Working out and your Menstrual Cycle – Increasing Performance

Working out and your Menstrual Cycle – Increasing Performance

You know that progress is not linear. And you know that you don’t perform the same in every workout.

Some weeks you’ll feel stronger and on others you’ll struggle. Everything from your weight on the scales to your motivation to train can change on an almost daily basis.

Taking into account how your body adapts and changes over the course of your menstrual cycle allows you to plan workouts more appropriately, avoiding common pitfalls in training and allowing you to optimize progress.

In this article I take a look at how your body changes over the course of your period and how you can adapt your training to take advantage of it.

Here’s how you can use your menstrual cycle to improve the way you train…

The Menstrual Cycle and Exercise Performance

If you’re not too familiar with the terminology or physiology behind your period, I’d suggest you take a look at my article on The Menstrual Cycle and Fat Loss first, which will give you an insight into the basics.

It covers the three phases of your cycle as well as a breakdown of the main hormone fluctuations.

For the purpose of this article though, I’ll be talking about a cycle lasting an average of 28 days.

  • The follicular phase occurs day 1-14
  • Ovulation occurs at 13-15
  • The luteal phase comes in around days 14-28

Some days you feel great, and other you don’t

You might have noticed that on certain days and weeks of the month you feel stronger than others. You can regularly hit decent weights and your interval sessions feel much lighter and productive than normal.

You feel confident and know that your program is definitely working.

For a split second you’ve started to think that you are indeed Wonder Woman.

If that’s the case then you’ve probably also experienced the opposite too – sluggish, unmotivated gym sessions where you have to strip the bar down to your warm up weight to complete the reps.

Everything feels tough, no matter how you try.

It can be demoralizing and makes you ask yourself whether you should drop the intensity of your workout or call it a day.

Wonder Women has become Wander Women as you think about packing up your gym bag, calling it a day and wandering right out of the gym’s front doors.

Your hormones effect the way you perform in the gym

Here’s a quote from a great study on the effects of the menstrual cycle on weight loss…

Women’s weight and body composition is significantly influenced by the female sex-steroid hormones. Levels of these hormones fluctuate in a defined manner throughout the menstrual cycle and interact to modulate energy homeostasis” 

The way in which hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone fluctuate over the duration of your period can have a huge effect on everything from your strength and power, to your endurance and cognitive skills. It affects your energy expenditure, your cravings for different foods, and even your body mass.

And it’s these changes that can affect how well you perform in the gym.

A chart showing what happens across the menstrual cycle

Changes in Body Temperature Can Cause Fatigue 

One factor that can affect exercise performance across your period is body temperature.

Your monthly cycle isn’t just associated with changes in hormone levels; it is also accompanied by changes in autonomic thermoregulation – variations in core body temperature too.

The biggest fluctuation seems to occur post-ovulation as your temperature increases around the time that you enter your luteal phase.

Why does this have an effect on your exercse performance?

It’s all down to a knock on effect that results in fatigue and reduced time to exhaustion.

Your basal body temperature (BBT) is the temperature that your body runs at while at rest. It is your most comfortable temperature too where you are neither too hot nor cold – for most people around 36-37 degrees Celsius. 

Your body likes this temperature.

There doesn’t appear to be any change in body temperature during the early or late follicular phase. You don’t feel over-warm and your body’s ability to cool itself is both efficient and effective.

Couple this with an increase in estrogen and chances are you’ll feel full of energy and your mood will be positive too.

Shortly after ovulation though (usually a day or so) there is a gradual elevation in basal body temperature. This is likely to last throughout the luteal phase and can lead to poor thermoregulation and a warmer running temperature.

It is caused by fluctuations in progesterone and can lead to an increase in temperature of around 2 degrees Celsius. It might not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to effect how your body reacts to exercise.

What’s the consequence of poor thermoregulation?

