Anything You Can Do We Can Do Bleeding......
Sorry for the crude opening line. But it is really quite true. I have been researching a lot about periods and the effect they have on women’s training. I overheard a guy in the gym saying to his training partner midway through his Bro reps “take your tampon out and carry on lifting”. And it makes me so freaking angry. Comparing perceived weakness in a man to a female on her period. It got me thinking about how it does affect us and if it does even make a difference.
Periods, they really are a pain. Crippling for some women. Instead of getting a text to tell me my uterus remains empty (as intended!) I have to put up with days of not wearing white and cramping. It is just an inconvenience. Although this is just my personal view. Some women are relieved to see them, some have problems with their cycle regularity or menstrual related conditions. Some women trying to grow their families dread the appearance of their period for yet another month!
Chatting with my friends and asking them how they feel about training during their period I realised that we all feel pretty much the same way around about this time of the month. And like me, they don’t see the need to take down time whilst they wait for their period to finish, but sometimes a wod or a lift which would normally be doable or even enjoyable feels incredibly difficult. So is that down to our cycle?
Your Cycle - A refresher:
So I figured in this blog post I’d go back to basics. Because whilst we all have periods as women (for the most part), it is silly to assume everyone actually understands what the body is going through physically during this time and why we feel what we feel. So apologies if the GCSE level narrative annoys you but we all need to get to know our bodies a little better in order to look after them to the best of our ability. And should any male be brave enough to read this then it may just enlighten them too!
Your period, menstrual cycle, time of the month…. whatever you call it is different for every woman and you know your body best. If you don’t I would strongly suggest downloading a period tracking app, this isn’t just for women wanting to conceive, it can be very effective in avoiding that outcome also. But it really just allows you to understand what is happening to your body and get to know your own cycle. I personally like the 'EVE' tracker app. It is simple and free :)
Whilst every woman’s cycle varies in length, the average is 28 days long. But anything from 25-35 can be normal for you.
The first day of your cycle is the first day of your period. The first day of bleeding. Bleeding usually subsides between days 4-7. Days 1-14 are called the Follicular Phase. By day 14 or 15, ovulation occurs with a surge in oestrogen and lutenizing hormone. This is known as the Ovulation Phase! Days 14 - 28 is known as the Luteal Phase.
Overview of Your Hormones:
The four main hormones involved in your menstrual cycle are
Follicle Stimulating Hormone: This comes from your pituitary gland and causes the egg in your ovary to mature. It also stimulates the ovaries to release oestrogen.
Oestrogen: It is released by the ovaries. It ensures only one egg is matured at at once.
Lutenising Hormone: Causes the mature egg to be released.
Progesterone: Another hormone secreted by the ovaries which allows the uterus to maintain its lining in anticipation of pregnancy.
The graph below explains the peaks and troughs of our two main hormones pretty well:
So as you can see, the cocktail of hormones running through us at any given time is pretty intense. But what do we know about the other effects of our cycle on training and can we amend our training to accommodate these changes. The answer is YES!
The Follicular Phase (Days 1-14): Train Hard and Eat Your Carbs!
During this phase of your cycle it is ideal to tailor your workouts to concentrate on progress. By that I mean push yourself, high intensity, high volume workouts. But what does the research tell us about the changes in the body?
Your body has a higher tolerance for pain in this phase….. get in the pain cave (Note: I mean a pain that works not a pain that hurts - don’t be stupid with it).
Your ability to generate maximum force voluntarily is optimised.
Endurance levels are increased.
Your body will utilise muscle glycogen stores to fuel exercise during this stage, using carbs to fuel muscle gains.
During this phase your resting metabolic rate declines during your period until it hits its lowest point around Day 7/8.
Your insulin sensitivity levels will be higher during this phase, so focus on higher carb phases or re-feeds for fuelling intense workouts.
The Ovulation Phase (Days 14-15): Wonder Woman feels!
Your strength levels during ovulation will be pretty damn high.
You may actually notice that your lifting or your force generation capacity is higher than usual. This is the ideal time to crack on and try that PR! Be explosive!
One hormone that is not mentioned above but is at its peak here is testosterone, giving us that little boost to chase those PRs.
Your metabolism starts to increase at this point, after taking a dip in the follicular phase. If you feel more peckish than usual this is why!
Good news... you can add a few more calories to your diet to fuel this increase, but make sure they are a balanced mix of proteins, carbs, and fats. Your insulin sensitivity starts to decrease from the ovulation phase so a balanced diet is essential.
Remember... You are not invincible! Whilst this is the time to go for some big lifts always be sensible. Use good technique and train smart. Why do I say this? Well due to oestrogen being at its highest point for ovulation it impacts the metabolism of collagen in your body and it can affect your neuromuscular control, putting you at a slightly higher risk of injury. Some studies suggest that there is a prevalent link between an increase in ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) at the time of ovulation by up to 8%. Adding in some neuromuscular control training (reducing the strain on ankles and knees, building the hamstrings and glutes and adding in plyometric work) can go a long way to avoiding this.
The Luteal Phase (Days 14 - 28): A.K.A. The Worst Phase
Those workouts I spoke about earlier, the ones that just aren't happening no matter how hard you try! These are probably happening during the luteal phase. I'm not going to lie. This is the crappiest phase. PMS central! I mean I sure have some PMS moments. I am usually pretty short tempered and take things a lot more personally than I should for about 2 days towards the end of this phase. But then my period starts and I realise I am not actually the antichrist after all, it was just my hormones.... So what is going on during this stage:
Your body temperature increases in the luteal phase. You'll run up to 0.5 degrees centigrade higher.
You may find a decrease in time to exhaustion and be more predisposed to high levels of fatigue.
Water retention is highly probable during this phase and as such you may feel bloated and uncomfortable performing certain movements (usually high intensity cardio).
During this time your body is going to rely more on fat for fuel rather than glycogen stored in muscle.
This suggests this is the ideal time for cardio training coupled with moderate intensity strength and conditioning work.
Metabolism wise, it is at its peak in this phase. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests your metabolism is running around 7.7% higher than the rest of the month and you'll also experience a greater thermic effect from food as your body will burn more calories digesting than it normally does.
Your insulin sensitivity is now at it’s lowest point.
You know when that PMS hits and all you can think about is how being in bed watching Netflix surrounded by every dirty carb imaginable is the dream? Well this is one thing to watch out for in this phase. Why do we crave the carby goodness? (Yes I know carby is not a word). Your serotonin (happy hormones) production is lower in this phase causing irritability and a low mood. Your instinct will be to eat more carbs as they cause a rapid release of serotonin, instantly providing a mood boost and natural high. Whilst Thor himself could not release my death grip on a red velvet Krispy Kreme at this point, we have to focus on choosing better tryptophan containing foods so as not to resort to the doughnut binge. It is an amino acid that balances out this drop in serotonin. It can be found in nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs.
And now we've come full circle. Back to your period..... So there it is. Something we may not give too much thought to actually can have a significant impact on our training.
Make your cycle work for you!
Now you know the inner workings of your body maybe it is time to utilise your cycle and make your hormones work for you. If you feel like utter crap and do not want to train, have a look at where you are in your cycle and alter your activities. Work with your body not against it. This goes for all women and all activities. The context I have written in is predominantly for crossfit/weightlifting/strength and conditioning because that is what I know. It is how I train. But the principles are applicable to all fitness. And one thing I do know for sure is that the next time a guy uses a period as an analogy for being weak I will beat him up with a box of tampons and blame my luteal phase.....