Timing Workouts Around Your Cycle | How Hormones Affect Exercise

Timing Workouts Around Your Cycle
How Hormones Affect Exercise

Could your menstrual cycle affect your workout progress?

If you're like me you're probably saying YES!  When I have PMS, I feel crappy and my workouts suffer for sure! But, around here we dig little deeper.  I wanted to know what the science said, and if there was more to it than the obvious.  

We're always talking about "do more, work harder, don't let up" etc. in order to get results.  But the truth is, that's not great advice.  Yes, consistency is KEY, but so is working with your own body, listening to what it needs, and not always forcing it to comply.  Learning how to work smarter not harder.  Taking your menstrual cycle into consideration when planning your training might be a super important way to honor what your body needs AND make faster progress toward your fitness goals.  

Unfortunately the science is a bit lacking when it comes to women and fitness.  Exercise science is still highly male dominated, and most exercise studies are done on healthy men.  Add to that inconsistency among women who menstruate AND women on hormonal birth control, in perimenopause, menopause and post menopause, and there's a TON variability in what any results a study might yield, and how they might apply to you personally. 

BUT we can make some generalities that can guide you, and help you make the right decisions for yourself.  In this episode I will:
 - give a quick overview of your cycle and the hormone fluctuations taking place
 - help you understand all the ways we know those hormone fluctuations can affect your workouts and recovery
 - give you a week by week schedule of how you could program your workouts to work WITH your cycle.

Bottom line: Tracking your menstrual cycle is a MUST, and using that knowledge to inform your workout schedule could be exactly what you're missing!  


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Full transcription available at the bottom of this post

Show Notes: 

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Full Transcript: 

Welcome back to the No Nonsense Wellness Podcast. I'm so happy you're here. Today we're talking about your menstrual cycle and training your workouts, you already know that your hormones affect basically everything. So could your menstrual cycle be affecting your workout results? Can you maximize results and maximize fat loss if you train according to your cycle? Today, we're going to take a look at what the science says. And if this is a concept, you might want to start incorporating it into your healthy lifestyle. So let's go! 

Welcome back to the no nonsense wellness podcast, the place for women who are trying to do all the things and stay healthy, sane and actually enjoy life in the process. Hey, I'm Tara, a trained therapist, a life coach, a nutrition coach and a fitness instructor. And I'm on a mission to help you take back control of your mind health and life. Each week, I'll be cutting through the nonsense and getting real with you. I'll bring you the insight and information you need to take control of your weight and health. Find food freedom. And finally break free from the thoughts that are sabotaging you and holding you back. You, my friend are powerful, and the world needs you to start showing up in a bigger way. It's time to get unstuck and start moving forward. So let's pop in those earbuds, tie up those shoes. Let's walk and talk.

Before we get started, I want to remind you that the Healthy Mind Healthy Body program is open. If you like what you hear in this podcast, if you want to end restrictive diets and crazy programs and just get healthy for good for the last time. If you want to end overeating and self sabotage and gain confidence in your ability to deal with food and your body and your life, then you should definitely go to to check it out and register. When you join, you immediately get the full course you can get started right away. Plus, you'll have three months access to the coaching membership, where you'll get weekly coaching from me, access to me and all the other members to hold your hand, cheer you on, coach you through the tough stuff, and help you get unstuck and move forward. So if that sounds good to you go to terraform, forward slash join, check it out and get registered. Okay, now let's get down to business. We're always talking about the importance of being consistent, consistent with your food habits, routines, and especially consistent with your exercise in order to get the results that you want. But because you're a woman, you've probably experienced times where it's felt extra hard to be consistent, those times usually coincide with different points of our menstrual cycle. And that fluctuation of hormones that's going on. Sometimes it's really hard to get a workout in when you're just feeling low energy and you're feeling bad or you have really bad PMS symptoms, your hormones really do affect your ability to want to work out and to get a good workout. 

