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How to train in line with your menstrual cycle

Dr Nora Wieloch, Head of the Women and Sport department at the University Centre for Prevention and Sports Medicine at Balgrist University Hospital, talks about how training can be optimised based on a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Text: Katharina Rilling; photo: iStock

The menstrual cycle plays an important role in a woman’s well-being. Does it make sense to base your training on it?

Yes, women can base their training on their menstrual cycle. This helps in particular to improve their well-being during the different phases. There is scientific evidence that women can also use their fluctuating hormone levels to improve their sporting performance. Of course, you can’t expect miracles. In terms of performance, training in line with your cycle adds that little bit extra. However, if you really want to improve, you first have to optimise all other known factors. It is also important to note that basing training on your menstrual cycle doesn’t work if you’re taking hormonal contraceptives, such as the pill, because your hormonal levels remain pretty stable in this case.

What impact do hormones have on how women exercise?

The hormones oestrogen and progesterone, which are produced in the ovaries, play a particularly important role in the female cycle. Diese Hormone werden in den Eierstöcken produziert. Put simply, oestrogen levels rise in the first half of the cycle. This hormone tends to build muscle mass and promote the storage of fat in muscle. It increases free fatty acid availability during sporting activity. Oestrogen helps build strong bones and counteracts bone ageing. It also helps keep ligaments and tendons supple. Progesterone dominates in the second half of the cycle, causing the body temperature to rise slightly. There is evidence that it promotes the breakdown of protein stores and maybe even of muscle mass. However, further studies are needed to be able to provide generally applicable recommendations for training based on the menstrual cycle. Anyone interested could take a look at the existing recommendations for competitive sport, such as those published by Swiss Olympic.

OK, so how exactly should women train during menstruation?

It very much depends on the individual. Women need to be aware of the different phases in their cycle. The first day of the cycle starts with menstruation (phase 1). At this point, many women feel off-colour and heavy and find it hard to concentrate. However, some women regain their interest in exercise as soon as their period starts.

Does sport help ease period pains?

There is evidence that exercising regularly – about three times a week for 45 to 60 minutes at a time – can help relieve menstrual pain.

Do women need to eat more iron-rich foods during their period as a result of the blood loss?

Yes. Women need more iron at this time, so they should opt for foods that are high in iron. It’s best to eat iron-rich meals before training, because the body finds it hard to absorb iron straight after physical activity. You should have your iron values checked regularly by a doctor. And it is important to ensure that you stay hydrated.

My period has finished. What now?

The stage from now until ovulation is known as the follicular phase (phase 2). Most women feel great, and their energy levels and ability to concentrate improve. Some studies show that strength training may be more efficient in this phase due to high levels of oestrogen. So, generally speaking, it should be possible to train harder at this time. But don’t ramp up your training too much. And remember that warming up, cooling down and taking enough recovery time are just as important as the training itself. Some women have less of an appetite during this phase and may run up a calorie deficit. Therefore, it is important to adjust what you eat to how much sport you’re doing to ensure that you have a balanced calorie intake.

Phase 3 is called the luteal phase. What kind of training is recommended during this run-up to menstruation?

The luteal phase comes after ovulation. This is the consolidation phase: you should focus on solidifying the fitness you gained in the previous phases. Body temperature, resting heart rate and respiratory rate increase. And your body finds it harder to regulate changes in temperature. So it’s very important to ensure you are properly hydrated, particularly during long endurance sessions. A rise in progesterone impacts your muscle-building capacity, and your performance levels may fall. Hence, as progesterone tends to break down protein faster, you should add a little more protein to your diet at this time. The decreasing hormone levels towards the end of the luteal phase often give rise to mood swings and fluctuations in energy levels.

Many women dread the final phase in the cycle – the premenstrual phase and the associated premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Any tips on easing the symptoms?

Getting plenty of sleep helps. Energy levels may fall, and women may be less inclined to exercise during this phase. Putting yourself under pressure to train may actually worsen your PMS symptoms. You should therefore focus on recovery at this point in your cycle. However, you don’t need stop exercising completely. When you’re suffering from PMS, gentle sports such as yoga can help. Good to know: sport has an anti-inflammatory effect and releases endorphins – and this can even improve your mood. 

Many women experience premenstrual food cravings. How can we keeping these cravings at bay?

To maintain stable blood sugar levels, and therefore counteract cravings, it’s a good idea to eat healthy foods that keep you fuller for longer. This could be wholegrain products, avocado or chicken, for example. Foods rich in antioxidants, such as fruit, vegetables and pulses, as well as anti-inflammatory foods, such as salmon and walnuts, can also help ease PMS symptoms. Dark chocolate − enjoyed in moderation, of course − contains many healthy polyphenols and, thanks to its high stearic acid content, has a positive effect on fat metabolism. Anyone who has problems sleeping should try drinking melatonin-rich milk in the evening. Other sleep-enhancing foods include sour cherries and tryptophan-rich foods such as eggs, fish, pumpkin seeds and peanuts.

What’s your top tip for training based on the menstrual cycle?

In sports medicine, we always advocate using personal training plans. The menstrual cycle affects women differently, so it’s crucial that we learn to listen to our bodies. It’s best to track when you feel fatigued or motivated, irritable or happy, hungry or lacking in appetite. Many apps are available on the market today to help you do this. You can then learn a lot about your menstrual cycle from this data. If you have severe menstrual problems, it is important to be kind to your body and not to put yourself under pressure. But further studies are needed to be able to make specific recommendations. A regular menstrual cycle is a reliable indicator that your body is basically doing OK. So it’s best to accept − and maybe utilise − the phases of your cycle based on your own experiences. However, if you often miss periods, it’s a good idea to see a doctor.