Tailoring Your Exercise Routine To Your Menstrual Cycle Can Seriously Boost Your Fitness

Photo credit: Catherine Wessel
Photo credit: Catherine Wessel

From Women’s Health

Before the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) revealed that they planned their 2019 World Cup training (they won, btw!) around players’ periods, the topic of how fluctuating hormones could potentially impact workouts wasn’t talked about much, er, at all.

But when you think about it, the idea makes so much sense that it’s shocking it’s not commonplace. “The way you move and breathe, how your heart beats, and your body’s reaction to exercise varies throughout your menstrual cycle,” says Georgie Bruinvels, PhD, co-creator of FitrWoman, the app the USWNT used.

Turns out, tailoring your routine to your cycle, a technique known as phase-based training, empowers you to take advantage of your physiology to look and feel your best and to perform at your fullest potential, according to Women’s Health advisory board member Stacy T. Sims, PhD, who’s been researching female athletes for 20 years.

And it’s not just for fitness pros either. Any woman can maximize her workouts by learning to go with her flow. No matter your goals, the right training during specific times of the month will optimize outcomes, says Sims.

The first step? Get to know—like, really know—your cycle. A period-tracking app (there are many; you’ll see) can help you understand each part of it—and how it impacts the body.

From there, use this guide to tweak your get-sweaty routine. You’ll be amazed by how good you feel once things are truly, totally simpatico.

Menstruation: Days 1–5

Right about now (the start of your period), low levels of estrogen and progesterone (plus extra inflammation) may have you feeling pretty unmotivated to get moving, says Bruinvels (womp womp). But it’s actually prime time to build strength and muscle, thanks to relatively high testosterone, Sims notes.

Do whatever workouts feel good.

If you’re craving easy, restorative movement, focus on low-intensity workouts like yoga, Pilates, and stretching during your period, says Bruinvels.

But…if you feel energized, hit the weights and lift heavy, says Sims. In fact, go for loads you can manage for only six reps, tops. (Try five sets of five reps at 80 percent of your one-rep max—i.e., the most weight you can lift for one rep.)

Follicular Phase: Days 6–14

Between the end of your period and about three days before ovulation, estrogen levels spike, which means you’ll have more energy to work out and recover faster. Woo! “Estrogen is associated with feeling happy, engaged, and strong,” says Bruinvels.

Now’s the time to up your training intensity.

If you feel next-level amazing, make the most of it by continuing to lean in to strength training, plus sprints and intense workouts. Now’s the time to bust out that jump rope or join a boot camp class and really push!

Ovulation: Days 15–23

Things get a little wonky in this part of your cycle. Around ovulation, estrogen briefly drops while progesterone increases. FYI: Higher levels of progesterone can contribute to muscle breakdown, making proper recovery even more important than usual, says Bruinvels.

Stick to steady state cardio and strength training.

Help your body bounce back by switching to moderate-intensity exercise, Sims says. Swap sprints for easy runs and stick to weights you can lift for eight to 10 reps. If you feel super sore, give yourself an extra day between workouts, Bruinvels adds.

Luteal Phase: Days 24–28

At this point, both estrogen and progesterone levels fall. As a result, PMS symptoms—like irritability and anxiety—start to creep up, while fluctuating blood-sugar levels and inflammation sap precious motivation.

Start winding down your fitness routine.

Since your body isn’t in peak performance condition right now (and you probs don’t have World Cup glory on the line to fire you up), use exercise to reduce stress. Opt for Pilates, yoga, or slow runs.

When strength training, focus on form. Nailing it now will prepare you to load more weight when a new cycle starts, says Sims.

The Best Cycle-Tracking Apps

To create the best routine for your body, you gotta become BFFs with your cycle.
These apps can help you log (and decode!) each phase.

This article appears in the July/August 2020 issue of Women’s Health. Subscribe now.

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