Unlock Your Athletic Potential with Menstrual Cycle Training
Pre menopausal women; trans men; and non binary people with a uterus, have our own seasons of cycling oestrogen and progesterone. We menstruate. We are stronger at different points in our cycle and we are more prone to injury at others. If you are an athlete - or a performance athlete - it makes sense to understand where you are in your cycle and train accordingly. In a study of two groups of women (I’m going to use matriarchal language from here onwards) those who lifted heavy weights every third day for a month had a 13% increase in strength. Those who lifted once a week during the high progesterone and oestrogen phases of their cycle and every other day when their hormones were low - had a 32% increase in strength. In 2015 Chelsea Football Club started using periodised training based on each athlete’s menstrual cycle, they attribute this approach to a reduction in injuries and in better overall performance if you are a person that menstruates then it might be worth implementing. Stacy Sims has based her entire career around helping people understand how to do this. Most of the following information comes from her book ROAR.
To oversimplify things we have a low hormone phase at the start of our cycle; we have rising oestrogen before ovulation; we have another low hormone phase after ovulation; and then a rise in progesterone and oestrogen in the week before we bleed again. This can be seen in this picture from clue - the period tracker app
In the low hormone start of the cycle our exercise physiology is most like a man’s. Paula Radcliffe famously earned her world record marathon time in 2002 despite period cramps and Uta Pippig won the Boston Marathon in 1996 with blood pouring down her leg as she crossed the finish line. Women have greater strength gains and produce more force in the first half of their cycle, they also have higher pain thresholds and recover faster. This is also the time of the month when caffeine’s influence on hormones will be the least impactful. Caffeine has a complex relationship with oestrogen and depending on your genetics drinking it may lead to cortisol production and increased oestrogen levels.
☞This is the time of the month to lift heavy weights and go hard on your conditioning. Learn complicated drops and difficult choreography This is a time when the body’s collagen synthesis increases and where women have lower reported injuries to their joints.
During the high oestrogen part of the cycle the body’s capacity for muscle glycogen turnover (accessing and using our stored carbohydrates) is down. This slows recovery as bodies need available carbs to recover quickly. If those muscle glycogen stores aren’t replenished through eating adequate carbohydrates then subsequent exercise capacity will drop considerably.
People are afraid of carbohydrates but they are fuel. We need them to train at our best. This article has some really tasty carbohydrate snack ideas.
It is also important to keep an eye on your fibre intake about now as fibre rich foods (such as whole-grains) help reduce the absorption of cholesterol which is a precursor to oestrogen. High fibre intake also leads to reduced oestrogen absorption in the colon and increased faecal oestrogen excretion. On the other hand, refined carbohydrates and processed foods elevate oestrogen levels.
Now is also the time to take care of your joints as high oestrogen is linked to high relaxin levels and a decline in collagen synthesis. Collagen is the main protein found in tendons and ligaments. You may want to drink bone broth or take a collagen supplement at this point
☞This is the time of month to work through skills that you already know but need tidying up, drill them until they are sharp.
Mid Luteal Phase
The second half of the cycle is when things get hard if we don’t have the right support in place.
High progesterone increases the fluid in our cells which decreases blood plasma volume, this in turn affects our capacity to sweat and results in sodium loss. To stay on top of hydration you might want to drink sodium rich fluids like miso soup before training.
High progesterone also makes it difficult to rebuild and repair muscles and this is the time when central nervous system fatigue can set in. Training can feel much harder at this point. To counteract this Sims recommends eating protein high in leucine - a muscle building amino acid - 30 minutes before and after exercise. This might be a peanut butter sandwich; an egg, a protein ball with hemp and pumpkin seeds in it, yoghurt, cheese - there are multiple options. A casein rich bedtime snack such as yoghurt or cottage cheese provides slow release proteins to support muscle repair.
To help the central nervous system and to fight the lack of mojo you will need to boost magnesium, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids. Foods that are naturally rich in magnesium are leafy greens, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, zinc is found in cashews, seeds, beef, egg yolks, whole grains, dairy, and chocolate, omega-3 fatty acids are found in salmon, chia seed, flax seed and edamame.
At this time there is also a decrease in reaction times, neuromuscular coordination and manual dexterity. This is where I need to be unpopular and remind you that alcohol (ethanol) is a neurotoxin. It kills brain cells. Alcohol also distracts the liver from excreting excess oestrogen. Right now, your brain needs all the support it can get and so reaching for kombucha is going to be a much better drink option.
☞In this second half of your cycle your choreography can be perfected; you can work on active flexibility drills; improve your technique; perfect your transitions; and work on your musicality.
That was a whole lot of information so I’ve made a small infographic to summarise my points here
And. For a much more in-depth explanation of all this magical stuff I really do recommend Stacy Sim’s book ROAR, the updated edition has just been released.