Does the Menstural Cycle Affect Exercise?
For the majority of women who have a menstural cycle, yes. The factors that affect exercise come down to unique anatomy and physiology that allow females to create life.
Females have a unique structural element that differs from males; a greater 'Q angle' - the angle measurement between the quads and the patella tendon. A wider Q angle means a wider pelvis making it easier for giving birth and also tells us useful information about the alignment of the knee joint.
It does, however, mean the patella can track in a faulty line in front of the knee, potentially causing inward collapsing of the knees during movement. A deep Q angle isn't a concern by any means! It just needs to be monitored to prevent injury.
i.e., circulating hormones.
Average cycle is 28 days.
First half - Follicular phase
Ovulation - ~ Day 14
Second half - Luteal phase
Progressive hormones, progesterone, and estrogen don't only exist in the reproductive hormonal cycle. They serve endless other purposes:
- regulates appetite
- regulates energy
- force production/strength capacity
- regulates tendon elasticity and flexibility
- regulates mood
When we're focused on purposeful movement, strength training, body composition, and nutrition, we have to be mindful of where they're sitting. It makes sense that fluctuations in hormones also fluctuate our appetite, energy, mood, strength potential, and injury risk.
At ovulation, roughly the half-way point of the cycle, body temperature rises, and so does approximately 10% of the basal metabolic rate (BMR) - the amount of energy we burn simply by existing.
For argument's sake, let's say you're eating at maintenance calories. You're not losing weight, and you're not gaining any either. During ovulation, your BMR has suddenly crept up by 10%. If you don't factor this in and continue eating and training the same, you're now technically in an energy deficit, meaning you're burning more than you consume.
Here's the catch; more hunger and less energy as a result of this spike. After ovulation and when the luteal phase takes over, progesterone increases, and so might symptoms of cravings, mood swings, joint pain, muscle soreness, headaches, insomnia, poor concentration, all potentially making you feel sub-par when it comes to moving your body.
How do we use this to our strengths?
Mensuration (around days 1 - 5)
Hormone levels have dropped. Lack of iron could cause a dip in energy levels and an increase in cravings.
Eat to balance your blood sugar and iron levels
- good fats
- complex carbohydrates - whole grains, lentils, vegetables
- iron-rich foods - green vegetables, lentils, seeds, red meat
- herbal tea
- Avoid raw foods and sugary processed food.
Exercise to feel good
- listen to your body
- reduce the intensity if you need to: light cardio, yoga, walks
The Follicular Phase (around days 1 - 14)
Estrogen is now the most dominant hormone. You might feel stronger, more clear-headed, happier, and much less irritable than in the second half. A research study conducted by Balachandar (2017) and Herzberg (2017) found that women are 3-6 x more likely than men to get injured in this phase, so make sure you take your time warming up and try not to over-stretch your body.
Eat for digestive health
- probiotic-rich roods: fermented food, kimchi, yoghurt, kombucha
- omega three fats: salmon, seeds
- coloured vegetables to support detoxification of the liver
Exercise for strength
- warm up slowly
- it's thought that higher increases in strength happen in the luteal phase
- bodyweight exercises and resistance training with moderate reps and moderate sets are great now
Ovulation (around day 14)
Estrogen is at its peak. Sleep well during ovulation to maximise repair to the body
Eat to support energy
- colourful vegetables
- whole grains
- brown rice
- lots of protein - tofu, edamame beans, animal products
Exercise for performance
During ovulation, energy levels are at their highest. Progesterone levels are low, so your pain tolerance naturally increases
- strength train
- try new things
- enjoy the additional endurance
The Luteal Phase (around days 14 - 28)
Often the time we recognise as having PMS; acne, bloating, and breast soreness, and arguably the toughest time of the month. Cortisol, the stress hormone, can also spike, causing sweet food cravings and broken sleep.
Eat to minimise inflammation
- stay hydrated and keep cool
- avoid sugary, salty foods that retain water and bring on bloating
- fibre-rich foods like fruit and vegetables and whole grains to keep you feeling full and help reduce cravings
- oily fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados are great essential fat sources
Exercise to keep moving
- focus on rest and recovery
- relax, meditate
What's the takeaway?
Ladies - this is a really important one for you.
It's clear that each week, our bodies change. Physiology changes. Mood, physical measurements and strength potential all changes. So, by measuring weeks 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, you won't be taking into consideration the different physiologies across those weeks. If you're going to measure progress - what ever that looks like to you - please pick one week to measure and stick to it. Measure each week 1, 2, 3 OR 4 consistently. Cravings and metabolic rate have a massive role to play so be kind to yourself and give your body the opportunity to fluctuate as it's meant to do.
When can I start working on my eating habits?
If progress to you means a change in nutrition, the most difficult time to do this is just after ovulation. Physiologically, it's the toughest time to train and to stick to a deficit in particular (if fat loss is your goal) so just give yourself a couple of weeks. Consider really focussing on those two weeks where you can control your cravings, move your body every day and feel like you have control of your routine. This type of consistency far outweighs something that you can't stick to at all.
Email me if you have any questions or need some help programming for your cycle.
Balachandar, V. (2017). Effects of the menstrual cycle on lower-limb biomechanics, neuromuscular control, and anterior cruciate ligament injury risk: a systematic review. Muscle, Ligaments and Tendons Journal, 7(1), 136. https://doi.org/10.11138/mltj/2017.7.1.136
Herzberg, S. D., Motu’apuaka, M. L., Lambert, W., Fu, R., Brady, J., & Guise, J.-M. (2017). The effect of menstrual cycle and contraceptives on ACL injuries and laxity: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 5(7), 232596711771878. https://doi.org/10.1177/2325967117718781