And so I really want to normalize this for you. What we're constantly being told is these messages of like work harder, work harder, go harder, do more, do more. And that's actually not really going to benefit you in the long term. What will benefit you the most is to understand how your body works and work with your body, instead of always trying to force it to comply with these things we're trying to get it to do. So we're going to talk about using your cycle to your advantage. How do you work smarter, and not harder. And I also want to give you one sort of caveat that I'll talk a lot about throughout this episode. And that is the science regarding timing your workouts and scheduling workouts according to your cycle is a little wishy washy. Especially because women's bodies are so different. Just because we all have a menstrual cycle does not mean it is the same for all of us. So I want you to take everything you're going to hear today with a grain of salt because I want you to really take this information but then see how it actually applies to you personally, and how you might need to change or adjust things that we're talking about today to fit you and your life and your journey and your health status and where you want to go and how your body works right now. Okay, just want to put that out there for you. 

So the first thing we need to talk about is our cycle. And I want to make sure that we have all the same real general understanding of what our menstrual cycle looks like and how that looks throughout the month because I find that as women we don't always really know how our body works. So we're going to talk about first just our menstrual cycle and how that looks. Your cycle typically lasts anywhere from 23 to 28 days, I'm generally a 29, or 30. But that's just me, we're all a little bit different. That cycle is broken up into three general phases. The first half is your follicular phase. The second half is your little luteal phase. And right in the middle between the two is your ovulation phase. 

So the first phase, your follicular phase is about days one through 14 about. So it starts on the first day of your period. So the first day of menstruation is day one of your cycle, the first few days, so up to about five days is the menstrual phase. So that is when you are shedding the lining of your uterus, you're having your period, right. This is when your hormones are at the very lowest of the month. On day one of your period is when your hormones are at the absolute lowest. That's actually what triggers your period to start. Following the menstruation, your estrogen starts to slowly increase until you ovulate. So from about day three to five, to about day 12 to 14, your estrogen is slowly increasing. When your estrogen gets to a certain point. It triggers ovulation. 

So around day 14, somewhere day 12 to 16. But we say around day 14 About halfway through your cycle. That rising estrogen triggers luteinizing hormone, which causes ovulation so an egg is released. And that starts the luteal phase of your cycle. So now our second half 14th through 28 is about the second half of your cycle. It starts right after ovulation. So your period day one of your period starts the first half your follicular phase of your cycle. And day one of ovulation starts the second half of your cycle, the luteal phase. Now in the luteal phase, your estrogen is still increasing slightly, but it's progesterone that really starts to take off. Progesterone causes a rise in body temperature. So if you were trying to track your cycle, so that you could get pregnant or so that you don't get pregnant. That is the point where you're tracking your temperature because your temperature at ovulation will rise and stay risen for the second half of your cycle. And then when those hormones drop off the edge triggering your period, your temperature drops back down to normal again as well. So at the end of the luteal phase, progesterone peaks. And if you're not pregnant, then both progesterone and estrogen significantly drop. And that signals your brain to start a new cycle. And then your period begins again. 

Okay, we are all on the same page. It's really important as a woman to track your cycle and track symptoms that you think might be related to your cycle. Because you can't talk to your doctor about it unless you're tracking your cycle. And you know, things that you need to ask, you can't get an accurate hormone test unless you know, on the day that your blood is drawn exactly what day of your cycle. That was, you. That's the only way you can get an accurate hormone test, you have to know where you are on your cycle. So it's really important that you track this every month, I'll tell you what I do I keep it super duper simple. I have it on the Google Calendar. And I have a specific color. And I track so day one, I put it on the calendar, it has its own color, so I just put it on there. And then I note day 15, because that's generally around, I've just ovulated at about day 15. And then I note day 28. Because I know that that's about when I'm going to be done. And then if I'm anything different than that, I put that on the calendar. So let's say I didn't start on what would have been day one, I didn't start until day two. So I put that there again. And then I note any symptoms throughout the month that may or may not be related to my cycle. And I put those on there too. In that same color like I have a headache today or this is happening today or PMS started today. Whatever it is, and or I'm low energy today, whatever the symptom is, I put it on there on my Google Calendar and I track those things. And I start noticing patterns. 

