Secret Woman’s Business: Fuelling your menstrual cycle to get more from your training

Ladies, here’s how getting to know your body can help you reach your fittest self yet.

Periods! The menstrual cycle has always been a bit of a taboo topic. But as women, it’s something we need to talk about as it has such a massive impact on different elements in our lives. Everything from mood and headaches to cravings and cramping. There’s even research to suggest that certain times in our menstrual cycle make us more prone to specific injuries while at other times we may struggle with endurance training but be more adept to lifting weights.

By knowing the ins and outs of your menstrual cycle, you can gain a valuable insight in how it influences you from day-to-day. Matching your training and fuel to your female physiology will help you achieve optimal performance, great health and a strong and fit body. Here’s what you need to know so you can get your body working for you. 

Cycling through the basics

While every woman experiences a different menstrual cycle, there are four different phases all cycles have in common – menstruation, follicular phase, ovulation and luteal phase. While the average length of a menstrual cycle is 28-29 days, it’s not uncommon to have cycles lasting from 21-35 days. They don’t always run like clockwork either. Here’s what typically happens during your flow.

  1. Menstruation: is when your period starts and typically lasts 3-7days.
  2. Follicular phase: starts on the first day of menstruation and ends with ovulation (day 14). This phase is known as the low hormone phase, with low levels of luteinizing hormones, follicle stimulating hormone and progesterone. The levels of oestrogen slowly increase throughout this phase.
  3. Ovulation: occurs in the middle of the cycle, usually on day 14 and is characterised by a spike in the levels of oestrogen. This leads to increased production of lutenizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone. This coincides with a release of the egg and the opportunity for the woman to fall pregnant.
  4. Luteal phase: is characterised by a high hormone phase, where progesterone levels rise and oestrogen levels remain elevated in order to maintain the thickened lining of the uterus waiting for a fertilised egg to implant. If this doesn’t happen, the progesterone and oestrogen levels drop and the lining of the uterus falls away (menstruation).

Knowing Your Hormones

The changes in hormones throughout your cycle affects everything from your strength levels through your ability to concentration, energy levels and mood. During the follicular phase when your hormone levels are low, generally your mood and energy levels are on the up and some studies suggest you will make more strength gains during this. phase than during the luteal phase. After ovulation, the high-hormone luteal phase starts and feelings of fatigue, changes in mood, water retention and constipation are common. While we can’t change the normal physiological effects of our menstrual cycles, there are a few things we can do to get them to work for us. And making a few dietary changes during your luteal phase holds the key.

Things You Need to Know About Luteal Phase

1. It’s harder to make muscle: It’s not just our low levels of testosterone that make it harder for females to make muscle – progesterone and oestrogen work against us thanks to their affect on protein turnover. Oestrogen turns down the building capacity of muscle, while progesterone turns up the breakdown of muscle tissue making it harder for muscles to access amino acids needed for muscle building. As a result, women have higher rates of muscle breakdown during hard efforts. When our hormone levels are high, such as during the luteal phase, it’s therefore harder for us to make and maintain muscle.
Get more from your training: Train hard, but make sure you recover harder by having a protein hit as close to training as possible. For the best results, make sure you choose a good quality protein that is high in the amino acid leucine like milk, yoghurt, eggs, chicken, lean red meat, fish or whey protein isolate. Leucine plays a critical role in switching on protein synthesis a.k.a. muscle growth and reduces the signalling to store body fat.

2. Cravings hit: Oestrogen reduces your carbohydrate-burning ability and increases fat burning and fatty acid availability. This style of metabolism is perfect for endurance events, but for high-intensity activities you’ll need to eat more carbs. So don’t go thinking the low carb craze is the way to go, particularly if you are planning to train or play at high intensities. These changes in metabolism also explain why you might crave high-carbohydrate foods like chips and chocolate during the high-hormone, premenstrual phase of your cycle.
Get more from your training: Make sure you plan your carbohydrate intake around your training sessions, increasing how many you eat during the premenstrual part of your cycle. The longer the workout, the more carbs you need.                              

3. You feel hotter: Progesterone elevates your core temperature, meaning you run hotter during the luteal phase. You also feel hotter because your body finds it harder to sweat and cool itself because the high hormone levels reduces your plasma volume a.k.a. the volume of fluid in your blood. When plasma volume is low, blood is thicker and harder to pump out with every heartbeat, which makes exercise feel harder. Progesterone also makes you lose more sodium.
Get more from your training: Go to bed well hydrated in preparation for your training session the following day. Good hydrating options are either an electrolyte-based drink such as SiS electrolyte tablets added to water or make yourself a salty chicken broth to drink. In the morning of your training session, drink plenty of water and add in some electrolytes to issue you start the day well hydrated.

4. You may cramp or experience gut upsets: Hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins are responsible for making your uterus contract and expel its lining. It can be uncomfortable and even painful. If you make more prostaglandins than you need, they can float around your body and trigger other smooth muscles like your bowels to react similarly leading to gastrointestinal upsets like gas and diarrhoea.
Get more from your training: In the five days before your period look to include magnesium and omega-3 fats as both have been found to reduce the effect of cramp-causing prostanglandins. A low-dose aspirin may also help as it has been found to suppress the production of prostaglandins.  

5. Headaches can happen: Menstrual headaches are the worst and they happen thanks to the sudden drop in oestrogen levels that occurs right before the start of your menstrual flow. The headaches are thought to occur with a change in blood pressure and a sudden dilation and constriction of blood vessels.
Get more from your training: Keep headaches at bay by staying hydrated and eating more foods rich in nitrates like beetroot, pomegranate, watermelon and green leafy vegetables such as spinach in the lead up to your period. Nitrates are converted to nitric oxide, which works to dilate blood vessels thereby potentially reducing the severity of the oestrogen change.

6. You may be moody: Whether you feel foggy or downright grumpy, many females report changes in mood and mojo a day or two before their period starts. Oestrogen and progesterone affect the hypothalamus – the regulator of fatigue. The hypothalamus directly impacts the limbic system, which controls our emotions and autonomous nervous system, which controls heart rate, breathing rate and digestion. Oestrogen also increases serotonin levels and the number of serotonin receptors in the brain.  Hello fatigue, lethargy and low mood.
Get more from your training: BCAA (branch chain amino acids), especially leucine, may help here by reducing the unpleasant effects. BCAA are essential amino acids that you need to get in your diet because your body can’t make them. They cross the blood-brain barrier, slows down the effect of serotonin and fends off central nervous fatigue helping to maintain your mood and mojo.

7. Keep an eye out for heavy bleeding: If you have heavy periods, you’re at a higher risk of developing anaemia thanks to the amount iron you lose in your blood loss. Your risk is even greater if you’re athletic as you have more muscle stress, damage and inflammation from the stress of exercise. The stress on the body from exercise causes cortisol levels to rise and when cortisol levels are elevated, your liver pumps out more of the hormone hepcidin. Hepcidin reduces iron absorption in the body, further increasing the risk of developing anaemia. Anaemia causes fatigue, shortness of breath, light-headedness and heart palpitations during exercise.
Get more from your training: If you have heavy periods and train hard, consider getting your iron levels checked. Good food sources of iron include lean red meat, fish, chicken, nuts and legumes. Include vitamin C with plant-based sources of iron to boost iron absorption in the body and avoid drinking tea and coffee with iron-rich foods as the tannins they contain can inhibit iron absorption in the body. An iron supplement that contains vitamin C will help boost iron levels, but check with your doctor first.