I have been working as a personal trainer for over 6 years and I would say at least 60% of my clients have been female. I began to notice that some of my female clients performances would randomly drop off at certain times of the month. Some would just tell me that the don't have the energy, I even have had one client who has had historic back pain but this only seem to come back and cause problems once a month during her training.
One day I was reading a book and this talked about how a females menstrual cycle can effect her training. This is something that I was never taught about during my qualification and also something clients have never spoken to me about before. I decided to do more reading around the subject and also began to discuss this subject more with my female clients. Being a male and obviously having no personal experience of this, I was unsure how comfortable my clients would feel about talking to me about it. However I found that they all felt comfortable to talk to me but to my astonishment the majority of them had no awareness of how their menstrual cycle effected their training. This lack of awareness resulted in them just punishing themselves for thinking they are being lazy rather then actually understanding their physiology.
So how does your menstrual cycle effect your training?
The menstrual cycle can be broken down into 4 phases; menstruation, follicular, ovulation, and luteal. Each stage can have a different effect on your body, how you feel and how you decide to exercise.
Menstruation (Day 1 -7)
This phase is commonly referred to as your period and can normally last 3 to 7 days. Your hormone levels drop to their lowest and it is common to experience some of the following symptoms; stomach cramps, tender breasts, bloating, mood swings, tiredness, headaches and lower back pain. It is normal for food cravings to increase and added water retention. I often recommend my clients take note of what week they are on in their cycle when weighing themselves and instead of comparing week by week, they compare their week 1 with week 1, week 2 with week 2 and so on.
Exercise considerations: There has been mix study's on how your strength is affected during this phase but fatigue is likely to play a part, therefore overall training volume should be reduced. You should also look to reduce your intensity of your sessions and avoid high impact exercises as this may make you feel uncomfortable. However study's have shown that the first two weeks of your cycle can have the greatest impact on physical performance.
A good way to approach this week is with shorter but precise workouts. Get in, get it done, go home!
Follicular (Day 7-14)
As hormone levels begin to increase so does your energy levels. During this phase your body is preparing for ovulation and begins to prepare another egg. Research suggests that this phase has a greater effect on muscle strength and size compared to the luteal phase.
Exercise considerations: With the increase levels of energy this is a great time to look to increase your strength and cardiovascular fitness. Your training should primary focus on progressive overload .
Ovulation (Day 14-16)
This falls right in the middle of your cycle and is when you are your most fertile. It is often associated with an increased energy levels, confidence and a high libido.
Exercise considerations: Energy levels and motivation can feel really good at this phase resulting in you being able to set new personal bests and really pushing your training onto the next level. However with the increase levels of oestrogen you are also at greater risk of injury and this should be taken into consideration.
Luteal (Day 16-28)
During this phase your body realises that you have not become pregnant and therefore begins to prepare itself for the next cycle. This is often when you experience the most emotional and behavioural symptoms. It is common to have a drop in your mood, feeling more anxious, irritable and emotional outbursts. Your appetite can also increase along with food cravings. Research suggests that woman may actually require up to 10% more calories per a day during this phase. A 2003 study found this requirement can have a wide variation between women and adding additional calories should be taken with extreme caution if aiming for a calorie deficit.
Exercise Considerations: Don't put to much pressure on yourself and fight against your body. This could potentially be a good time to plan some extra rest days or focus more on technique drills rather then progressive overload.
It is important to remember that every women is effected differently by their menstrual cycle and even each cycle it's self can be different. One meta-analysis concluded ' it is recommended that a personalised approach should be taken based on each individual's response to exercise performance across the MC'.
It is a good to be aware of the above considerations and how it could effect your exercise. I recommend tracking your cycle and make note of common symptoms you begin to notice. Over time you will be able to build a bigger picture and as a result of this you will be able to tailor your training accordingly. You will no longer walk away from sessions feeling demotivated and frustrated!