Here's one pattern that I actually figured out just by doing this, I was getting these huge migraines, almost migraine type headaches every single month, like every month like I'm out for an entire day. I just can't even function for a day because of these headaches. And I started tracking it and what I noticed is that I would get this massive headache every single month around day 19 to 21. I know that around about day 19 to 21 is when I start having a significant drop in hormone levels. That's when progesterone and estrogen have already peaked and they start dropping. That drop for me triggers a massive headache and it also triggers the start of my PMS symptoms. And so I know that once I get that headache I know that next week is going to be PMS. And I'm gonna have to kind of take it easy on myself, I can predict that this headache is going to happen. So I try to not plan things on that day, because I know it's coming. Now the next step, of course, would be to figure out how to make that not happen. But I haven't figured that one out yet. I know that after that headache, my emotional tolerance is gonna go down, my energy is gonna go down, because I know what my PMS symptoms are gonna be during that week. So I just, it's easier for me because I know what to expect. And when I track it, I know what's coming. And then I'm not surprised by it. So tracking your cycle and your symptoms can be super important for you, even if it's for no nothing to do with your workout, like we're going to talk about here. 

Okay, so let's talk about your workout. Should we change our workout schedule according to our menstrual cycle? Well, the science here is sadly pretty limited. And there's just not enough good studies to make a definitive recommendation for anything here. Like I said before, each of us are so different that it's even hard to just design a good study, because there's just so many variables, every menstruating woman is not the same, so it's hard to come up with any kind of definitive results. Another reason is that all studies in athletic performance and sport are totally male dominated. Most exercise science studies are done on young healthy men, not on women. So there's just not even a lot of studies to choose from when you're looking for evidence. And there's also a lot of information lacking that is specific to women on birth control hormones, like the pill, or women who are in perimenopause or menopause or post menopause. Like there's just not a lot of good definitive information out there. So what we're talking about today is general information that could be helpful for you to take a look at. Okay, so I just want to, again, have that caveat out there that I'm talking big generalities here. So you have to see how this applies to us specifically. 

So here's what we do know that happens during your menstrual cycle in the luteal phase. Again, that's the second half, 14, day 14 through 28. You are your temperature rises. Again, remember that progesterone makes your body temperature go up. That could mean that you are more sensitive to exercising in hot environments. So maybe hot yoga, during the second half, if you really struggle in hot yoga, and you can't figure out why some days and why not other days, this might be why you might be less tolerant to heat because your body temperature has gone up ever so slightly. One study actually showed that this slight rise in temperature shortens the time to fatigue and exercise. So that means women were getting tired faster during this luteal phase, the second half of their cycle, because of that rise in body temperature. Progesterone also increases your resting heart rate and your breathing rate. So during exercise during this second phase, that luteal phase when your progesterone is highest. This could mean that during exercise, your heart rate goes up faster, that could mean that you're left feeling like you're working harder, even though you're really not. And it might just add extra stress to your body. So it might be harder to work harder. Does that make sense? 

Another thing to think about that we know happens is that progesterone is catabolic. So that means that it likes to break down tissue, this can affect your recovery from your workouts. So when you are performing something like resistance exercise, what you're doing is causing microscopic tears in your muscles. And then those tears repair themselves bigger, stronger. And that's how you grow muscles. That's how you get stronger. Under high progesterone levels, those tears may not as effectively repair themselves, so your recovery might be impaired. Now, again, a caveat here because some studies show that that's a problem. Some studies show that that's not a problem, and you shouldn't worry about it. So take that again with a grain of salt. There's no definitive answer on that one. Another thing that happens is during the follicular phase, that's the first one days one through 14, your insulin sensitivity might be higher during that phase that results in your body being more effective at using carbohydrates for energy, that could be a really good thing. 

So we're going to talk about how this looks in practice. So if you want to use your menstrual cycle as a guide to inform how you're working out and your training schedule, this is how you might go about it and what are the things you might want to consider. So in your follicular phase again, that's the first two weeks days one through 14 ish, there is very little hormone interference during this phase. So this is the time to push in your workouts, you're not having PMS stuff, you're not having really high progesterone levels. So this is the time to really go for it. You're also like we said, more insulin sensitive, that makes it a better time for HIIT. And sprint type activity. So hit again, high intensity interval training, sprint type activities, your muscles, because you're more insulin sensitive, your muscles are going to be able to use and store glucose more effectively, which means when they need it for that sprint type activity, those bursts of activity, they will be more effective at using that glucose, also at this time. So again, we're the first two weeks of your cycle, your BMR, your basal metabolic rate is generally lower at this time. So that means at rest, the amount of calories your body is burning might be slightly lower. Again, remember, because your body temperature is slightly lower during the first two weeks, but you also have peak energy at this time. So this is the perfect time to counteract that BMR being lower by increasing your activity. So even though your basal metabolic rate your body temperature that the amount of calories burned at rest is slightly lower, during the first two weeks of your cycle, your energy should be higher, so you can counteract that low BMR. With more intense workouts. Interestingly, also, estrogen seems to have a sort of protective effect on muscles. So it improves our ability to recover from intense exercise and adapt faster, which makes that first two weeks, again, the perfect time to push because you will be able to repair your muscles faster. And estrogen also has a positive effect on mood. So that might make you more apt and more motivated to go train because your mood will be higher during those first two weeks when your estrogen is more dominant. 

