Cycle Tracking - What I’ve learnt and how I use it to train.
Topic of the month in the studio seems to have been 'time of the month'… numerous questions asked and sessions canceled or changed to accommodate cramps, bloating, sore joints and/or lack of motivation. Periods can suck (and warning Perimenopausal periods can suck even more) and a common question has been “should I still exercise?”
This got me thinking about all the study I’ve done over the years about training with the menstrual cycle and I have to confess, I studied the menstrual cycle and its effects on training while on the pill, and as I have taken it for the majority of my reproductive life, I had never truly felt the effects of hormone peaks and troughs; because the pill balances and masks these. 8 months ago, however, I stopped taking it and started tracking my cycle and it’s been quite the revelation. I now understand how my cycle affects me; my mood, sleep, training and appetite and it has been eye opening and (in my opinion) worth sharing, and hopefully I can do so in an easy to understand, non sciencey way. Obviously everyone is different and this is my personal experience, but there are things that I’m sure will resonate with others. I’m no expert, I’m simply sharing my experience and, mixed with what I’ve learnt through various courses and books, I hope you might find it helpful.
So I’ll get into it, starting with Day one..
Day 1 of the menstrual cycle is the first day of bleeding and for the first few days I’m generally a bit sluggish, crampy and unmotivated, but find that doing some exercise helps alleviate cramps and actually energizes me.
Picking the right kind of movement is imperative here, my go to is the bike, where I can ease myself in and choose how hard to push. I usually find that once I’ve started, I feel better and can then add on some resistance work. Action creates motivation! The bleed phase is always more about just moving my body, I opt for lower reps or sets and rarely will I be lifting heavier weights, unless I really feel like it. Interestingly research has shown that women can make greater strength gains and produce more force when they strength train during this low hormone phase of the cycle and for me once the bleed phase has stopped, and my energy has returned, It is game on!
Day 4 and my energy and motivation are usually back, my sleep has improved and I find I want to nourish my body with good food and I actually feel stronger. The next 7-10 days are my prime time in the gym. Making the most of my elevated energy levels I usually feel like performing all the prescribed reps and sets and this is often where I perform my best and strength/fitness gains are seen.
Day 12 (ish, but not always noticeable) I experience discomfort/cramping similar to period pain on one side which I now know to be associated with ovulation - yes you still ovulate during perimenopause - so pregnancy is still an option (thanks, but no thanks!) But, cramps aside, I tend to still have all the energy and motivation required to nail my workouts. It is worth noting that during this ovulation phase research shows that our tendons and ligaments are more lax and therefore prone to damage, so really take care to warm up properly and ensure you nail your form!
Day 14 - 20 my sleep starts to suffer. As soon as I cross the midpoint of my cycle my body temperature rises; my Oura ring tracks this and shows that the rise in my baseline temperature correlates with less restorative sleep. This is also when I sometimes wake with night sweats and is a common byproduct of what’s happening with hormones (drop in estrogen and increase in progesterone). Over the next few days I find myself feeling more fatigued, brain foggy, craving less satiating food and in all honesty being a bit of a cranky pants. By day 20 I’m more inclined to skip workouts, opting for long walks instead, or, when doing a workout, I’ll reduce reps/sets so I can honor my energy and not burn myself out. For me, this is the time when that extra set can be the difference between finishing the workout energized or exhausted, and I always want to pick energized!
In general, but particularly at this time of the month I have been putting more focus on eating a protein rich breakfast and lunch in order to ward off the inevitable snack attacks later in the day. Yes, during the luteal phase of the cycle there is an increase in calorie need but at only 100-300 extra calories a day it’s easy to go overboard, and when tired and cranky the healthiest choices are not always made!
Day 23 (ish) is where things don't feel so great - my energy is awol, my boobs hate me, I’m bloated and uncomfortable. Fatigue is next level, I often get a headache that is hard to shift, my joints start to ache and my tolerance is shot. I can feel anxious at things that would not normally make me feel that way, and the thought of working out does not fill me with its usual joy. These are all common pre-menstrual symptoms and a lot to do with the plummet of estrogen. However, most of these symptoms can be relieved somewhat by moving my body in some form or another. Walking, biking, lifting weights (but not shooting for PR’s) or doing mobility/core work are my go to and play a significant part in lifting my mood and giving me a little pocket of energy. I tend to avoid jumping/skipping at this time as the old pelvic floor feels a bit less resilient, another common symptom of lower estrogen levels.
I ride these few days out knowing that the cramps and bleed are not far away and then when that day comes we are back to Day 1 again.
Rinse and repeat until they become more erratic…. So far my periods have been fairly regular, and I’m aware that the further down my perimenopause journey I get, the more irregular they will become. But tracking has really highlighted my stronger and weaker times; physically, mentally and emotionally. The times when I know I can push myself and the times when I need to be kinder to myself. I know that days 4 - 16 are my optimal training days, the days when my fitness/strength gains are more likely to be made BUT that every other day whether it’s rest or play, plays its part in contributing to these, so not to lay off too much. It’s a fine balance, a hormonal tightrope, and all about listening to my body and honoring its requests.
As a trainer I encourage you to do the same, honor your body, push when you can and don’t feel bad about taking your foot off the pedal when you need to. If you don’t already, try tracking your cycle so you can see any patterns, I just use the health app on my phone as well as my Oura ring and I always make notes with regard to my exercise about how I was feeling. Simple things that take very little time but can make understanding our bodies so much easier.
Health and Happiness