Menstrual cycle. What to know and how it can benefit your fitness
There are nearly four billion women in the world. Many are female coaches or train female clients. Why do we have such a tough time talking about menstrual cycles? Why is the topic of menses so taboo? Menstrual cycles can provide us with invaluable information about our health as well as impact our day-to-day activities, including exercise. As coaches and trainers, we need to be cycle savvy. We must be confident and comfortable asking the right questions and guiding our female clients appropriately.
Missing cycles can often be an indication of overtraining, high stress levels, low body fat percentage, illness, under eating or not receiving/absorbing the correct nutrients. Missed cycles should not be brushed off and we should encourage our clients to connect with their health care provider(s) to determine potential cause of underlying symptoms.
There are times in our cycle when we have higher levels of energy and hormonal levels may provide optimal settings for more intense workouts. On other days, it may be warranted to guide our female clients to reduce exercise intensity for a day or two. This day or two of easier exercise will not affect training levels overall and may benefit overall fitness levels by providing extra recuperation time, a key aspect of getting stronger. Many of us struggle with taking days off or reducing intensity, but studies show that rest is a key element of seeing progress.
Most women can work at the same intensity all month and do not notice variations in energy levels. On the other hand, many women experience extremely painful cycles and may find intense exercise difficult during certain days. Let us take our client’s pain seriously and avoid brushing it off.
Before starting, I encourage you to track your cycles and get an understanding of patterns, symptoms, mood, nutrition, energy levels, etc. There are several apps available. With this information, we can note patterns that can guide us. Once patterns are established, we can start to work with our cycles to get the most out of our workouts.
Here are four phases of the menstrual cycle, and each phase comes with unique physiological responses while giving insight to how to prevent and cure bad menstrual cramps.
The Follicular Phase
It runs from the first day of a cycle until ovulation. Follicle Stimulation Hormone (FST) is released, and estrogen levels begin to rise. This rise in estrogen typically causes a rise in energy levels.
Many experts suggest capitalizing on higher energy levels and pushing workouts in this phase. Some women may find they are more comfortable performing higher loads and intensities during this phase.
The Ovulatory Phase
This phase begins after the Follicular phase and lasts three to five days. Estrogen levels are still high and FST and Luteinizing hormone (LH) are increasing. LH triggers the body to begin ovulation.
Many women feel they can continue pushing workouts and work at higher intensities during this phase.
Of note, a 2013 study found that female skiers are at a higher risk of tearing ACLs during the pre-ovulatory phase than the post-ovulatory phase. A four-year study of 113 female footballers also found a clear correlation, possibly due to the higher estrogen levels causing ligament laxity. A 2005 study found that knee laxity increased in direct relation to elevations in plasma estradiol levels.
The Luteal phase
It typically lasts 14 days (about 2 weeks) and is characterized by increased progesterone levels. Energy levels may still be high in the first week of the luteal phase but may drop in the second week as progesterone climbs. Elevated progesterone levels cause drowsiness and fatigue (remember that first trimester?) in addition to increases in core body temperature.
Some studies have shown that women may fatigue quicker when performing endurance exercise in hot, humid conditions. Rate of perceived exertion (RPE) may also be high in the latter stages of the luteal phase. Some women may find working at more moderate loads during this phase may be beneficial.
The Menstrual Phase
It lasts three to seven days but varies from woman to woman. The uterus sheds its lining that it has built up during the month. At the beginning of this phase, estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest levels. They gradually increase in the latter stage of the menstrual phase, but some women may experience low energy at the beginning of their cycle.
Exercising during menstruation can be very beneficial and is often encouraged. Studies have shown that moderate intensity exercise is effective at reducing pre-menstrual symptoms. Some may find it difficult to exercise intensely during this phase. Here is where we can step in to encourage our clients to reduce exercise intensity if needed. It can be an opportunity to work on mobility, stability, or other areas of fitness. Giving our clients permission and options may be of value during this time.
Working with our cycles, pushing when feeling energized, and reducing intensity when our bodies are depleted can be an effective way to train. While many women can train with the exact same intensity all month long, some may find consistent fluctuating patterns during their cycles. Some studies have shown greater fatigability in both the luteal and follicular phases. This disagreement may be due to variations in specific study measures including limb (upper vs. lower) or task differences (dynamic vs. isometric). Either way, communicating with our clients is key. Finding out when their energy is at its peak, asking about comfort levels, strength, power, RPE, and motivation can be helpful in determining patterns.
How to alleviate bad menstrual symptoms
Like mentioned previously, exercise can alleviate and lessen the pain of menstrual symptoms. Even when pains occur, you should remain active by training a minimum of three times a week.
(B) Vitamins and minerals
Research shows that certain vitamins and minerals such as: Essential Omega 3 fatty acids, zinc, magnesium, b-vitamins and vitamin E can reduce the pains of menstrual cramps by helping with inflammation.
(C) Lowering stress
Stress is the number one contributor to the intensity of menstrual cramps. Lowering stress by practicing breathing techniques, meditation, yoga or mindfulness can help in lessening the symptoms.
Understanding one's menstrual cycle can benefit most female athletes, coaches and fitness enthusiast alike. It can teach you how and when to push and how to take the foot of the gas when it's also needed. Hormones are a part of what makes us humans, to neglect it or not choose to talk about can be detrimental to our growth and progress.