So let's talk about the second phase, your luteal phase, and that's going to be about days 14 through 28, the second half of your cycle. So remember, in this phase, you're less sensitive to insulin, meaning that glucose uptake and muscles might be slightly impaired. So that could negatively impact any sort of high intensity or sprint type training you're trying to do. So the second half of your cycle might not be the best time for that high intensity sprint type training. This is the time where you want to focus maybe on more moderate cardio, like longer endurance cardio, but at a slower pace, lower heart rate, you want to think about things like still strength workouts, but maybe not going for PRs, yoga, pilates, lots of low impact stuff, any low intensity movement bike rides, long, but not intense runs, just less sprint type activities and less sort of Max lift type activities. 

This second phase of your cycle is not the best time if you're trying to hit a PR or a max lift, or you're trying to run a marathon or do some kind of intense event, this second half of your cycle may not be the best time. Now, again, it may be perfectly fine. You may not notice many of these issues, but you might and so I want you to just take notice for yourself. If it seems like any of these things are affecting you, I will tell you once I started actually paying attention, I did notice that I tend to fall into these patterns. And so I am working on adjusting my training and being very conscious of my training, and how I'm doing that and how I'm scheduling it so that it fits with what my body is going to benefit from the most at that time. What I will benefit from the most, and what will cause my body the least stress. That's the balance I'm trying to achieve all month long. 

So how might this then look? In actual practice? How might you schedule your training, if you wanted to try and let your menstrual cycle inform how that looked? We're going to break it down week by week. So week one is approximately day three through nine. So we're going to take out those first two days of your period. So normally, for a lot of us those first two days are the crappiest two days, we feel terrible. Our hormones have totally tanked. Like we feel kinda awful. If you're, if you're a heavy bleeder like you're just not wanting to do anything. So I say for me personally, those are two down days for me. And so we're going to start our week one out about day three. So about day three through nine. This is when you're going to start ramping up you're going to give yourself a really good warm ups. And then this is a great time to start working in some interval work and some progressive load increases in your weights. This is the time when you really start ramping up your workouts for the month. 

Week two so now we're at approximately 10 to 16. So the second week of your cycle, this is peak energy week. So what you're going to do is take your normal workouts and you're going to bump them up for this week. So maybe you're adding a second small workout. So like on a weight training day, maybe you add an extra HIIT training to that a high intensity interval training to that. Or maybe you add more workout days to the week, or maybe in your strength training, you're really bumping up the weights during this week and really trying to max out on things. However, that looks for you. Again, it's going to look different for all of us, because we're all doing different training things. And we're all working on different stuff. But however that looks for you, this is the week to bump it up. This is the week to add in. This is the week to do a little bit extra. So this is week two of your cycle. Of course, again, always watch for signs of overtraining, always listen to your body, make sure you're still taking a break day in that week, you still need a rest day, but this is the week that's peak energy and that you want to try and bump it up if you can. 

And then week three, you're still feeling pretty good. This is about days 17 through 23. This is when you ovulate so through ovulation, you should still feel pretty good. And right after ovulation, you might find that you start to decrease energy. So as progesterone starts to ramp up, and estrogen has already hit its peak, you might want to transition away from the hit and sprint type activities towards longer, more slow paced endurance workouts to feel like it might feel like a better fit. At this time. Don't stop your resistance training, continue resistance training, but you might want to do not max weight, you know not peak performance Wait, you might want to change your kind of high intensity exercise day to a longer endurance day instead. Does that make sense? So that's week three, you are starting to think about the sprinting stuff might start to feel a little bit harder, the longer endurance stuff might start to feel a little bit better. 

