Of all the things I learned during grade school, I certainly didn’t think all those awkward health classes and “girl only” breakout sessions would eventually lead me to a deeper understanding of the female body. I can easily relate to any woman who comes to me about bloating, cramps, fatigue, and wanting to eat everything in sight. With hormones literally controlling every avenue of our lives, it can become discouraging and frustrating when the time and effort we place into our goals aren’t getting us the results we desire.
Men may think it’s just a one-week ordeal, but all my female readers know darn well that that is far from the truth. Nothing really compares to what we experience because we go through internal changes every single day of the month. Don’t forget we have an entire week of enjoying total havoc on our minds and bodies and lose any sense of normalcy we thought we had.
Now, what if I told you there was a way to regain control over your body? What if you were able to start to see and feel that your exercise and diet are working in a way that brings more results and greater confidence in your time spent on your goals…no matter what time of the month it is?
The 101 On Aunt Flow & The Female Body
Before jumping into things too much, I’d like to start with the basics. There are four stages of the menstrual cycle, beginning with the follicular phase (lasting from day 0 to 14); ovulation (day 14); the luteal phase (lasting from day 15 to 28); and ending with menstruation. Throughout these days of the month, there are a few key hormones that are busy at work inside our bodies:
- Estrogen – stimulates tissue growth, boosts synthesis and function of neurotransmitters that affect sleep, mood, memory, libido, learning, attention span
- Progesterone – ensures the development and function of the breasts and female reproductive tract; binds to certain receptors to exert a calming, sedating effect, and improves sleep
- Serotonin – responsible for regulating anxiety, happiness, mood, appetite, etc.
- Dopamine – affects your emotions, movements, and your sensations of pleasure and pain
So, what do these hormones and phases have to do with exercise and diet and why is it important that we pay closer attention to what our bodies are telling us? For premenopausal women who are not taking birth control, the answer might leave you a little…mindblown. I promise this isn’t a trick or a placebo experiment, and it certainly isn’t a quick fix. This is actual science, and with mindful attention to our bodies and efforts, we can tailor our workouts and diet for more optimal results depending on where we are in our monthly cycle.
THE FOLLICULAR PHASE
Beginning immediately after menstruation ends and lasting days 0 through 14, the follicular phase welcomes an increase in estrogen while maintaining a normal level of progesterone. This phase is characterized by a higher tolerance for pain, and is exactly when we should be focusing on making progress with the weights!
With our bodies reaching the highest max voluntary generation capacity and increasing levels of endurance, this is the time you will find you are feeling fatigued much later in your workout. This is also an optimal time for your body to utilize muscle glycogen (the stored form of carbohydrates) and primary fuel for muscular energy demands. This means the body will have a higher insulin sensitivity (becoming more efficient in digesting carbs and absorbing nutrients). This two week period is a great opportunity to eat higher carb pre and post-workout meals because the body will utilize increased carb intake more efficiently.
MORE FUEL = MORE ENERGY = MORE LEAN MASS GAINS
THE OVULATION PHASE
The next phase our bodies enter into is ovulation. Taking place on day 14, ovulation is characterized by peaks in estrogen levels and an increase in progesterone. With our hormones rising, our bodies will also experience an increase in strength. Pretty rad right? But be smart, this phase also comes with an increased risk for injury due to heightened collagen metabolism and lack of muscular control. So say yes to tackling heavier sets, but be extremely mindful of your form and muscular fatigue.
FUN FACT: Ovulation brings a boost to the metabolism! It sounds exciting, but it actually is to blame for those intensified feelings of hunger and cravings. When we want sweet, salty, crunchy, greasy yums, that is the female body reacting to changes in hormonal levels. PRO TIP: Stay conscious about what you are consuming and how much during this phase because insulin sensitivity will be slowly declining and your body will be less efficient in digesting carbs and absorbing nutrients.
THE LUTEAL PHASE
Following ovulation, your body will enter into the luteal phase from days 15 to 28. This time frame is characterized by a decline in estrogen levels with a continued increase in progesterone. As these fluctuations occur, it’s common to experience a higher than normal body temperature. You might notice you’re sweating more than usual and feel changes in fatigue. The luteal phase also puts more strain on your cardiovascular system which can cause a decreased time to exhaustion.
Although we may feel a bit more physically sluggish, internally the body will be at its peak metabolic state. In fact, studies show women can experience metabolism levels up to 7.7% higher than normal. This also contributes to the increased thermic effect from food sources because the body will be burning more calories during digestion.
Due to the gradual loss of energy and state the body is in, the luteal phase is an optimal time to work on utilizing lower intensity cardio training with moderate-intensity exercise. It is also an opportunity to get in tune with how the body responds to diet changes. Try opting for a lower carb, lower calorie intake to help kick-start fat burning during these 13 days. But be forewarned, despite a heightened metabolic state, letting your guard down and caving into cravings by overindulging into that tub of ice cream can be more destructive than satisfying in the long-term.
At last, we have reached the end of the hormonal rollercoaster. Our estrogen and progesterone levels begin to rebalance, and our fatigue levels go from zombie to functioning human. The following 5-7 days (on average…keep in mind this duration is different for every woman) are when we should focus on transitioning back into higher intensity and exercise. Our metabolism will also move toward normalcy before decreasing again at the start of the follicular phase.
If you are thinking about modifying your exercise and diet around your monthly cycle, here is my top advice.
First, I recommend getting a calendar and notebook. These will become your BFFs for keeping track and taking notes on:
- Where you are in your cycle
- How you are adjusting your exercise and cardio routines
- What, if any, diet changes you are making…remember to pay attention to how your body feels and responds
Second, stay focused on eating according to how you will be training in the gym vs. dietary satisfaction. Don’t worry, I’m not advising you to give up the food you love. I’m encouraging you to think about prioritizing your pre and post-workout meals to support your body’s needs and energy demands. The more nutritionally consistent you become, the more in tune you will be with your physical self.
Next, remember that this is science, and with science comes trial and error before success. Don’t expect to see results and significant change after giving things one four week run. All good things take time, and a strong dose of patience is going to be needed. I recommend dedicating 3-6 months’ time before deciding if tailoring your workouts and diet around your cycle truly works.
I say it’s time to embrace the female body and say yes to the power of the period!
Are you interested in learning more about exercise and nutrition for the female body? Let’s connect.