Fitness and Performance
Exercise, nutrition, and periods: how to make your menstrual cycle work for you
Do you ever feel like you’re at the mercy of your hormones? You’re not alone.
When we think of our menstrual cycle, we might jump to thinking about our period — bleeding, bloating, cramps and low energy. But, there’s actually a lot more going on throughout the rest of the month too. Our body is working hard throughout each cycle to support a complex system of hormonal changes that effect our sleep, moods, fertility, energy levels and more.
So, what if we could understand more about our menstrual cycle and harness this knowledge to take the reins on our hormones? The good news is, we can! Bodyset Women’s Health Physiotherapist, Lisa Few and CP Nutrition’s Claire Pettitt, tell us how.
To note, every woman is different, every body is unique and every cycle can change. The below is based on an average menstrual cycle length of 28 days. It’s a great place to start, but what’s most important is that you listen to your body and follow your deepest intuition. Through trial and error, you’ll come to find what works best for you.
Each menstrual cycle is made up of key phases. During each phase of your menstrual cycle, your hormone levels change, and your body responds differently to exercise and food. ‘Cycle syncing’ is what is commonly referred to as matching your lifestyle – food and exercise – to fit with your menstrual cycle.
When it comes to exercise, taking the time to listen to your body could be your greatest fitness hack yet.
“Being aware of your menstrual cycle when you’re exercising is so important, because fluctuating hormones do have a big impact your body’s ability to perform,” says Lisa.
Follicular phase 1 (days 1-6)
During the first few days of your cycle, menstruation occurs. Your levels of oestrogen and progesterone are lower which may cause you to feel low in energy.
This is an important time to pay attention to your body. If you’re feeling tired, take the rest you need, or turn to activities like restorative yoga, yin yoga, and gentle walking. Remember, the more you let your body rest and recover, the better it will serve you in other phases throughout your cycle.
Try consuming more slow-releasing carbohydrates such as oats, wholegrain versions of pasta, rice and bread, quinoa, lentils, and pulses to give you the energy you need.
To make up for blood loss, it may be helpful to increase your intake of iron-rich food such as red meat (in moderation) if you eat meat, and dark-green leafy vegetables, eggs, beans, and pulses. It may also be useful to increase your vitamin C levels to help aid the absorption of iron into your body with foods like citrus fruits and berries.
Follicular phase 2 (days 7-12)
After your bleed has finished, your body begins to produce more oestrogen to prepare for ovulation, so you may feel your energy levels begin to rise.
Start to bring more movement to your body with more cardio-intense exercises including activities like hiking, running, biking, jump rope and vinyasa yoga.
Make the most of this phase, as your energy increases, to enjoy a variety of foods including plenty of fresh greens, nuts and seeds, wholegrains and get in your oily fish.
Ovulation (days 13-15)
This is halfway through your cycle. While ovulation (when a mature egg is released from the ovary) only takes one day, your oestrogen, progestogen and other key hormones reach their peak for a few days, so you may feel like you have more energy to burn.
You can challenge your body with more high-intensity activities like HIIT, spin classes, boot camps, climbing and sprinting.
Alongside high fibre wholegrain, you may want to increase your intake of fats and proteins with foods like avocados, kale, chicken, fish, eggs and nuts to support an increase in energy and physical exertion, and to keep sweet cravings at bay.
Luteal phase 1 (days 16-21)
During the first half of this phase, you may continue to experience relatively high energy levels as your body continues to produce higher levels of progesterone and oestrogen.
You can use time this to build muscle with strength training, using weights or bodyweight with exercises like squats, push-ups, lunges, single-leg bridges, core work, and sports or fitness classes that focus on strength. However, take extra care during this time. While high levels of oestrogen are great for building muscles, it can weaken ligaments, leaving you open to injury if you are not careful.
Sometimes an increase in progesterone can cause constipation. If that’s the case then try increasing your fibre intake by eating oats, wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses and lentils to keep you regular.
Luteal phase 2 (days 22-28)
During the second half of this phase your energy levels may decrease as your body prepares for menstruation. As progesterone levels peak you may experience PMS such as breast tenderness, acne and headaches.
Progesterone can also reduce your body’s ability to build muscle, so you won’t enjoy the same gains from your workouts, and recovery is slower. Allow for your body to start slowing down with slightly more gentle exercises like Pilates and long walks.
Be sure to include slow-releasing carbohydrates again to maintain your energy levels and help prevent you from feeling sluggish and tired.
If you suffer from water retention and bloating during this time, then reducing your salt intake may make you feel more comfortable. And if you struggle with period pain then now is a good time to have some oily fish to get a boost of omega-3’s which support anti-inflammatory pathways and reduce pain. You may find it helps to lay off the caffeine at this stage too, as it may trigger cramps.
A decrease in leptin (the hunger hormone which tells us when we are full) and lower oestrogen levels can cause those cravings we know all too well. Try to be mindful of these cravings and make sure you include those slow-releasing carbs as they’ll help keep those cravings at bay.
And then… the cycle repeats itself all over again!
“Learning more about your menstrual cycle and tuning in to your body’s rhythms can empower you to harness these hormonal changes, and work in harmony with your body,” says Claire.
Connecting what’s going on in your life to your cycle can help you avoid burnout and keep you tuned in to your body’s needs. A well-planned food and exercise programme can help you work with your cycle, not against it. Take back the reins on your hormones, stay mindful and don’t forget to be kind to yourself.