Periods & Exercise: start using your period cycle in your training
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
There is a reason this topic isn’t shouted about from the rooftops. Firstly, there has always been a taboo around talking about periods. Secondly, there is relatively little research on the specific topic of exercise and periods. This is partly due to the fact that it is very hard to do a controlled study on periods and exercise for a variety of reasons (different cycle lengths, different cycle start dates, different history of using the pill, etc.) Thirdly, until very recently, there hasn’t been the desire to find out. Only in the last few decades have women athletes become accepted, and it is only now that we can even consider discussing something as taboo as a period.
The reason I am writing about the topic of period cycles and training is down to three amazing ladies (thank you); Joslyn Thompson Rule, Maisie Hill and Harriet Taylor. Jos, Nike Global Master Trainer, first brought this subject to my attention in her mentorship programme during which we spent an entire module looking at women's health. From that, I read Period Power by the author Maisie Hill, a book I wish I had been able to read when I was a teenager. After both eye-openers, I chatted at length with my great friend and yoga teacher Harriet Taylor. Being open and honest with each other about our periods made us realise that we were actually going through very similar things. What had felt like ‘something wrong’ actually turned out to be something quite normal and that even one of my closest friends was going through.
Should women train differently to men?
So, based upon the information that is out there, should women train differently than men? The answer, in a nutshell, is no.
I feel like there has been a bit of a breakthrough in the last couple of years, maybe linked to the rise of Crossfit. Women are appearing to be breaking the mould and using strength training more and more. It is now clear they won’t wake up after one heavy bench session with arms like Popeye! There is a wealth of knowledge out there to tell us that women can train exactly the same as men. The programme at 98 Riley Street Gym in Sydney really does highlight this.
Despite this breakthrough for women’s training, there is one thing that only women have: a period cycle. That means, unlike men, we have different levels of certain hormones at different times of the month. Maisie Hill, with her book Period Power, amongst others, have fairly recently brought this difference into the spotlight.
Why can’t us females use our period cycles as a tool rather than see them as a hindrance? This is especially true in respect to your exercise regime.
You all know that time of the month where you just aren’t feeling like exercising, compared to the day you feel like you should be competing at the Olympics. There could be a reason for that - your hormones.
The Period Cycle
Let’s take a look at the period cycle and the impact it has on my training. We are going to look at the period cycle in four weeks/28 days, just for ease. Your cycle may be less or more than 28 days.
Week 1 - the start of your period: increasing oestrogen and getting the intensity back in your exercise regime:
This starts with your period. This can be the worst day of your cycle - you may want to stay in bed all day, you may be lucky and actually feel amazing.
Oestrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest on Day 1 but they will gradually rise. As oestrogen levels increase, this will allow you to train at a higher intensity with less risk of over-training. I like to utilise this. I make sure I save any high intensity workouts I’ve been wanting to try for the end of this week.
Your period lasts however long it lasts for, for you. That might be all of week 1, a little more or a little less.
Week 2 - peaking oestrogen and testosterone, you may feel like a superwoman here. I always feel best when strength training:
Oestrogen levels continue to rise in week two, in preparation for ovulation. An increase in oestrogen means an increase in serotonin levels in the brain, that ‘feel good’ chemical.
This might be the time of the month you feel at your best.
A higher pain tolerance may mean you can push yourself a little more in your training (within reason). A word of warning, injury risk is higher here, you should always warm up properly but make sure you do here. Strength training is my favourite type of exercise here. This is a good time to be pushing your personal bests. If I was a competing athlete and had the choice, this would be my best time to compete (not that you ever have that luxury to choose when your competition will be!)
Oestrogen levels peak around the time of ovulation, around the end of week two. Testosterone will also peak here, and this makes me feel a little like Superwoman, with an increase in confidence and assertiveness. Testosterone builds muscle and bone density (hence, a good time to strength train).
Week 3 - progesterone will take over here, maybe leaving you feeling tired. Running would be my go to exercise here:
After ovulation, oestrogen and testosterone levels fall rapidly. Progesterone will begin to rise. Progesterone has the opposite effect to the other two hormones. I always feel more tired and a little sluggish.
I find it really important to exercise in the morning around this time of my cycle. This allows me to not only ease that feeling of sluggishness but also to make sure I don’t use it as an excuse later in the day!
I prefer lower intensity training during week three. My exercise of choice here would be running. I still do strength training here but I would generally avoid really high intensity training.
Week 4 - energy levels low, emotions all over the place, bloating, PMS. Yoga really helps me connect my mind, body and soul here:
In the final week before your period, your energy levels may feel like they are falling further. PMS might have taken over. I generally feel like an elephant here. Despite training and eating well, I always feel heavy and I always get disheartened, even though I know why it is!
Oestrogen and progesterone will both be falling here. You may not feel like it but you may find that exercise really helps - give it a go! I find a connection between body, mind, and soul really important here. I will always prioritise yoga over any other training in week four of my cycle.
A lot of women experience PMT, find your coping mechanism here and make sure those around you know why you are feeling that way. This is often the time you may cry but 'you don't know why,' check where you are in your cycle and your ever changing hormones may give you the answer you are looking for.
Time to reflect, start tracking, understanding and utilising your period cycle.
I hope a little explanation about where your hormones will be throughout your period cycle has given you the chance to reflect on why you feel how you feel when you feel like that! Everyone is different, I would urge you all to start tracking not only where you are in your cycle but tracking your emotions too. I would also recommend you share your tracking with your closest family/friends. That will give them the understanding why you want to party all night long one minute and sit on the sofa watching rom coms with a cup of hot chocolate the next minute. It may also help you plan your training program to suit how your body will be feeling.
I try to keep my training as varied as possible so I will do all of these types of exercise throughout the month but I will sway towards the type of exercise that is going to be the best for my body at that time of the month. For me, that is:
Week 1: high intensity training towards the end of the week
Week 2: strength training
Week 3: running
Week 4: yoga
I wanted to finish off with my story, maybe some of you can relate. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, being open and honest with one of my great friends has really helped me.
I went on the contraceptive pill at 15 years old, I had really bad acne and it was the second to last resort for my Doctor. I went onto the combined pill - Yasmin, and I didn’t come off it until October 2018. That is a huge 13 years on the same pill. As I moved around, in Manchester, Sydney and London, doctors all commented on the length of time I have been on the same pill but never took me off.
It was something I had spoken to my (now) husband about reasonably frequently, quite soon into our relationship. He had always said he wished there was an alternative that he could take instead of me having to pump my body full of hormones. He, being a scientist, looks at things a little differently to me, but he was quite right. It was really only about 18 months ago that I realised what I had been doing to my body for over ten years. The final straw was a really strange reaction I had had in one of my period cycles. I realised; it was time to try to get back to my natural cycle.
I came off the pill in October 2018, didn’t get a period until March 2019 and have only just been getting reasonably consistent cycles in the last couple of months, albeit they are a little short. Not ideal when you are wanting to start a family.
What has been really helpful for me, in this challenging time, has been tracking my periods, paying particular attention to my emotions and how I feel when I exercise or what type of exercise I feel like doing. Not only for exercise purposes, but just to know why I may be feeling like superwoman one day and like a failure the next. My husband is also aware of where I am in my cycle and what that may mean for my moods/choice of exercise/how sociable I will feel etc.
I feel empowered by understanding my body and being able to work with it rather than fighting an uphill battle when my mind or body isn’t up for it. Please get in touch with me if you would like some assistance in how to work with your period cycles in your exercise regime.