depression. Obesity Research. 1995;3(S4).
3. Reis E, Frick U, Schmidtbleicher D. Frequency Variations of Strength Training Sessions Triggered by the Phases of the Menstrual Cycle. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 1995;16(08):545-550.
4. Stening K, Eriksson O, Wahren L, Berg G, Hammar M, Blomqvist A. Pain sensations to the cold pressor test in normally menstruating women: comparison with men and relation to menstrual phase and serum sex steroid levels. AJP: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 2007;293(4).
5. Harrison Y, Horne JA. The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: A review. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 2000;6(3):236-249.
6. Zambotti, Massimiliano De, et al. “Menstrual Cycle-Related Variation in Physiological Sleep in Women in the Early Menopausal Transition.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, vol. 100, no. 8, 2015, pp. 2918–2926.
7. Solomon s J, Kurzer MS, Calloway DH. Menstrual cycle and basal metabolic rate in women. Am J Clin Nutr. 1982;36(4):611-616.
8. Dalvit SP. The effect of the menstrual cycle on patterns of food intake. Am J Clin Nutr. 1981;34(9):1811-1815.
9. Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ, Wildman R, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2017;14(1).