We pretty much accept that our hair, skin, bowel movements, mood, mental health, headaches, sex life and more can be affected by our periods. It isn’t just our period itself that affect us however, how we feel can be massively affected by all the various stages of the menstrual cycle, and as our cycles are continuous we essentially go through a never ending series of physical and emotional changes for a large part of our adult life.
Whilst we all know this we often tend to try and eat and train in pretty much the same way throughout all stages of our cycle and expect the same level of performance from ourselves. Now I’m not suggesting that we should adjust what we do on a daily basis, none of us have time to do that; but an awareness of how your own cycle affects your mood and body will allow you to approach your nutrition and training with more awareness that sometimes those feelings of being fat or weak are not what they seem.
Most cycles last between 24 and 38 days (my cycle is roughly 25 days) and the cycle starts as your period begins. Effectively your cycle has two stages 1) preparing for an egg to be released from the ovary and the re-building of the lining of the uterus and 2) preparing the uterus and body to either accept a fertilised egg or start a new cycle if you are not pregnant.
Stages of your cycle (these overlap so it’s not always clear cut)
Shedding the uterine lining. This lasts on average 5-8 days but with dramatic variation. During this time oestrogen and progesterone levels are low and you may find your tolerance to pain increases and also that muscle recovery times improve. Due to feeling like your womb is being tortured you may find it mentally tough to generate the motivation to workout, however whilst gentle exercise is often recommended there is no reason you cannot carry on your normal training if you can motivate yourself to do so and you may find your body actually reacts well to it. This is the time when you crave comfort foods so it may be beneficial to give yourself some leeway with your diet and eat more to make yourself feel better (chocolate in moderation won’t hurt) although eating iron rich foods may also be beneficial to how you feel.
I teach classes so have no choice but to continue to exercise pretty much as normal in this period. It doesn’t always feel great at the time but does tend to make me feel better afterwards so I also make the effort to train as often as normal during my period, albeit I try to go a bit easier on myself depending on how heavy my flow is that day. Equally I now purposefully let myself have chocolate every day whilst I’m on. I’ve realised that I’m going to crave chocolate more this week so I’m better off telling myself in advance I will have some as that way I’m less likely to binge and eat 5kg of Dairy Milk in half an hour.
Lasting between 10 and 22 days this is the time between the first day of your period and ovulation. Oestrogen levels rise as your body prepare for egg release. During this time the uterine lining is also rebuilt following your period (the Proliferative phase). In this stage there is evidence that women are at greater risk from musculoskeletal injuries but may also find their strength increases due to the increase in oestrogen meaning you may find you are able to lift more during this phase of your cycle. Therefore this is a good time to focus on your lifting and enjoy it. This stage ends with Ovulation.
Whilst some women will feel good about training in this phase because you can feel pretty strong this isn’t always the case. For me the week after my period is often my worst week for training and nutrition. I put this down to a less documented stage of some women’s cycle (not everyone will experience this) – Post Menstrual Tension. Pre Menstrual Tension is widely accepted but some women often find they experience similar symptoms (moodiness, feeling flat, feeling teary, feeling useless and clumsy) in the days immediately after their period as well. This can make training and eating well difficult during this period as you feel much the same as just before / during your period. This is possibly due to a surge of Oestrogen and there is some suggestions that a Magnesium supplement may help ease this. Much like during your period there is no reason to not train but motivation may be something you struggle with so go easy on yourself.
I actually struggle to train more during this week than when I’m on my period. I think I accept that I will feel crap during my period so I’m more accommodating of my own feelings whereas the emotions the week after always catch me unaware (and someone has to actually remind me that this is that week of the month where I always freak out about being fat and unfit – like, every month without fail, it’s probably getting boring for them now but I always need that reminder that it’s my hormones and my world is not actually falling apart, and because I’m a moody cow this week I will also always tell them they are wrong even thought they aren’t). I rarely feel like training this week, not because I have any physical symptoms just because I’m a bit of an emotional wreck, however not training is the worst thing I can do as I beat myself up for being lazy. I therefore have to force myself to go do something just to not fall to pieces, because quite frankly if I do during this period I know I can stay in a slump that goes straight into PMS.
The release of an egg (mid cycle). Oestrogen peaks just before ovulation and then drops (this tends to be 13 to 15 days before your next period). As oestrogen peaks you may find this is the best time to work on a PB, however good form is vital as you are still at greater risk of injury.
The time between ovulation and your period (lasts around 9 to 16 days), this is where the body prepares for pregnancy and Progesterone is produced, peaks and then drops. The Secretory Phase also means the uterine lining produces chemicals that will support a pregnancy or, if there is no pregnancy, break down and shed. It is this shedding that can cause the cramping feeling as the muscles contract to allow the shedding (this is where exercise or movement can help).
During this time you will potentially (probably) experience PMS. Mood changes, breast tenderness, bloating, headaches and so on. This gets stronger the closer to your period you get. For many this is the ‘I could kill everybody’ phase. Try not to actually kill anyone of course because that is frowned upon. Here you might want to move your training away from performance based sessions and do things you enjoy and which improve your mood. A rise in body temperature may mean you feel a drop in endurance levels so being aware you might not hit max lifts or feel as good training is worth being mindful of. Water retention can make you feel heavier and sluggish so weighing yourself or measuring your progress in this time window may be counterproductive to your mindset.
Whilst the above is a basic outline of the different stages of a cycle all women know that your cycle is a very individual things and not only are our cycles of various lengths we are all also affected differently by the various stages with some feeling the impact more acutely than others, not only that but our own cycles can change over time.
Something which helps me is tracking my cycle. I use the Fitbit App (which I believe you can still use even without a Fitbit). You can log when you are on your period along with the more common symptoms you may feel or notice. As time goes on the app allows you to predict when your period will be allowing you a greater understanding of what stages of your cycle you are in, as well as allowing you to record and therefore potentially see a pattern in your mood and behaviour. Once you are aware of the pattern of your own cycle it makes handling the changes easier and can help you feel like you are training and eating better rather than reacting to your hormones.
Quick disclaimer to finish – I am not a scientist – I literally just about passed my GCSE. The above is based purely on my own experience and how I understand my cycle so I’m at no point saying this is gospel as there are definitely people out there with greater knowledge on this topic than me.