Hormones are funny old things and can impact everything from your mood, to hunger levels to how well you feel a workout went. Seriously, you might have been absolutely killing it for ages – smashing all the classes, reaching new personal bests – and then all of a sudden your motivation is zapped and you just want to eat your bodyweight in pizza while binging on Netflix.
Firstly, don't despair – because a) this is super common and normal, and b) those very same hormones can be worked to your advantage. With a bit of forward planning you can actually maximise your results by making your menstrual cycle do the hard work for you.
We asked Hayley Madigan, PT, author of The Menstrual Cycle Diet and an ambassador for bulk, for the lowdown:
Stage 1: Menstrual
Day one of your cycle begins when you've just started your period and during this phase, your oestrogen and progesterone drop making your carbohydrate/glycogen fuel stores more easily accessible.
Although you might not feel like it, this means the menstrual phase is perfect for getting the most out of a high intensity workout, so book a spin class or incorporate bursts of sprints into your usual jogging routine. Prone to mood swings during your period? Boxing is a great intense workout that will also help you to expel any negative emotions.
With that in mind though, Madigan adds that if you tend to suffer from painful cramps or seriously low energy during the first day or two of menstruation, switching to a lower intensity cardio exercise, such as walking, cycling and gentle jogging is preferable - until your symptoms subside. "Getting the body moving [even through gentle exercise] can help ease cramping and bloating," she says, while stressing it's important to listen to your body and do what feels right for you.
As for food, you'll need to make sure your carb intake is higher during the menstrual phase, particularly right after you work out, in order to stop your body from burning out. Take this as an official green light to inhale a big bowl of pasta on the sofa. 🙏
Stage 2: Late Follicular
The follicular stage starts alongside menstruation, but it lasts for around a week longer. Once your period has stopped and you get to the start of week two of your cycle, your body will have an increase in oestrogen but progesterone will remain relatively low,.
Oestrogen helps the body build muscle, while progesterone can interfere with it, so take advantage of this hormone change and make full body weight workouts your focus.
"This is your superwoman week," says Madigan. "Lift those weights, smash out those sprinting sessions and use your new found energy to your advantage. I’d especially recommend working on your compound movements such as squats, deadlifts and bench presses, as you could see an improvement in strength and may even hit a new PB."
During the late follicular phase, you may notice that your recovery is quicker too and you'll be able to train more times during this week. "Oestrogen actually has anti-inflammatory benefits, so you can take less rest days if you feel up to it," Madigan explains, while advising loading up on protein and complex carbohydrate-rich foods. "A premium protein powder, such as bulk's Pure Whey Protein (or for a plant-based option, bulk's Vegan Protein Powder) would be beneficial too."
Stage 3: Ovulation
Around days 14 to 16 your oestrogen levels will hit their peak and this is the time you should push yourself with your heaviest weights while you're working out, rather than aiming for plenty of reps on lighter weight. "Aim for low reps and higher weight for the first few days of this week," says Madigan. "Then, gradually, as oestrogen drops and progesterone starts to peak towards the end of the week, you might want to slowly decrease the amount of weight you’re training with and the number of reps."
For endurance training, you may find longer sessions slightly more exhausting during week three, she adds. "This is due to a slight increase in body temperature, so try to keep your sessions a little shorter if you find you are struggling - it’s important to listen to your body!"
As you near the end of the week, it could be a good time to add in a yoga, Pilates or mobility session, as the progesterone peak you'll be experiencing can loosen ligaments, putting added stress on your joints during training.
On the diet front, healthy fats play an integral role in hormone production, so ensure you’re getting your recommended daily intake of good fats during your ovulation phase. An Omega supplement could be helpful during this week too.
Stage 4: Luteal
Once ovulation is over you're in the luteal phase, the last fortnight of your cycle, during which time your body prepares for your period to start again (urgh, why does that always roll around so damn quickly?).
"As your hormones reduce significantly in preparation for menstruation, you may feel an increase in hunger, reduction in energy, mood swings and fatigue," says Madigan. "Having protein-rich treats on hand means you can still up your protein intake whilst snacking on yummy food."
She adds that this week can be the hardest for those who suffer with PMS, so be kind to yourself and reduce your training volume and take extra rest days if needs be. "On rest days, try low intensity movement like walking and switch your focus towards recovery and relaxation," Madigan advises.
Water retention and other pre-menstrual symptoms can make high intensity workouts feel much more taxing during the luteal phase, so heading out for a bike ride or hitting the pool for a soothing swim could also be a nice option. "Now is the time to work on your mindset, allow time off to focus on self-care and self-kindness through things like meditation, mindfulness, yoga or mindful breathing."
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