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Women's Health

Should your workout change with your cycle?

Tue 10th March, 2020

Reviewed by: Dr. Vamsee Thalluri

When it comes to scheduling a workout, the usual suspects are a busy social calendar, a tiresome workload, and that all-important hair washing schedule. But it turns out most women have been missing the most important element – your period cycle.

Throughout your personal month (aka your menstrual cycle) you go through a series of hormonal changes that impacts you both mentally and physically. So while you might only be reminded of your period with painful cramps, uncomfortable bloating, and a dose of PMS, your body has actually been riding that rollercoaster for a whole lot longer.

So if your body is constantly changing does that mean your workout should too? We spoke to Angela James, Pelvic Physiotherapist and the Principal at the Sydney Pelvic Clinic who put it simply: YES!

“There are differences in athletic performance in the beginning and the end of your cycle,” she said.

Now here’s where it gets more in-depth – it turns out that each stage of your cycle has specific triggers that could affect your workout. Angela explains below, so ladies listen up.

P.S: before we jump right in you might want a more in-depth rundown on exactly what’s happening. If that’s you, read up on the stages (and feels) of your cycle.

Day 1-14: Follicular stage

Menstruation

When you’ve got your period the last thing you feel like doing is throwing on some spandex and heading to the gym – but if you do you’ll be rewarded for your efforts.

Hormone check: Both your estrogen (the group of hormones responsible for building the lining of your uterus) for and progesterone (the hormone that prepares your uterus for a fertilized egg) levels have hit rock bottom but are slowly climbing.

Feelings check: Tired, bloated and hungry - we promise there are greener pastures ahead!

Wisdom: Angela told us that exercises actually helps mitigate period pain, “which means that part of your pain management plan for that crazy kind of premenstrual feeling should be to actually continue to move because it has a positive effect on managing pain.”

Fact check: A study published in 2016 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that exercise in the form of yoga did indeed reduce the severity of premenstrual symptoms (aka cramps.)

“Workplaces and employers can help female employees to understand the benefits of regular exercise, such as yoga, which may decrease premenstrual distress and improve the health of female employees,” says the study.

Professional runner Steph Rothstein agrees. After winning the 2019 Pittsburgh Marathon she wrote ”for me this win is important mentally because I didn’t accept my body telling me how bad it felt. I had to tell my mind to shut up in the race and just run. I believed in my fitness. I believed in the chance to find out how much I wanted it.”

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Let me share something about how you feel vs. what you can do. I firmly believe in the power of your thoughts and how your body perceives those feelings. I felt like garbage the last few days leading into Sunday’s race. I was supposed to get my period Saturday and as many women experience, pms symptoms can be dreadful. I had a poor tune up workout on Wednesday in Flagstaff and honestly worried if I was doomed for the race. All my training has been super solid and my thoughts of feeling crappy were getting to my head. Amazing how we can almost let one bad workout trump the accumulation of so many successful ones. My cycle came right on cue Saturday night. I felt bloated and my digestion was all kinds of crazy. Like I needed the bathroom about 2 mins into the race. I wore bulky underwear under my buns which looked awesome I’m sure. I did so because racing with a tampon post partum there is just no telling what’s gonna happen down there. I know a few other women have lately been sharing these real stories which is so cool. I share this with you so you can understand we don’t always feel like invincible superheros when we race. But we can still achieve things when we feel bad. For me this win is important mentally because I didn’t accept my body telling me how bad it felt. I had to tell my mind to shut up in the race and just run. I believed in my fitness. I believed in the chance to find out how much I wanted it. #timetofly #journeywithsteph #sundayswithstephbruce #pittsburghmarathon

A post shared by Stephanie Rothstein Bruce (@stephrothstein) on

Days 5-13

Your body is preppin’ itself to be ready for ovulation (or when your egg travels down your fallopian tube), so make the most of this time period (pun intended) and use it to your advantage. It’s time to use that extra va-voom and smash those goals.

Hormone check: Estrogen and progesterone is climbing, along with testosterone, meaning muscle sculpting right now is ideal.

Feelings check: You might start this phase a tired and bloated silkworm but you’ll transform into a beautiful butterfly.

Performance check: “In that stage you have better exercise capacity and you tend to be able to go for longer and you tend to be stronger,” Angela comments. Basically: it’s time to hit it.

Wisdom: Listen to your body and when you’re ready it’s time to push through those limits.

A study published in the Orthopaedic Journal Of Sports Medicine in 2017 found that women were at a higher risk of an ACL tear in the preovulatory phase of their cycle. It also found that women using contraception may have a 20% less risk of injury. While literature on this area of study has been increasing, the research is still in relative infancy. Still, that hasn’t stopped La Trobe University professor and physiotherapist Kay Crossley, who is currently looking at the relationship between AFLW players and knee injuries in Australia.

Day 15-28: Luteal Phase

If your egg hasn’t been fertilised your body begins it’s icky, uncomfortable, oh so tedious PMS stage. Your boobs start to swell, moods come swinging, and the bloating starts to kick in.

Hormone check: Your estrogen levels tank and your progesterone levels rise post ovulation.

Feelings check: As your cycle continues you can often feel lethargic, emotional (potentially a little PMS-y), and like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.

Performance check: “You actually have a reduction in aerobic capacity and overall strength so it does change your capacity to perform” says Angela. Translation: you aren’t going insane! Give yourself permission to take your foot off the accelerator and focus on how exercise makes you feel.

Fact check: The stats have your back, a study in the International Journal of Women’s Health linked PMS to lower levels of concentration and motivation in a group of female high school students.

Wisdom: Angela explains that the best thing to do is have “less expectations, less intense sessions, [which] is an easy way of training in the second half of your cycle.”

The end game

Angela, who has over 18 years as a physiotherapist under her belt, explains that “it's more about changing your expectation on your performance in those two different phases” than splitting your gym routine in two.

“You will tend to have better performance and recovery and ability to build muscle in the first half versus the second half of your cycle.”

So how do we put this into play?

There’s no need to do only yoga in your luteal stage and HIIT in your follicular phase. The everyday gym-hero should continue doing just that, but with measured expectations. Listen to your body and your mind.


Resources (in order of appearance)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5560417/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5524267/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4962262/