We’ve always laughed at those tampon adverts but, says personal trainer Lucy Fry, the relationship between exercise and your menstrual cycle is more important than you think.
You’re determined to go for a run. You really will today. Then you feel that nagging backache telling you your period is on its way. Though a brisk 30-minute walk or some gentle cycling would probably help your mood, this just isn’t the time to be pushing yourself. The trainers go back under the bed. But in 10 days’ time it will be a different story
As a personal trainer, I’ve discovered through menstrual bleeding, hot sweats and lots of hormonal tears just how much my cycle matters. This is something I speak to every female client about; explaining how tracking and respecting their hormones is one of the most important things they can do for their overall fitness.
“Exercising in a way that specifically encourages hormonal balance will improve your mood, reduce PMS, enhance bone, brain and cardiovascular health and make you fitter,” agrees Dr Valeria Acampora from The Marion Gluck Clinic, a specialist hormone centre in London.
I’ve gone from being totally uninterested in the relationship between hormones and fitness to becoming borderline evangelical. I know that when I exercise in a way that’s mindful of my menstrual cycle, things feel good. When I don’t, well – there was the weightlifting class I walked out of because my PMS tears made it hard to see the barbell. I also once dropped a dumbbell on my foot because I was distracted by cramps. So, do as I say and not as I did.
As we know, everyone is individual and cycle lengths vary, but take day one of your period as the starting point and follow my guide to timing your workouts for the healthiest impact.
Day 1-5: Don’t stop moving
So your period has started. This marks the start of the follicular/ pre-ovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle, which lasts all the way up to ovulation at the mid-point of your cycle. In the Middle Ages, the onset of a period was referred to as ‘flowering’. I know floral isn’t exactly how many of us feel on the first day (more drained, weepy and sore), but it’s not so ludicrous: energy and vitality are around the corner. Your oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone may be low at this point, but oestrogen and testosterone will rise again within hours of menstruating.
“A few women feel fine on day one, but many feel they want to curl up and die,” says Nike global master trainer Joslyn Thompson Rule, who recommends that all her clients track their cycles with apps such as Moody Month.
“The more information about yourself that you are able to gather, the better equipped you are to make optimal decisions around your training at any given time of the month”.
Even if you’re feeling ropey, you should still get moving, says Dr Acampora. “I’m constantly fighting the notion that it’s best to stay in bed and take painkillers during this first couple of days,” she says. “In fact, doing short bursts of moderate exercise is the best thing you can do, particularly if you’re suffering from cramps. Endorphins peak around 20 minutes into exercise and are natural, effective painkillers.”
Choose an exercise you enjoy. Whether you opt to power walk, cycle or lift weights, just be aware that you might feel a little shaky or weak. It’s probably not the time to try one of those shouty military classes and it certainly isn’t the time to get competitive. Not only are you likely to feel washed out if you’re bleeding heavily, but research also suggests physical performance is impaired by menstruation, mainly because we have less energy. (Tennis star Heather Watson said recently that she had nightmares about getting her period during Wimbledon.)
You should also think about your ligaments, as exercise while you’re bleeding can have a more powerful effect on this connective tissue. It’s best to avoid high-impact workouts like jumping or sprinting.
And what about yoga? Some yogis, especially for the more vigorous styles like Ashtanga, say that women having their periods shouldn’t be on the mat. Others say you should avoid inversions like shoulder stands, but there’s little evidence to back this up. It’s probably best to stick to more restorative yoga like Iyengar and Yin, rather than Bikram-style heated classes, so you can breathe easily through every pose.
Wearing a Be You Period Cramp Relief Patch, which is infused with menthol and eucalyptus oil, will relax your muscles and help reduce the pain of cramps while you work out (£6.99 for five, beyouonline.co.uk).
Underwear brand Dear Kate has created knickers with a leak-resistant outer layer and a lining that holds the same amount as two tampons especially for exercising on your period (from £28, fashercise.com).
Day 6-14: Go hard and high-intensity
This is the time in your cycle when you feel like you can move mountains. Some women start to feel fabulous around day three while for others it’s more like day seven, but somewhere during this secondary phase you’ll notice increased power in your body and more clarity in your mind.
“Your oestrogen levels have been rising slowly and by the end of the first week you should feel a definite shift upwards in energy,” says Thompson Rule. There are practical benefits, too. “This increase in oestrogen means that muscle repair happens faster, so your body is prepped hormonally to train harder – at a higher intensity – and with a faster recovery time,” she says. This is thought to be down to an increase in collagen metabolism, a process that helps your wounds to heal, at this point in the menstrual cycle. You’ll also be physically stronger – a recent study in The Journal Of Physiology noted that ovulating women showed an 11% increase in strength in their handgrip as well as in their quadriceps (the front thigh muscles).
So, you feel like a superhero, strong and fast to heal. But there’s more. All that testosterone your body is now producing enhances confidence, assertiveness and libido, making this the ideal time to try that scary trapeze class you’ve been putting off, go rock-climbing or even learn to tango. Try to book in the big challenges for this phase in your cycle – a 10k race, triathlon, marathon or any ambitious mountain climbs. Heavy weightlifting should feel great now too, as should any kind of high-intensity interval training.
But, sadly, you’re not actually a superhero – particularly around ovulation (days 12-16) when, despite all that extra handgrip ability, you might also do yourself a mischief. “Women feel at their strongest and most resilient during ovulation, but are possibly more prone to injury at this point due to high oestrogen levels,” says Stephanie Moore, a nutritional therapist and hormonal health expert.
