If you’re a woman who works out, or a man who associates himself with women who work out, you need to read this. PERIOD.
See what I did there? Haha. Feeling uncomfortable? That’s okay, you’re allowed; talking about the curse has been kinda taboo for a long while but I’m here to tell you we NEED to talk about the ups and downs of the female hormone cycle, because most of us could stand to understand it better. Not talking about it and pretending it doesn’t make a difference isn’t working too well for us, because guess what? IT MATTERS.
Sisters, let’s have a show of hands: how many of you have gone into the gym feeling great, like you’re really going to have an awesome workout – maybe even lay down a PR – and then everything just feels H E A V Y and you just don’t have the steam you usually do? OR, you’ve gone into the gym feeling fierce and happy, caught a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, thought something mean and shitty about yourself that you just can’t get out of your head, and instead of having a great workout you end up dripping angry tears all over your barbell? Your menstrual cycle isn’t wholly responsible for those day-to-day changes in your performance, but they are definitely a factor.
Now, everyone (male AND female) has low-energy days, but if you’re female chances are good that when that happens, you’re a) within a few days of starting your period, or b) right smack in the middle of ovulating. Our monthlies can mess with our physical and mental performance in a myriad of ways but there are strategies we can employ to minimize the flames and wreckage.
***Note: I recently had a conversation with a bunch of male trainers, most of whom professed to specialize in training women, where the subject matter turned to shark week and most of them started squirming like worms on hooks. I didn’t bother to change the subject though; I kinda think that if you make a living training women you need to be comfortable talking about that stuff. And if YOU are the one to bring up the subject, demonstrate that you know something about what happens to your female clients’ bodies every month, and be somewhat mature and sympathetic about it, your female clients will thank you. Trust me.
Let’s make like tampons and dive right into it. (Too far? Maybe just a little – sorry.) Menstrual cycles are like snowflakes – no two are the same. They vary just a little bit (or a lot, sometimes) from month to month and from woman to woman. On average they last about 28 days, so we’ll speak to that average as we go through what happens during a hormone cycle. Ready?
Days 1-3 (Follicular phase): Hormone levels drop like they’re hot and the blood and tissues lining the uterus start to break down and shed. The muscles surrounding the uterus can cramp and cause significant pain and/or discomfort. Bleeding is usually the worst between days 1 and 3.
So, days 1-3 are not going to be awesome workout days. The hormones that keep us energetic and mentally balanced have peaced out. This is not to say that we shouldn’t work out during the heavy days – on the contrary actually; working out will ease any physical pain or discomfort that is happening – but they are not the time to go after PR’s. Work up to about 85-90% and be nice to yourself.
Days 4-6: Bleeding lightens and most ladies start to feel markedly better. Estrogen levels rise, our hemoglobin levels start to return to normal, and we feel more energetic and optimistic. We can start pushing a little harder in the gym; this is a relief after the last few days of feeling like our undercarriage will turn inside out if we put out maximal effort!
**Usually there is a big change in vaginal PH levels around days 4-5 which means that yeast infections are something to watch out for, especially in women who are on the move all the time. Slipping into clean underthings after a hard workout is always good but extra important right about now.
Days 7-12: The follicular phase starts to wrap itself up – by now bleeding has stopped and estrogen levels are on the rise. Our bodies are preparing for pregnancy: the uterine lining starts to thicken again and the ovaries are preparing to release an egg for fertilization. Hormonally this is smooth sailing time: estrogen is still rising steadily and testosterone is staging a comeback. We’re feeling sane, strong, and optimistic. As long as you’re healthy and rested you should have pretty close to peak performance in the gym over this whole week.
Days 13-15 Ovulation! Whee! When ovulation happens there might be some twingy cramps or some spotting because life is just that rude sometimes. If you’re trying to get pregnant now is the time; also if you’re looking for a PR your body should be primed for it right around now.
Days 16-18 That egg is just hanging out waiting to be fertilized. Estrogen is still high and progesterone will start to rise as well. With the appearance of progesterone in our systems, brain fog and forgetfulness can get worse. Be mindful in the gym – focus on control and maintaining the mind-muscle connection, keeping one rep in the tank at the end of every set. You will want to train to failure especially if your athletic performance was amazing just a few days ago, but resist! At this point in our cycle we are at our most injury-prone. PMS is right around the corner, and if you can’t train because you’re injured life will suck big equine schlongs.
Days 19-22 (Luteal phase) Danger, Will Robinson! PMS is starting. For the love of goats and all other bearded creatures do not get on the scale right now; it will ruin your day. Thanks to a sharp rise in progesterone our bodies will retain more water than SpongeBob Squarepants. I’d say don’t sweat it, but sweating is your friend – it will help you shed that extra water and give your mood a boost at the same time…and you’ll be better equipped to outrun the zombies when they come. Make sure you get a wide variety of mineral sources in your diet and drink lots of water.
Days 22-24 Estrogen levels will start to drift down and progesterone is at its peak. PMS-related bloating and moodiness are at their worst. Take extra care to look after recovery and nutrition if you’re training hard; your body needs it. Be kind to yourself and keep tissues handy in the gym just in case you start playing the comparison game in your head or the pressures of trying to be all things to all people get to be too much – stress may start leaking out your eyeballs.
Days 25-28 Period’s coming any day now – cramps and headaches and brain fog, yay! Our estrogen and testosterone levels are headed to the basement and progesterone is also on its way down. You may feel like your energy and drive are just. Not. there. And that’s okay – stick to the program and do your best; this is not the time to change goals or make any big decisions. Hang in there; in a few days you’ll feel better!