And then week four, so we're about day 24 through about day two of your period. Okay, so we're including those two days. This is when during your cycle, your energy is generally at the very lowest. So I would encourage you if this is you, like it is me don't push too hard during this week. Because if you push too hard during this week, you could just be adding extra stress to your body. And extra stress to your body remember is always going to result in doing the opposite of what you want, it's going to hold on to fat, it's going to slow down your metabolism, it's going to not burn as much, it's going to be less efficient. So don't over stress. And if you were going to over-stress in a week, it was probably be this one. Because this is when your hormones are tanking, your energy is at the lowest. So think about this week, what might be a better fit is things like restorative movement, swimming, yoga, easy biking, walking, pilates, things that are not as strenuous. Again, you do not have to stop weight training. Okay. So if you are a healthy adult who likes to weight train or resistance train, you don't have to stop during this week. But listen to your body and honor what it's telling you, it might feel good to resistance train in other ways, maybe just bodyweight or lightweight. For more reps instead of big heavy, you might just change the way that you resistance train for this week. Does that make sense? Again, this might not apply to you at all, you might be totally fine. But listen to your body. And if you do find like hmm, I do that PMS week is just like, I feel crappy. I am tired, and I don't want to do anything and everything feels like too much. Well honor that. Like that's biological. That's not you being lazy, that's biologically happening in your body. So be aware of it, honor it and adjust your training to fit that. Does that make sense? That doesn't mean you just stopped doing everything. I will never encourage you to stop moving and stop training. But I will encourage you maybe to change it up a little bit into something that feels like a better fit for that week. Does that make sense? 

So basically, what you're talking about is pushing yourself weeks one through three, right? Those are kind of your push weeks, we are working hard, you're doing things. And then week four, think about tapering it off a little bit, giving yourself a little bit of a break, so that you can go back and hit it hard again for three weeks. That is normal you're eating you will find a few track food you will find you fall in cycles. If in your training, you might already fall in a cycle like this, and you might not even be aware of it. So just start tracking and paying attention. 

So the bottom line is this. The women who need to pay attention to this the most are probably women who are competing athletes. That's who this is going into effect the most; it has the potential to affect the most for the rest of us who are not competing athletes. We just want to look good, feel good, be stronger, whatever. This is something that could be useful for you to track. It might affect you, it might not affect you. But if you want to maximize your performance, your fat loss, your rate of improvements and your physical capabilities, it might be a good idea for you to track this. And for you to just start really paying attention to your energy levels throughout the month, no matter what you should be tracking your cycle, even if you're not tracking it for purposes of food, or cravings or workouts like we're talking about here, tracking your cycle is an important thing to do. Because I want you to start making connections about what's going on inside your body and what's going on inside your head. They are very much connected. So if for no other reason, just track your cycle. And then if you want to start making changes, maybe to your training routine based on that, give it a shot, see if it works, I would love to hear from you, if you felt like you really benefited from this. So again, the science is really mixed, and it's not at all settled. But everything we've talked about is generalities that may or may not apply to you. 

So again, the most important thing to do is listen to your body, start tracking, start paying attention, try out any of these strategies and see if they might be beneficial to you, and then hop in the community group on Facebook. It's just called no nonsense. And tell me if this worked for you, tell me if you tracked it, tell me if you track your cycle, tell me if you tried to change your workouts up in order to fit that cycle. And if you started to notice a difference, I would love to hear we'll do sort of our own little informal study. So if this was helpful to you, send this to a friend send this to your friend who works out send this to your friend who has bad PMS, send this to your friend who has trouble with their cycle and send this to your friend who is not getting the results that they want, even though they work out all the time. And maybe this could make a difference for them. Okay, my friends until we talk again. Be well.

Hey, friends, thanks so much for being here. If you found value in today's episode, will you do me a favor and head over to iTunes? Find the no nonsense wellness podcast and subscribe and leave me a review. It would mean the world to me and help other people find the show. And I'd love to connect with you more. So find me on Instagram. I'm @tarafaulmann. Take a screenshot of this episode and share it in your stories and tag me. I'll see you over there.

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