As a woman who works out 5-6 times a week, I haven’t given much thought to the idea of adapting my workout habits to fit with my menstrual cycle beyond making sure I’m wearing black leggings during period week if I haven’t decided to skip exercise completely, and I’m not alone. According to a study conducted by Women in Sport, 42% of girls don’t exercise during their periods and a staggering 46% of women aged 14-21 say they are embarrassed by their periods, according to Plan International.
This is perhaps unsurprising since periods are still considered taboo enough for Instagram to remove, on two occasions, images shared by Canadian artist Rupi Kaur when she posted a series on the platform depicting a spot of blood on sheets and on her clothing. The irony being that the aim of the posts was intended to challenge the negative stigma surrounding periods.
The messaging around exercising champions consistency, and that is what I attempt to emulate with my own training by exercising in the same way throughout the weeks and months without giving thought to modifying the type of exercise or the intensity. That my body feels differently week on week has never been something I factor into my training, yet having an understanding of how to work out alongside our cycle will not only help us optimise our training but can also encourage us to exercise in a way that treats our bodies with more compassion.
Women are biochemically different to men and our hormones fluctuate throughout our cycles/life stages, so it follows that physical activity will be impacted by these shifts. Our dietary needs also shift during our cycles as well as the amount of physical activity we do. In spite of this, there is a huge lack of sports and medical data pertaining to women. Jennis Fitness explains on their website that “Only 4% of medical studies are done exclusively on women and most training programmes are created for the physiology of men and a 24-hour cycle”.
Many of us lack knowledge when it comes to our monthly hormone cycle and this leaves us in the dark when it comes to optimising our training to make use of these hormonal dips and spikes. These changes affect our metabolism, meaning that our calorie requirements also change during our cycle, also known as our ‘infradian rhythm’. Now it is easier than ever to sync our exercise routine with our menstrual cycle with the advent of tracking apps such as Jennis Cyclemapping developed by Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis Hill and Dr Emma Ross, a leading expert in women’s hormonal health. The Jennis website explains that the app “empowers women to truly understand their bodies and hormones, then shows you how to train, eat and sleep for optimised hormonal health.”
So, what are the stages and what could we be doing differently, based on a regular 28 day cycle?
Menstruation (week one of your cycle)
You can keep the workout mild in nature with a walk, light jog or some gentle yoga or stretching.
Follicular Phase (week two of your cycle)
Oestrogen levels are low at this stage with raised levels of cortisol so a good week for some challenging cardio.
Ovulation (takes place sometime during week 3 of cycle)
Testosterone peaks at this phase so a good time to week to focus on high intensity training such as weights and HIIT. Levels are highest in the morning so squeeze in an early workout maximises the extra energy!
Luteal phase (pre-menstrual – week four of cycle)
Yoga and pilates are particularly good for this phase as you can vary the intensity to suit your needs. This includes yoga that involves sweaty, energising vinyasa flows to make use of the last of the energy increase from the previous week, and restorative yin yoga to help soothe any pre-menstrual symptoms that may occur such as cramps or bloating.
With a rise in women participating in sports such as weight lifting and skateboarding, areas traditionally dominated by men, the type of exercise that women are accessing is broadening. Organisations like This Girl Can aims to celebrate and promote a range of physical activities to women of all abilities, backgrounds and life stages. Hopefully this will generate more funding in the research towards women’s sports and medical data and begin the long task in bridging the data gap.
Beginning to learn about how my cycle affects my training has inspired me to shake up my routine rather than sticking to my current rigid format. I am intrigued to see if I can lift heavier by shifting kettle-bell and HIIT exercises to fit with my ovulation week, and I’m already loving the idea of swapping out a couple of my challenging yoga classes in favour of some restorative yin yoga during the luteal phase. There is no reason why our routines can’t find a more harmonious rhythm.
Written by Yasmina Floyer