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Can my menstrual cycle benefit my performance?

 Get to know your own body so you can use your hormonal changes in your favour.

‘Periods’ and ‘exercise’ are two words that do not often appear together in the same sentence. In fact, many women see their periods as a barrier to exercise: shockingly, the menstrual cycle stops 73% of 16 to 24-year-old women from exercising altogether [1].

With the enormous benefits of exercise to physical and mental health, does it really need to be this way? Perhaps not. Growing amounts of evidence show that regular exercise throughout your cycle (even at low intensity such as stretching) can help manage symptoms during your period [2].

What’s more, getting to know your own body and the hormonal changes you experience can help you work out at your best ever, but how?

This week’s blog unravels the mystery surrounding our menstrual cycle, hormones, and exercise performance.

What is the menstrual cycle?

The menstrual cycle means your body’s natural reproductive changes that occur over one month. Hormones control these changes. On average, a menstrual cycle will last for 28 days, but cycles can last for anywhere from 21 days up to 40 days [3].

The effect of the menstrual cycle on performance.

Every woman is unique and so are their hormones and exercise needs.

Understanding your body is crucial to know how to best move your body.

Here is a basic guide to exercise and hormones to get you started:

The early follicular phase (Day 1-5)

Day one refers to the day which your period starts. This is known as the early follicular phase. In this phase, your body sheds its lining (your period) [1].

At this time both of your hormones oestrogen and progesterone are low. It is not uncommon that women can experience symptoms such as painful cramping and tiredness during this phase. Regular physical activity (such as stretching) can be beneficial for menstrual symptoms [2], so you don’t need to stop your routine.

You could try doing more yoga or pilates during this phase. These exercises are lower in intensity but still offer considerable benefits to your health.

Late follicular phase (Day 6-14)

Your body will then begin to have a slow rise in oestrogen, which is released froma new developing egg in a follicle within your ovaries. Oestrogen also helps your body to build a new lining in your womb.

Your symptoms can start to reduce, which can make you have more energy and feel more motivated, so you may feel like picking up your exercise pace or intensity, and you may start to think about taking yourself on a jog.

The day before ovulation (day 13), oestrogen is at its highest. Oestrogen is known to help with strength and building muscle mass (it is anabolic) [4,5], meaning it is the ideal time for more strength and resistance exercises (such as lifting weights). You may gain the most benefits from your strength training at this time [12].

Make sure you warm-up and warm-down, though (as always). Some research has found that high oestrogen levels are associated with increased injury risk [4], such as ligament injury.

Ovulation (Around day 14)

Around 14 of your cycle, you will get a surge in hormones called luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). The release of these hormones’ triggers ovulation – this is when your ovaries release your developing egg from your follicle, which then travels from your ovary into your womb (uterus).

Luteal phase (Day 14- 28)

The second stage of the menstrual cycle is called the luteal phase. The empty egg follicle in your ovary turns into a structure called a corpus luteum. This corpus luteum produces more hormones, including high amounts of progesterone and small amounts of oestrogen.

Progesterone can improve sleep quality (essential for repairing your body after a bout of exercise) [6] but the late luteal phase could also lower your mood and make you feel more fatigued [7,8].

So, you could look at keeping your exercise enjoyable and straightforward at this time – in other words, choose the exercises you know well and enjoy most. This could lift your mood and increase your overall feelings of accomplishment.

Your energy needs increase by around 9% in the luteal phase, meaning you may crave more calories [8, 9, 10, 13]. Remember that it is good to give your body the fuel it needs - it is essential to ensure you fuel properly before and after exercise. A shortfall on calories, along with insufficient rest and recovery, could put you at risk of overtraining syndrome.

It has also been found that your body temperature is higher during the luteal phase, which can increase your sweat loss [12], so ensure to hydrate well!

If the egg does not get fertilised by sperm, the corpus luteum breaks down, and your hormones fall to low levels. This fall in hormones occurs at around day 28 and triggers the beginning of menstruation (a new period).

Get to know your own body.

Every woman’s body is unique, so do not use this as a strict guide. The key to success is to listen to your body and track your own personal data.

Tips and tricks to track your own data:

Track your hormones – Tracking your hormones through your monthly cycle is one way to get to know your body. Medichecks offer a simple Female Hormone Blood Test, which you can take in the comfort of your own home. You may also be interested in an Ovulation Progesterone Blood Test, which can help to identify whether you have ovulated and are in the luteal phase. The Curve – A training programme which allows you to train, eat and recover more intuitively with your female body. Fitr Women – An app which helps you to track your menstrual cycle. It provides personalised training and nutritional suggestions tailored to your cycle. Listen to your body – You don’t always need a subscription or an app to know your body. Many high performing athletes and coaches now record their own symptoms and changes throughout their cycle. You could record things such as your sleep and energy levels, cramping or breast pain or even your body temperature and compare these alongside your sports performance. Despite it being an area of massive importance for women, there is still very little known about the relationship between female hormones and exercise. Experts are still only scratching the surface with their research - if you want to keep up to date with the ongoing research you can read more inspiring findings here.

References

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-running-blog/2018/aug/14/fitrwoman-free-app-train-menstrual-cycle-exercise [2] Motahari-Tabari, N., Shirvani, M.A. and Alipour, A., 2017. Comparison of the effect of stretching exercises and mefenamic acid on the reduction of pain and menstruation characteristics in primary dysmenorrhea: a randomized clinical trial. Oman medical journal, 32(1), p.47. [3] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/periods/fertility-in-the-menstrual-cycle/ [4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6341375/ [5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873087/ [6] Nolan, B.J., Liang, B. and Cheung, A.S., 2020. Efficacy of micronised progesterone for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trial data. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. [7] Freeman, E.W., Purdy, R.H., Coutifaris, C., Rickels, K. and Paul, S.M., 1993. Anxiolytic metabolites of progesterone: correlation with mood and performance measures following oral progesterone administration to healthy female volunteers. Neuroendocrinology, 58(4), pp.478-484. [8] Reed, S.C., Levin, F.R. and Evans, S.M., 2008. Changes in mood, cognitive performance and appetite in the late luteal and follicular phases of the menstrual cycle in women with and without PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder). Hormones and behavior, 54(1), pp.185-193. [9] Brennan, I.M., Feltrin, K.L., Nair, N.S., Hausken, T., Little, T.J., Gentilcore, D., Wishart, J.M., Jones, K.L., Horowitz, M. and Feinle-Bisset, C., 2009. Effects of the phases of the menstrual cycle on gastric emptying, glycemia, plasma GLP-1 and insulin, and energy intake in healthy lean women. American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, 297(3), pp.G602-G610. [10] Howe, S.M., Hand, T.M. and Manore, M.M., 2014. Exercise-trained men and women: role of exercise and diet on appetite and energy intake. Nutrients, 6(11), pp.4935-4960. [11] Sung, E., Han, A., Hinrichs, T., Vorgerd, M., Manchado, C. and Platen, P., 2014. Effects of follicular versus luteal phase-based strength training in young women. Springerplus, 3(1), pp.1-10. [12] Garcia, A.M.C., Lacerda, M.G., Fonseca, I.A.T., Reis, F.M., Rodrigues, L.O.C. and Silami-Garcia, E., 2006. Luteal phase of the menstrual cycle increases sweating rate during exercise. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 39(9), pp.1255-1261. [13] Webb, P., 1986. 24-hour energy expenditure and the menstrual cycle. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 44(5), pp.614-619.