I tried exercising based on my menstrual cycle

Exercise and periods: “I tried exercising based on my menstrual cycle and here’s why I’ll be sticking with it”

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What factors go into the design of your exercise routine? Maybe you’ve got a strict schedule based on long-term goals. Perhaps it’s a more rough plan, dictated by your mood. For many of us, there is no design – we simply try to fit our favourite classes into our hectic schedules as and when the opportunity arises. 

Have you ever spared a thought for the role your menstrual cycle should be playing in your fitness regime? With the growing chatter around menstrual health and the boom in tracking apps over the last decade, more and more women are connecting with their cycles – particularly within the fitness space. Beyond the obvious benefits of knowing when you’re likely to start your next period (and knowing which is your most fertile day), tracking your cycle means you can understand your body’s monthly fluctuations across the board. This includes optimising your exercise routine. 

Menstrual cycle phases dictate our energy levels

Exercising based on your menstrual cycle has both physical and mental benefits, nutritionist and period expert Le’Nise Brothers tells Stylist: “Physically, we can work out and move in a way that is aligned to what’s currently happening in our bodies. Mentally, we move away from the expectation that we should move the same way every day of our menstrual cycle and instead treat our bodies with more forgiveness that allows for changing energy levels.”  

While many of us still think of our menstrual cycle simply as being either ‘on’ or ‘not on’ our period, the cycle has four distinct phases: menstrual, follicular, ovulatory, and luteal. The menstrual phase begins at the start of your period, day one of your cycle. If you have a 28-day cycle, each phase lasts seven days. Cycles vary person-to-person and, therefore, phase lengths also differ. 

“Each phase of your menstrual cycle requires unique attention and throughout the course of a cycle your energy levels, and physical and mental capacities fluctuate based on the hormonal shifts that are happening,” explains Alexia Acebo, personal trainer and integrative nutrition health coach at P.volve.

Women don’t perform the same throughout the month

Through the monthly menstrual cycle, there are three key hormones that fluctuate: oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. These hormones directly impact our energy levels and our ability to exercise. 

“Oestrogen, the dominant sex hormone during the first half of our menstrual cycle, is connected to the rising energy we feel after our period ends. Oestrogen peaks just before ovulation and then there is a second, much smaller peak after ovulation, which contributes to sustained energy levels,” says Brothers. “If we don’t become pregnant, oestrogen starts to gradually decline, along with progesterone.” That hormonal slope results in gradually declining energy levels.

Much like many areas of female health, research into this topic is sparse. Women’s fitness is studied much less than men’s (a review of 1,382 sport and exercise research studies from 2011 to 2013 found the representation of women to be just 39%). 

One review from the University of Oklahoma, however, did find a link between the menstrual cycle and ‘exercise-induced fatigability’ – a tendency to get tired or lose strength due to exercise. One of the studies cited by the review which looked at running, for example, found that women performed 15% better during the late follicular phase compared to the early follicular phase.

With that in mind, I wondered whether planning an exercise regime around my menstrual cycle could lead to concrete benefits. To put that to the test, I spent four weeks working out according to the four phases to see whether exercising according to your cycle is worth the faff.

The challenge: working out for a month according to my menstrual cycle

My exercise regime tends to be based on doing classes that I enjoy – focusing on having a mix of intensities throughout the week. Yoga is an activity that I always look forward to and I normally go to classes at a studio twice a week. I also aim to do one higher intensity workout (normally a YouTube video at home), as well as a pilates session.

For this challenge, I planned my schedule differently. To work out my new exercise routine, I used a period tracking app that I already had downloaded (Clue). I used this to work out the four stages of my cycle and the corresponding dates. 

I have a shorter than average cycle, so each phase worked out as six days. Having ascertained that, I was then able to create a four-week plan with certain exercises corresponding to the specific week. 

That might sound like a faff, but if you can’t be arsed to work out your cycle, note it down and plot your intended movements, you could use one of the new generation of period tracking apps designed specifically for fitness. Try FitrWoman or Olympic athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill’s Jennis CycleMapping. Or, you could reduce the workload even further by signing up to a specific programme like the ones on offer at P.volve and One LDN.

Here’s what my month looked like. 

I tried exercising based on my menstrual cycle
On week one, I chose to move slowly – ramping up the intensity in week two to take advantage of my rising oestrogen and testosterone levels.