Even though you won’t be saving cities while wearing a cape, you are still entitled to rewards. Lots of carbohydrate-based rewards, because this is a time when your body is optimised to turn carbs into muscle energy. “The oestrogen dominance in this phase translates to better insulin sensitivity, which drives glycogen stores in the muscles,” says Moore. Translation? Pass the pizza – after your training, of course.
Give yourself an extra boost with a turmeric and ginger-infused drink like DRGN, which is packed with vitamins, electrolytes and an amino acid to keep you energised (£5.56 for three cans, drgndrink.com).
“A couple of squares of 85% cacao chocolate helps with stress management and relaxes muscles after training,” says Moore. Try Vivani’s dark chocolate – creamy and not too bitter (£2.65, planetorganic.com).
Day 15-23: Keep it steady and stress-free
Now begins the second half of your cycle, otherwise known as the luteal phase, starting after ovulation and continuing right through until you get your period again.
Progesterone starts increasing now, while testosterone and oestrogen decrease, which means you’re likely to feel fatigued. But wait – get off the sofa and into your running shoes, says Dr Acampora. “You may not feel like it, but this is the time for running or swimming or cycling and gentle yoga isn’t enough,” she says. You need to move intensely enough to create the physiological changes inside your body that boost your energy. “Doing what we call steady-state exercise, like 30 minutes of even-paced swimming or jogging, causes the numbers of organisms called mitochondria (that live in the muscle cells) to go up,” explains Dr Acampora. “These organisms are the ones that give us energy, so having more can
lessen the feeling of tiredness.”
Probably best to cap activity at 30 minutes, however. Firstly, body temperature tends to run higher post-ovulation (it dips just before and then goes up and stays up for
a good few days after one of your ovaries has released an egg). Science suggests that this can make it harder to sustain endurance training and high-level cardio workouts, so it’s best to save the more intense stuff for the week before. For you more serious runners or cyclists: if there’s a week to avoid those super sweaty, anaerobic sessions where you maintain a tough pace for a certain uncomfortable length of time, this is it.
Another reason not to overdo it here, and the reason you shouldn’t be hitting it hard every time you exercise, relates to cortisol. Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory hormone released when you are under stress, often referred to as ‘nature’s built-in alarm system’. It’s great in a crisis as it helps fuel the all-important ‘fight or flight’ response – but heavy training isn’t actually a crisis, is it?
“While regular exercise of varied intensities can help with stress, regulating our cortisol production, if you do too much exercise you can actually increase cortisol levels and feel worse,” says Dr Acampora. “I’d never advise pushing too hard, too often. To achieve the optimal hormonal balance you have to exercise at least three times a week, ideally four, but if you do it at high intensity 6-7 times a week you’ll increase cortisol too much.” Unless you’re an athlete, keep intense workouts to a minimum now or you’ll risk reduced immunity, insomnia and injury.
The Cloud performance trainers from On Running are stylish, lightweight and feel more like slippers than serious workout wear – they make getting out and getting moving even easier (£120, on-running.com).
Make sure you aren’t overdoing it, plan your workouts around your week and stay on track with the help of a beautiful Daily Greatness 12-week training journal (£29.95, dailygreatness.co.uk).
Day 23 onwards: Wind down your workouts
Oh dear, it’s time for PMS, which can start anywhere from five to 10 days before your period is due and includes all sorts of symptoms, ranging from the uncomfortable to the downright debilitating. You’re probably familiar with many of them – breast tenderness, bloating, feeling unusually irritated or upset, headaches, fatigue and skin issues.
Do yourself a favour right now and eat more good fats, says Moore. “The higher progesterone levels during the luteal phase make your body better at burning fat. That said, women are more prone to a reduction in serotonin levels, which can drive carb cravings.” So eat the avocado, but cut back on the toast.
And what about the exercise? “Definitely do still go to the gym, but for less time,” says Dr Acampora, advising not much more than 30 minutes of low intensity exercise to help with pre-menstrual symptoms. You’re aiming to produce endorphins again, which reduce pain and boost our mood.
A recent study suggested that regular exercise had similar effects to some antidepressants when it came to dealing with depression and can also make the same positive structural changes in the brain as medication.
One thing that isn’t so great for your mood though, is feeling like an idiot. Stay away from complicated moves at this time of the month, since lowered oestrogen and testosterone can reduce your coordination. I have had some fairly embarrassing encounters in kickboxing classes thanks to PMS (let’s just say the other person’s face wasn’t very happy when I missed the pads) and majorly wiped out of a headstand in yoga, taking down at least three others in the process. The rest of the class found it hilarious but, quite honestly, I just felt sore and out of control.
Headstands and boxing aside, it’s certainly good to keep moving through PMS, even if you’re feeling that rather special blend of melancholic and irate that comes upon us at this time of the month. Need some more motivation? Enter irisin. “Irisin is a hormone that’s produced by the skeletal muscle cells only when you exercise, and its job is to protect bone health and brain health,” says Dr Acampora. “It’s also an incredible fat-fighter, since irisin activates some genes that transform white fat (the lazy kind) into brown fat, which continues to burn energy and therefore helps people to lose unwanted fat even after exercising.” So it’s gentle, aerobic irisin-producing exercise that is recommended at this stage of your cycle.
Moore recommends a teaspoon of pure MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil a day. It’s full of healthy fats that boost energy and control blood sugar levels (from £18.99 for 500ml, hollandandbarrett.com).