I love to see the increase in conversation around women's health that I've seen in the last year or so, specifically as it relates to fitness and nutrition. Sadly, research into women's health remains scarce but I hope to see a shift as more of us enter into this dialogue and seek to educate ourselves on something that impacts HALF OF THE WORLD'S POPULATION.
For too long, females have been marketed diet and exercise trends which have actually only been tested on men and might actually do more harm than good for us females. The fact is, our physiology is totally different. We need to eat and exercise differently. As PhD and author of 'Roar' concisely instructs us - "women are not small men. Stop eating and training like one".
So, what's a girl to do?
It's a mammoth topic, but I want to start by explaining how a deeper understanding of your menstrual cycle can be hugely beneficial to improving your strength and fitness. Sorry if I'm teaching grandma to suck eggs with this first bit, but I want to start with an overview of our monthly cycle. Then I can dive into the nitty gritty of how we can harness our hormones and use them to help, rather than hinder, us in our fitness journey.
The average menstrual cycle is 28 days long, but please bear in mind that this can actually range between 21 and 35 days and doesn't always run like clockwork for everyone. Your cycle begins the day your period starts. The first half of your cycle (days 1-14 if you fall in the 28 day cycle camp) is your follicular phase, which leads up to ovulation. The second half of your cycle is known as your luteal phase, which leads up to menstruation. I won't go into too much detail here but, throughout this cycle, hormone levels rise and fall with both oestrogen and progesterone reaching peak levels around 5 days before your period. This is where you tend to experience all those fab PMS symptoms. Then, if a fertilised egg isn't implanted in your uterus (if you're not preggo), progesterone levels fall again and you shed the lining (you come onto your period).
But how can I use all this to increase my strength and fitness?!
Research has shown us a few handy things. Some valuable studies have shown that women perform better during the second half of their cycle (INCLUDING when on their period, perhaps surprisingly) than they do in the premenstrual period. During the high hormone phase in the days leading up to our period, it's harder for us to make and maintain muscle, our cardiac output is lower, and it's likely you're experiencing some of those common PMS symptoms like bloating, cramping, mood swings etc etc. So here's what we can do:
1) Reduce training intensity in the 'high hormone' phase. It's still great to move, but give yourself some grace and understand that your biggest strength and fitness gains are not going to be made at this point during the month. Some studies have shown that athletes who reduce intensity in this phase show greater improvements in performance in the long term compared to those who maintain training intensity throughout the month. Long walks, gentle jogs, and swims are all great examples of low intensity exercise but if you want to carry on with your normal form of exercise that's cool too. Just think about taking the weights, intensity, and pressure down a notch.
2) Go hard in your low hormone phase! The first bit of your cycle is your best time to fit in your high intensity workouts. Supposedly, as soon as your period starts and your progesterone levels drop you may well be good to go. However, personally I know lots of people who find the days when they're on their period a bit of a struggle, so if this is you then please give yourself some space to take it easy until it passes. Once you're out of the woods on that front you're in prime position to do the tougher workouts that will help you improve your fitness and strength. Things tend to feel that bit easier than in your high hormone phase, so make the most of it.
3) Keep a journal of your cycle. This sounds like a lot more work than it is, so bear with me. This journal can be as simple or as detailed as you like, and the practice can make a world of difference to understanding your own cycle and how it impacts your individual ability to exercise. A line a day is enough, just summarising your overall mood, energy level, and/or any other fun symptoms that impact you. Many women find after a few cycles that they see patterns start to arise - the same dips or surges in energy or mood coming up for them at a similar time every month. Once you are able to predict this, it becomes a lot easier to take your own cycle into account and plan your exercise schedule around it.
Any questions on this MAHOOSIVE subject then please feel free to get in touch and I will do my best to guide you. Girl power and all that.