Menstrual phase (first quarter of your cycle)

What the experts suggest:

As your bleed begins, progesterone and oestrogen are at their lowest levels in your cycle. “You may feel less energetic and crave slower, restorative movement,” Acebo says. This doesn’t mean skipping exercise completely. In fact, incorporating gentle movement can be beneficial. 

Acebo explains: “Increased circulation and endorphins can help alleviate PMS symptoms.” As you progress through the week and the period finishes or lightens, you can build up the strength in workouts.

How I found it:

On day one of my period, I feel drained, emotionally fragile and I’ve got some period pains. I listen to my body and do a slow, stretchy at-home yoga video. Luckily, I don’t have particularly heavy or long periods so by day three, I am feeling stronger and more myself again. 

Despite the renewed energy, I don’t jump straight back into intense workouts. Instead, I do a strengthening pilates video at home and a gentle cycle ride with a friend. Knowing that I am working with my body frees me from the usual guilt of skipping harder workouts. 

Follicular phase (second quarter of your cycle)

What the experts suggest:

Moving into the follicular phase, oestrogen and testosterone rises along with energy levels. “Strength or resistance-based training works well here,” Brothers tells me. 

Acebo explains: “The rise in feel-good hormones means that you feel more alert than usual. I recommend introducing strength exercises to build muscle.”

How I found it:

In this phase, I prioritise strength-based exercises. I rely on YouTuber Chloe Ting’s videos that focus on bodyweight-based exercises and isolate different muscle groups. I like to exercise before work so that I don’t feel like the whole day’s been spent crouched over a laptop. While I don’t feel particularly energetic first thing, I do notice that I’m more focused at work after a morning sweat. I feel strong in my body and much more capable in comparison to the week before. 

Ovulation phase (third quarter of your cycle)

What the experts suggest:

The midpoint in your cycle is when the egg is released. Your levels of oestrogen and testosterone peak and you feel at your most energetic. This is the best time, Acebo says, to tackle a harder, sweatier, faster and more intense workout. 

Just take care to notice how your body feels. Acebo again: “After ovulation, basal body temperature is on the rise, so it’s important to be aware of where you work out and try to avoid overheating.”

How I found it:

Cardio is my least favourite type of exercise but I’m intrigued to see how I will find it during the optimum time of the month. I do two online HIIT cardio videos in the mornings before work and I’m surprised how much I get into it. I feel energised for the rest of the day. I also go to my usual yoga class and again, I notice that I’m moving faster and stronger than usual and I’m keener to try challenging poses. 

Luteal phase (fourth quarter of your cycle)

What the experts suggest:

During the last phase of the cycle, progesterone peaks. Brothers explains that higher progesterone means cardio may feel easier than usual. As you move closer to the end of the cycle and your next bleed, however, energy levels will drop again. 

Acebo explains that: “You’ll see that noticeable shift from high energy to a steady decline that may be accompanied by PMS, fatigue and mood swings for some time.”

How I found it:

In this phase, I feel shattered. I’m not sure if it’s my cycle, the second Covid vaccine, a few days of heavy socialising (post-pandemic FOMO is real), or more likely, a combination of all three. At this point in my cycle, I always feel a little anxious and the least confident in my body, so it can be tempting to up the ante on the exercise. 

This time, however, I listen to my body and go slow with a couple of relaxing at-home yoga videos that also incorporate meditation. I feel calmer and by the time my next period starts, my period pains are less intense.

The verdict: is exercising around your menstrual cycle worth the faff?

Planning exercise around your menstrual cycle definitely takes a little bit of work and planning but it’s more than worth the hassle. It really teaches you to listen to your body and not see yourself as the same person each day. 

During the lower-energy parts of my cycle, knowing that I was experiencing a hormonal dip helped me be less harsh on myself when I couldn’t achieve the same thing week in, week out. By the same token, tracking also pushed me to work harder and out of my comfort zone during the more energetic periods.

Noticing how I felt each day made me realise how much our physical state is multifactorial. Sleep, diet, day-to-day activity and emotions all impact how you feel – you can’t blame it solely on your menstrual cycle. That realisation was important: it reminded me just how important it is to take everything into account when working out how best to move your body. Tracking your cycle is a great way to start paying more attention to your body. I’ll certainly carry on doing it. 

Whatever stage of your cycle, we’ve got a workout for you over on Strong Women Training Club. Choose from juicy, low-impact mobility, bodyweight HIIT and slow, heavy strength sessions. 

Images: author’s own

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