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This year I randomly decided that I was going to run my first ever half marathon (21.1km) at the upcoming Nike Melbourne Marathon Festival. (Hahaha, how good are breakups?!). Honestly, that seemed a bit difficult, considering there are almost two weeks out of every month where exercising is the last fucking thing I want to do, thanks to my menstrual cycle. However, I recently learned that if you practice alignment with your menstrual cycle, you can change it.
Yes, as your body goes through various hormonal fluctuations throughout the 28 days (the average cycle), there are a few things you should change in your routine to get the most out of your energy levels.
How can I know this magical information? BC, I enlisted the help of Nike Run Coach and all-around legend Lydia O’Donnell, who explained to me how the different phases of our cycles affect your ability (and will) to do some exercice.
“By tracking your menstrual cycle and understanding the hormonal fluctuations that occur throughout the cycle, you are able to tailor your training/exercise to these fluctuations and get the most out of your female physiology,” says O’ Donnell. By doing so, you not only give your body what it needs when it needs it, but you also establish a more lasting relationship between your body and exercise.
So first of all, what are the different stages of your menstrual cycle?
The follicular phase
According to O’Donnell, you’ll likely feel your strongest and fittest during the follicular phase. This is the first half of your menstrual cycle (day 1 is the first day of your period), and it goes from day 1 until just after ovulation (which for a 28-day cycle is around of the 14th day).
“The follicular phase is dominated by estrogen, and when the female sex hormone, progesterone, is at its lowest. Estrogen is anabolic, which means it helps build lean muscle mass and gives the body the ability to store glycogen more easily,” says O’Donnell.
This means you’ll likely have more energy to burn and your body will recover faster and easier. During this phase of the month, you’ll want to hit all of your exercise goals, so try to make the most of it.
What type of exercise should you do during the follicular phase?
During the follicular phase, O’Donnell recommends doing these workouts harder. “It’s a good time to push the body relatively hard. With the rise in estrogen during ovulation, we tend to encourage higher intensity workouts that allow you to raise your heart rate.
So consider HIIT workouts, F45, boxing, AMRAP bodyweight workouts, sprint and insurance runs, and other higher intensity workouts.
If you’re struggling with persistent menstrual symptoms during the follicular phase, you can still opt for light activity during those early days to help relieve cramping and improve period-related symptoms, O’Donnell says.
The ovulation phase
Next comes the ovulation phase, which is the stage of your cycle where everything seems peachy and possible (not to mention excited). This usually happens between days 12 and 15 and is when ovulation occurs, so your estrogen levels peak and an egg is released. You also have a small spike in testosterone, says O’Donnell, which means it’s a great time to build lean muscle and give the body the ability to store glycogen easily.
How to exercise during the ovulation phase?
This phase is super beneficial for building strength, so if you’re someone who loves lifting weights, this is your place to shine, babbbbbby. Focus on those strength and conditioning exercises.
The luteal phase
Ah, the luteal phase (which I like least). The luteal phase can be one of the hardest to exercise through, as it’s dominated by progesterone, which can make us feel a lot more shitty and drained than other parts of our cycle. This is the part of your cycle where your PMS symptoms begin to appear.
“Progesterone is catabolic, meaning it breaks down muscle instead of building it. Progesterone levels can vary up to six times between those who are menstruating, and progesterone levels can impact severity of your premenstrual symptoms (PMS),” says O’Donnell.
How to exercise during the luteal phase?
Given this part of the menstrual cycle where PMS hits the hardest, you probably won’t feel ANY motivation to exercise, and that’s okay.
It’s especially important that during the luteal phase you focus more on rest and recovery anyway, says O’Donnell. “As progesterone declines, our energy levels can also drop, and to get the most out of our bodies during the follicular phase, it’s important to pull things back slightly during the luteal phase.”
That’s not to say you can’t work out, but focus more on low-intensity workouts like pilates, hot girl walks, and yoga.
Personally, I think a lot of us struggle with the rest and recovery part of our cycle instead of embracing it. We’re so used to health and fitness that we stop listening to our bodies, which can lead to over-exercising.
So does it really work?
Since learning all this super practical information, I’ve been following a 12-week workout program that aligns with my cycle to get me ready for the demi-mara. I can honestly say the difference is simply stunning.
By observing what stage of my menstrual cycle I am in and choosing workouts that fit that phase, I have noticed a massive change in the way my mind and body respond to workouts. I’m slowly learning that you don’t have to train like an absolute fiend daily to see better overall fitness. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I’m leaner, more muscular, and fitter now than I was 10 weeks ago. And I really like to exercise during my luteal phase, where previously I was in the human form of a potato for two weeks.
Demi-mara Melbs is less than two weeks away (you can still sign up here, if you want to join me) and I think it’s humanly possible to do so, even though I’m in my luteal phase.
If you’re already someone who likes to exercise, why not change it to align with your menstrual cycle and see if that makes a difference for you? It can’t hurt.
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