When it comes to that time of the month and working out, chances are you fall into one of two camps; those who can’t resist the endorphin rush and advance book their favourite class, and those who prefer to spend it horizontal with their old friends Ben & Jerry.
If you fall into the latter tribe, you’re not alone. A 2018 survey by PureGym found that 49% of UK women have cancelled a gym class or workout entirely due to period symptoms and a quarter of women (25.1%) have left their gym class or workout early for the same reason. It sucks, but it’s not surprising. Mentally, you’ve got fatigue and PMS zapping your motivation and physically, you’re dealing with bloating, water retention and constant sugary cravings. For women, a monthly cycle means progress with a health and fitness routine isn’t linear, but knowing how to optimise your workouts around it can be a total game-changer.
The menstrual cycle starts with the first day of your period and ends when your next period begins, but it’s so much more than just your period. There are actually four stages to a cycle: menstrual, follicular, ovulatory and luteal. Fluctuating hormones during each phase have a huge impact on your body’s energy levels, affecting how your body responds to different types of exercise. If you don’t know much about your cycle beyond the actual period part, a tracking app can help – try Clue, Moody Month or FitrWoman. Obviously, every woman’s cycle will be different, but based on an average 28-day cycle, here’s how to sync your exercise routine to yours and feel your best self at every stage.
The Menstrual Phase: Days 1-5
Oestrogen and progesterone nosedive as you shed your uterine lining between days 1-6. This hormonal dip combined with blood loss can result in zero energy, cramps, joint and muscle pain and headaches. Delightful.
Exercise to do during the menstruation phase:
Exercise isn’t completely off the cards, but it’s time to dial it down. Keep cardio and weight lifting light or try yoga and swimming for a gentler endorphin boost. If energy levels are super-low, switch out a workout for a mobility or stretching session instead.
The Follicular Phase: Days 1-14
Welcome to the “feel-good” section of your cycle. Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) tells your ovaries to release an egg and oestrogen levels rise to thicken your uterine lining in preparation. The resulting rise energy levels around days 7-11 should make you feel like a new woman.
Exercise to do during the follicular phase:
Take advantage of that newfound energy with a challenging weights session. Studies have found that strength training during this period results in higher increases in muscle strength. That said, high oestrogen levels in the lead up to ovulation can put you more at risk of musculoskeletal injuries, so make sure you fit in a longer warm up and cool down. If the weights room is your idea of hell, why not harness those feel-good vibes and book into the boutique fitness class you’ve been following on Insta but never quite made it to.
The Ovulatory Phase: Day 14
That energy boost from the follicular phase peaks as oestroen levels surge, leading to a rise in luteinising hormone (LH) resulting in the release of an egg.
Exercise to do during the ovulatory phase:
You’re feeling like a badass, so train like one. Push yourself to smash that PB, try some full-body strength training or go hard in a HIIT class.
The Luteal Phase: Days 14-28
It’s time for a second (smaller) hit of oestrogen alongside a sharp spike of progesterone. This cute hormonal cocktail is to blame for our pre-menstrual symptoms like cravings, bloating and sore boobs. Add in a disrupted sleep due to the dip in oestrogen and you’re back to feeling knackered and in need of sugar.
Exercise to do during the luteal phase:
That aforementioned exhaustion means your stamina might not be what it normally is during the luteal phase, so don’t worry if you get a slower run time or can’t lift as heavy. Right now is a pretty good time to schedule some rest and recovery, but if movement makes you feel better, yoga and pilates can help with cramps. It’s also worth noting that your body temperature rises by 0.3 degrees in the luteal phase (and remains high until menstruation) so make sure to wear appropriate clothing and stay hydrated if you do workout.