The Menstrual Years

A woman’s intuition with her body is like no other. Most women are aware when menstruation is approaching, either by cravings, mood swings, or bloating. Studies show up to 90% of women endure menstrual pain, resulting in absences from occupational and leisure activities such as exercise. How many of you, though, will plan your life or exercise routine around these monthly hormonal shifts? 

Have you ever exercised and felt terrible throughout, or even skipped it altogether? Then you beat yourself up for not performing as you’d expected? Well, your hormones could’ve played a significant role in this. While we cannot simply change our physiology, we can try and be more in sync with it. There are ideal times in the month to push your body, and other times when reducing exercise intensity is suitable. Understanding these hormonal shifts is necessary for optimising mental and physical health. 

Let’s review the menstrual cycle briefly. Our cycle is divided up into two phases, the follicular phase (day 1-14, the low hormone phase) and the luteal phase (day 15-28, the high hormone phase). The first day of your period is classified as day 1 in the menstrual cycle, and ovulation occurs in the middle around day 14. Estrogen and progesterone are two of the main hormones to prepare your body for potential pregnancy. Their levels drop off if fertilization has not occurred. Roughly five days before menstruation both these hormones are near peak levels in the luteal phase (see diagram), and this is where premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms can occur, such as cravings, bloating, feeling hotter, headaches, poor coordination, gastrointestinal issues, and mood swings.

Research is constantly emerging, but what we do know is that during the low hormone phase women can make their greatest strength gains, as this is where we are most similar to male hormone physiology. It is commonly referred to as our “Venus” week (Day 6-13). During this week strengthening and high intensity exercises is encouraged. Think heavy weights, burpees, box jumps, and HIIT classes. During the high hormone phase is where we should change gears and continue to train but at a lower intensity. See example below. 

Week 1, day 3-4: mid menstruation, 
0-20% workload (restorative practices/rest, or gentle exercise)
Week 1, day 4-6: energy starts to rise, 40-60% workload (may still need to incorporate rest days)
Week 2, day 6-13: Venus week, 80-100% workload (greatest performance gains and highest energy levels)
Week 2, day 14: ovulation (testosterone at highest level)
Week 3, day 15-21: entering high hormone phase, 60-80% workload
Week 4, day 22-28: PMS occurring, 20-60% workload (restorative practices and gentle exercise as needed)

There will be some variance since not every woman’s cycle is exactly 28 days, and every woman’s PMS symptoms are different. You may also be on a hormonal birth control and not have a period at all. I would suggest keeping a diary of your menstrual cycle symptoms to tailor your training to your own body. The ultimate goal is to work with your physiology to best support your body while optimizing energy and exercise output.