Exercise and the Menstrual Cycle

Were you aware that your menstrual cycle may affect how you perform during exercise?

It might explain why you can run like a gisele one day - smashing your fastest 5k and then struggle to put one foot in front of the other the next. 

 It amazes me that only now changes in the menstrual cycle are receiving attention from both the scientific and sporting communities. But hey, better late than never I guess.

 The Great British Hockey Team now inform their coach the dates of their menstrual cycle so their training plans can be tailored accordingly.

 And it has been documented that English middle-distance runner Jessica Judd failed to make it to the 800m semi-finals in the 2013 Moscow World Championships after being prescribed a drug to delay the start of her period. 

However on the other side of the debate, Paula Radcliffe talks about how her period started on the day she broke the world record in the 2002 Chicago marathon. She believes we shouldn’t let our cycles stop us. Good advice, but could it be that she really is superhuman?

So what happens during our cycle to perhaps influence our performance in exercise?

Our menstrual cycles run from the first day of our period to the first day of our next. An entire menstrual cycle usually lasts between 24 and 38 days, but the length may vary from cycle to cycle. 

 There are three phases:

  1. Menstrual phase. This starts on day one of the cycle and usually lasts 4-6 days. It is when menstrual bleeding, cramping, headaches etc are experienced. During menstruation, we are most likely to experience the lowest motivation for exercise. While menstruation should not stop us exercising, as it can help relieve period pain due to the internal endorphins released (which act as as a natural opioid), we should understand that it’s perfectly normal to feel demotivated during our period. 💪 Exercise choice should be light cardio, shorter stints of aerobic exercise, swimming or yoga.                                         We have to be mindful that the risk of injury can rise during our period. One possible explanation for this may be related to the higher levels of the hormone ‘relaxin’ that are secreted during menstrual bleeding. This can make our joints, ligaments and muscles more lax and can increase the risk of pulls, tears etc.
  2. Follicular phase. This is from the start of our period until ovulation - when the egg follicle on an ovary prepares to release an egg. During this phase, our oestrogen levels peak and it is thought our pain tolerance increases as a result. Also our muscles may be given a small degree of protection against trauma and damage. 💪 If this is the case, the follicular phase is when we may perform best at high intensity and high impact forms of exercise, like running, hiit and intense weight training. This phase is usually when we are most energised, open to trying new things and generally feel at our best.
  3. Luteal (premenstrual) phase. This starts on ovulation day when the egg is released from the ovary. It can start between day seven and day 22 of a normal cycle. During the luteal phase, our body temperature rises and that can make intense exercise uncomfortable. Good news though, is that we are likely to expend more energy and lose more weight in the later part of this phase as we head towards menstryation - assuming of course our diet is consistent. However, we can also experience food cravings and an increased appetite, so we may need to exert discipline to avoid weight gain. 💪 Exercise choice in this phase should be decided on how you are feeling. Usually in the early stages of the luteal phase energy levels are still fairly high as oestrogen levels are still up. So higher intensity workouts may still be on the cards if you’re feeling energised. In the latter stages of the phase and as we head towards menstruation, we may want to adopt lower intensity exercise; Yoga, Pilates, Sculpt, a light weights workout etc.

Hopefully this has been helpful in highlighting why we should take into account our body’s natural rhythms and why we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if our performance on the Spin bike was terrible compared to last week’s. 

We have to realise that, unlike our male counterparts, we really do have an excuse! (sorry, guys, unnecessary I know 😜)


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