Feelings of excessive heat, particularly when exercising, can cause discomfort. They can also make you might feel more fatigued than normal too.

And because you feel warmer during your workouts, you can be at an increased risk of acute dehydration too.

The chances are that if you try and perform your normal workouts you’ll tire much quicker than you would during the follicular phase. This is probably due to an increase in general cardiac strain among other physiological changes. 

You’ll find that there is a general decrease in your time to exhaustion meaning you can’t exercise at the same intensity for as long, before you begin to fatigue.

Strong, athletic woman getting ready to do a barbell squat

Pain tolerance Can Change Across Your Cycle

Women are built with stamina in mind.

You have a higher proportion of muscle fibers suited to endurance and a physiology that lets you recover quickly. You can also deal with higher volumes of training too which make you machine-like in your persistence and tolerance.

At submaxmimal volumes you are much more efficient than your male counterparts.

During the follicular phase especially, your pain tolerance is through the roof. And when you grit your teeth and push for tough workouts you’ll be rewarded with increases in lean mass, strength, conditioning and other training adaptations.

This is where you want to be really focusing on upping your total session volume and decreasing rest periods.

During the luteal phase though, you’ll notice that you can’t cope with the same kind of intensities or loads that you did the previous week. Your sessions are beginning to feel heavier than normal and even your co-ordination can feel off.

You’re just not as strong.

How Do You Optimize Performance for Fat Loss, Muscle Build and Strength?

Increase intensity and frequency during the follicular phase

Remember, during the follicular phase you’ll experience an increase in pain tolerance, the ability to thermoregulate efficiently and a much lower potential for fatigue.

Your ability to lift heavy, develop force and recover are all at their highest.

In a way you kind of have to work harder anyway as the follicular phase is where your metabolic rate and resting energy expenditure are at their lowest – but you want to train harder here so all is good.

Some studies have shown that you should consider increasing training frequency during the follicular phase too.

For example, this study found that when a group of women trained more frequently (5 times per week) during days 1-14 of their period and then only once per week during days 14-28, their force development and lean body mass improved significantly, when compared to that of a control group that trained consistently 3 times per week.

Why?

During the late follicular phase, both testosterone and estrogen are elevated. Progesterone though is still quite low.

Testosterone and estrogen are both steroid hormones. T is a natural anabolic hormone that promotes strength, lean mass and androgenic. E compliments this because it is an anti-catabolic that reduce muscle damage and promote recovery.

All in all, your internal environment is geared up to hitting it hard in the gym in the two weeks prior to ovulation.

  • You can lift more weight
  • You can recover better
  • You adapt more efficiently

To summarize then, during the follicular phase just go out there and absolutely nail your workouts. Work hard, work tough and make some real progress.

Focus on Endurance and Low-Intensity Work During the Luteal Phase

You’ve worked hard right up to ovulation and now that you’ve progressed into your luteal phase you begin to notice some differences to your body.

Granted, your resting energy expenditure is higher (you’ll know this because you probably start craving sweet and calorific foods)… but your force capacity and strength have likely started to taper off.

Progesterone has peaked at this point.

The result is that your response to strength training won’t be as high and your ability to lift what you were throwing around the gym last week is much lower too.

Unfortunately, your basal body temperature begins to increase and pain tolerance isn’t as high so don’t expect to be setting any PRs on the big lifts either.

Should you stop lifting weights here?

Not at all.

You don’t have to stop strength training at this stage, even though you might not feel like you’re progressing.

A good plan here would be to take the foot off the gas a little and introduce less intense weight training coupled with moderate-intensity cardio or circuit sessions.

In other words, reduce the weight you lift and throw in an additional set or two.

Remember, you can even reduce the training frequency if you feel like it.

Go for a walk, do a low impact fitness class.

And if you still feel like this is a challenge then take a deload.

Remember, even those that undertake just one session per week during the luteal phase can significantly increase lean mass and strength if their training in the follicular phase is productive.