What you need to know!!
The menstrual cycle
Girls normally hit puberty between the ages of 11 and 14 years, although girls seem to be getting their periods much younger than this in recent years. The average length of the menstrual cycle is 28–35 days, but this can vary between women and from one cycle to the next.
We recommend tracking your menstrual cycle on a calendar or app such as “My calendar” to find out the length of your cycle and to identify any issues or patterns between cycles; such as difference in appetite, body temperature and mood. Once you see a pattern, then it is much easier to adapt your training and calories if needs be.
The menstrual cycle and hormones
The menstrual cycle is a biofeedback loop which means each gland and the hormones it produces is affected by the activity of other glands and hormones. It is the Hypothalamus in the brain that signals the Pituitary gland to produce chemicals which then signal to the ovaries to produce women’s sex hormones- oestrogen and progesterone.
There are 4 stages of menstruation;
Menstruation is the start of the cycle or day 1 when you get your period. Your period is the elimination of the thickened lining of the uterus. A period bleed normally lasts from 3 days to 7 days in length. The main side effects and common issues are abdominal cramps and lower back pain during this time.
The follicular phase includes menstruation and starts at day 1 of your cycle and continues until ovulation at day 14. During the follicular phase the hypothalamus signals to the Pituitary gland to release FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone), the ovary then produces up to 20 follicles which houses an immature egg.
In the follicular phase, oestrogen levels increase, this is a good thing especially for training as it can aid recovery allowing ladies to train more frequently and with much more intensity and endurance during these first 2 weeks. So, this is the ideal time to do hypertrophy, strength, power or HIIT training. We utilise carbohydrates much more effectively during this time which is perfect if we are training heavier and with more intensity.
Ovulation is the release if a mature egg from the surface of the ovary. This happens mid cycle usually around day 14. This is when a female is most fertile and if the egg is fertilized by sperm, pregnancy will occur. The egg will only survive for about 24 hours.
Ovulation means a sharp spike in all hormones including testosterone which can account for extra strength increases around this time. Your body temperature will increase during this time as will your BMR and your appetite may increase also. Many women suffer with mid cycle pain or pain during ovulation, feeling bloated and water retention are also common at this phase of the cycle.
During ovulation the egg bursts out of the follicle, the remains of this follicle turns in to the corpus luteum which starts releasing progesterone and a small amount if oestrogen which will maintain the thickened lining of the uterus – waiting for a fertilised egg to stick and implant to grow.
If a fertilised egg is not implanted and pregnancy does not occur, then the corpus luteum will wither and die around day 22. This will cause a drop-in progesterone resulting in the lining of the uterus being eliminated and so menstruation occurs. The cycle starts again.
PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) occurs in the week or two weeks before a female gets her period. Common symptoms include acne, tender breasts, bloating, feeling tired, irritability, and mood changes.
Your body will notice an increase in temperature and water retention. Serotonin levels drop which can explain the moods and irritability. With all of this going on, no wonder our training suffers so it is a good idea to choose lower intensity cardio over interval training, and lower-intensity, higher rep resistance training. We are far more insulin sensitive during this phase and the body will not cope as well with carbs and increasing fats at this time might be beneficial as the body’s preferred fuel source during the luteal phase.
In terms of fat loss, muscle gain and body composition it can be useful to understand the processes that take part in each stage of our cycle and how this can reflect weighing scale fluctuations, clothes feeling tighter and poor energy. For this reason, it can be useful to weigh and take measurement at the same time in your cycle each month if possible.
So, to conclude, once you get over the initial couple of days of cramps as you get your period, get to the gym as energy and strength will have increased. So, hypertrophy, HIIT and strength and power work are advised as is refuelling with all the carbs!!
Around ovulation, you are also seriously strong but be careful of injury. This is the time to test your max reps/ weight.
Luteal phase (last 2 weeks) reduce carbs and up fats and stick to lighter training such as cardio or lighter weight sessions during this time.
The more you understand about your cycle the easier it is to train and eat around it and to try to understand it!!