Updated: Mar 16, 2021
The menstrual cycle and how it can affect your ability to train and stick to nutritional interventions is important to understand.
I’m, of course, not a master on the topic and I do believe that experience helps to coach. I’ve been through most things training and ‘diet’ has thrown at me however this is not something I can draw from experience on, for obvious reasons.
What I can do is direct you towards the science and provoke a deeper understanding as to why you may be feeling some of the mental and physical feelings you do during your cycle. Hopefully, this will help you to understand how this may affect your journey.
The menstrual cycle occurs over 28 days (typically). Over this time period you will experience 3 different phases.
The Follicular Phase- Typically days 1-14
Ovulation- Mid Point/ Day 14
The Luteal Phase- Typically days 14-28
During these phases you are going to experience huge changes in your hormone levels. The particular hormones I want to draw your attention to are Oestrogen and Progesterone. Below are brief introductions to these hormones.
Oestrogen/ Oestradiol - Oestrogen tends to get a bad rap. During your cycle, oestrogen is your friend and should be welcomed with wide arms. Oestrogen is a group of hormones, and within that group is Oestradiol, the hormone I am referring to in this piece. This hormone can suppress appetite, increase strength, increase appetite and help with overall performance.
Progesterone- This hormone is responsible for increased hunger and cravings, reduction in strength and performance, lethargy, decreased motivation and, generally, all the other terrible feelings associated. I think this is the one that gets me shouted at for breathing? Just kidding, I think.
The table above demonstrates the phases of your cycle and the peaks and troughs of the aforementioned hormones. If you analyse the graph, you’ll understand that it is reasonable to believe that the first two weeks will see a peak in your strength levels and will power, due to the higher levels of oestrogen and lower levels of progesterone. As the cycle continues we see the progesterone levels elevate. In this case it’s reasonable to presume strength and willingness to train will nosedive.
Knowing these things will help us strategically programme our goals and training around this. It can sometimes be hard to discuss these things with trainers but it is very much something that should be considered in your decision making throughout the process of losing weight. For the last two weeks it may be worthwhile meeting your calories for weight maintenance or at least understand that these are some of the most challenging weeks to diet so you can be more realistic with your expectations.
This is very generic, and everyone is different. You will know your bodies more than anyone but hopefully this will encourage you to pay more attention to them so that you can maximise the times when you’re, for lack of a better term, ‘physically and mentally peaking’, and be more pragmatic in the times you are not.
I usually suggest to clients that they are well read around the subject and listen to podcasts around the topic area. It gives an oversight of the science and also anecdotal experiences that you may be able to relate to and take something from.
The Cycle Stages and Implications for Training
Follicular Phase – As previously mentioned, this is a great time to focus on progression. Due to the higher levels of oestrogen you’ll find you are more tolerant to pain and have higher levels of strength, power and endurance. In this period, your body will most likely have a higher insulin sensitivity. This might not mean too much to you but essentially your body will have a higher uptake of carbohydrates so it is a great time to fuel up on carbs!
Ovulation - At this point, you will be at the peak of your powers, so to speak. Due to the peak in Oestrogen you may be susceptible to injury. The hormone can promote performance by helping muscles and bones to recover and strengthen, however in contrast, it can reduce tendon and ligament stiffness. So don’t be surprised if your balance is off and you have a few niggles here and there. This is a good time to progress, but be mindful of proper technique and go easy on the plyometrics for the sake of your joints. I’d advocate strength training during this time with low impact cardio. HIIT training, for me, is rarely the answer. Even more so during ovulation.
Luteal Phase - This is a stage where you will be feeling tired, hungry, irritable and generally low, both physical and mentally. Bearing this in mind, it is no time to be striving for personal bests and perfection in your diet. Having said that, it is no excuse to do nothing. During this time your body will burn more fat than usual. With this in mind, it is a great time to focus on low intensity exercises which have more of a fat-burning effect due to their aerobic nature. Some examples of this could be swimming, walking, gentle bike rides. This may be a phase to reduce your carbohydrate intake a little bit. Putting this into practise, of course, may present its challenges, given the fact that your cravings may mean saying no to these foods is quite the challenge. I’m not a fan of using scale weight as an indicator for progress as it is, but if you are going to look at the scales, consider that during this stage, as your water retention will be higher. Combine this with your cravings for high carb/sugar/salty food and your water retention is likely to drastically increase, meaning the scales may not be demonstrating your desired figure. So, again, be pragmatic with your expectations during this time.
Just as you thought weight loss couldn’t be any more complicated, right? Hopefully this has provided some education for you and offers some answers to your confusion and frustration. Weight loss for women is a lot harder due to the menstrual cycle and this is not exactly shouted from the roof tops and doesn’t get the coverage it should do, for all the women out there who are struggling with their weight. It’s not for a lack of effort, I can tell you that. This knowledge can go so far to helping you rationalise the results you see, good or bad. Of course, as previously mentioned, there will be individual differences, but let this act as a guide for you to be more aware of your body specifically.