The Scientific Bit
In the first part of the menstrual cycle, the follicular stage, training should be focused on high intensity and heavy lifting. In this phase oestrogen is the dominant hormone meaning a higher pain threshold and increased insulin sensitivity leading to better muscle building capacity and reduced fat storage ability (2).
In the second phase, the luteal stage, progesterone takes over the role of dominant hormone, thereby reversing everything mentioned above. Strength training is still beneficial but you may find that you aren’t able to perform or lift what you usually do or can during the follicular stage. Focus on relaxing and restorative exercises including foam rolling and stretching during this part of the menstrual cycle. Also shift the focus from short intense sessions to longer, endurance based, fat burning sessions (2).
If you are using a form of hormone contraceptive, your cycle will look different to this and therefore you might not experience the same effects on your training and body as mentioned above (1).
The Reality Bit
Basically every woman is different and you are all training for different reasons, at different intensity levels, all while dealing with varying levels of stress. Plus every one of you will experience your own personal menstrual cycle and individual symptoms, as Heather Watson knows all too well, putting her poor performance on the tennis court down to “girl problems”(3).
It’s important to know your own body. Use the above section as a guideline but listen to your body and trust your instincts. If you feel like lifting some heavy weights, brilliant, but if you feel more like a chilled out yoga-based stretching session at home in your comfy pants, do it! Don’t get too bogged down with what part of your cycle you are in and don’t beat yourself up.
I use a really good period tracking app called Clue. It lets me add in additional information so I can keep a log of what my body is doing, how I feel and what training I’ve done. Start using it and see if you can see a pattern developing.
This also seems like an appropriate place to mention reusable sanitary protection products. They are great so I’m on a mission to make sure everyone knows about them! There are loads to pick from, from cloth pads and liners to menstrual cups. I use a Mooncup but there are lots of different versions available now. Not only are they a healthier option for you and your body, you also save money and the planet – boom! I have exercised and ran with my Mooncup in and never had any bad experiences. It can take a bit of getting used to at first so I would recommend using a pad as well the first few times you try it.
The Take Home Bit
Keep moving and exercising whatever stage or time of the month you are in. Find something that you enjoy doing and just keep doing it. Don’t beat yourself up if you have a bad day. Listen to your body, love it lots and go with the flow!