Work with your cycle, not against it

If you are a woman of childbearing years, one way to biohack your performance is to pay attention to your cycle and monthly fluctuations in hormones.

Our cycle tells us a lot about not just our fertility but also our overall health.

Sex hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone play a big part in how we feel, how we build muscle, and how we recover after workouts.

Work with your biology

Our bodies strive to function at their best and often give us clues as to what they need. We just need to pay attention!

Our food cravings may indicate what nutrients we lack, and our energy levels can help dictate what movement is best. If you want to start working with your biology, instead of against it, training for your cycle is a great place to start experimenting.

READ MORE | Local Company Launches Period-Proof Underwear Range

The menstruation basics

Your cycle is broken down into two halves, and 4 distinct parts:

  1. Menstruation: This is what kicks off your cycle each month. The first day of menstruation is considered day 1. This is when hormones are low, your body has realised it is not pregnant and is busy shedding the lining of your uterus to prepare for another go at it.
  2. Follicular Phase: This first half of your cycle is called the follicular phase because your ovaries are getting ready to release an egg and prepare for fertilisation. Hormones like oestrogen and luteinizing hormone are on the rise and then drop just prior to ovulation.
  3. The Big O – Ovulation Day: This marks the middle of your cycle and lasts 24-48 hours. An egg is present and waiting to be fertilised. These are your most fertile days.
  4. Luteal Phase: Once ovulation passes, you start what many women call the two week wait. This is the second part of your cycle and the time between ovulation and your next period. Oestrogen rises again, along with progesterone, and then they both fall just prior to the end of your cycle.

READ MORE | How Your Menstrual Cycle Affects Your Training

Impact on training

So, what does this have to do with training? Being in tune with your cycle gives you an opportunity to do some biohacking to start looking and feeling your best.

By choosing the right workouts at the right time, you can improve your performance, decrease risk of injuries, and curb PMS symptoms.

As such, it is beneficial to know what kind of workouts are best during each phase, how nutritional needs may change, and how to program your month to get the best results.

READ MORE | PUMA And Modibodi® Create Period Underwear Range For Women

A phased approach

Follicular Phase: This is when you will probably feel like the best version of yourself. Your body is flush with oestrogen and progesterone is low. As you get closer to ovulation day, you may notice changes in your body that make you look and feel sexier than ever. It’s basic evolution – your breasts become more supple, energy levels rise, focus and concentration improve and your libido may be through the roof. Your body is focused on securing a match for the fresh ripe egg your it is getting ready to release.

So take advantage of this phase when it comes to working out! Use this boost in energy and focus to do high-intensity workouts and heavy weight lifting to really push your limits.

I always feel way more productive during the first half of my cycle and can do more without getting fatigued. This is when I program intense HIIT workouts, hill sprints, heavy leg days, and workouts that require focus and power.

A 2014 study shows that strength training in the follicular phase leads to greater increases in strength, compared to training in the luteal phase.

READ MORE | Insulin Resistance Could Be Affecting Your Fertility

Ovulation Phase: Your most fertile days are the five days leading up to ovulation. You may be feeling pretty great as energy levels remain high, but research shows that this is when you are most prone to tendon injuries, so taking care of your body is key.

During this phase you want to focus on longer dynamic warmups and listen to your body. Do not push through pain as this can lead to injuries. Pay attention to your form and work in additional stretching and low impact exercises to your workout routine.

Luteal Phase: Ah, progesterone, the dreaded hormone that contributes to symptoms of PMS such as fatigue, breast tenderness, mood swings, brain fog, digestion issues and bloating. It rises sharply during the luteal phase and plays an important part in fertility as it prepares the womb for an egg to implant and supports early pregnancy.

You may feel sluggish on these days and would much rather wrap yourself in a blanket on the couch than go out for a 5k run. Pay attention to these cues!

This is not the time for high-intensity workouts or heavy strength sessions. Strength training during this phase leads to decreased strength gains, increased fatigue, poor endurance, and sub-optimal performance overall.

Focus on incorporating restorative activities such as yoga, low impact cardio, and meditation. And don’t be discouraged if you can’t hit your previous PBs.

Rather focus on mindful movement and being consistent with your routine. As much as you may want to lie in bed, getting your body moving will help curb PMS symptoms.

Personally, I try to reduce stress on my body during this time and opt to exercise at midday, instead of forcing myself to grind it out first thing in the morning.

Menstruation Phase: Although it may feel like you want to stay curled up in a ball, there is no reason to skip training sessions during your period.

Research on the effects of exercise participation on menstrual pain and symptoms showed that exercise can actually help reduce cramps, boost energy levels, and help flush the extra fluid caused by bloating. If you are feeling tired, back off the intensity and incorporate more walks and low volume training.

Nutritional Needs

Craving carbs and doughnuts before your period? Your body may be giving you some clues.

Increased oestrogen and progesterone can suppress your body’s ability to convert non-carb sources into glucose, which means you will perform better if you add additional carbs to your diet, especially when planning a longer workout.

High progesterone levels during the luteal phase also bring with it greater protein requirements, so eating additional protein during the second half of your cycle can help. The bottom line is, save the low carb diets for the first half of your cycle to keep your energy levels high after ovulation.

READ MORE | 4 Reasons For Unexpected Weight Gain 

What about contraceptives?

Hormonal contraceptives artificially manipulate hormone levels to prevent you from falling pregnant. This may provide a protective mechanism against the effects of natural hormone fluctuations on your injury risk and performance.

A 2020 study published in Sports Medicine suggests that oral contraceptives may offer a 20% reduced risk of injury, especially when it comes to ACL strains or tears. Although injury risk is lower, the research on oral contraceptives and performance is weak, and most studies show no major difference in performance between those on the pill and those who aren’t.

Contraceptives can bring with them a host of other side effects, though, so it is important to take an individualised approach when deciding if they are right for you.

There are many ways to train with your cycle, instead of working against it. Planning more intense workouts for the first half of your cycle and exercising with more low-intensity and restorative movement during the second half can not only help you perform better but will leave you feeling in tune with your female biology, giving your body what it needs, when it needs it.

By Natasha Caleel Freutel

About the author

Natasha Caleel Freutel is a health and fitness writer, personal trainer and licensed occupational therapist. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and master’s degree in occupational therapy from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She founded Fit Mama Santa Barbara in 2014 to help women exercise safely and effectively during pregnancy and postpartum. In her free time, you can find her playing at the beach with her husband and kids or taking their dog on a long hike. Connect with Natasha @fitmamasb on Instagram or online.

This contribution was created in partnership with FITposium, an annual educational and inspirational seminar focused on success in the fitness modelling and entrepreneurial industry. Held in Arizona in the US, this workshop features a variety of sessions to prepare fitness talents with everything they need to know to enter the market and succeed. For more info about FITposium, visit fitposium.com.


Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

When he's not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He's worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *