You have to plan a lot of things around your cycle, but did you know that includes your health and fitness routine? If you’re physically active, then the complex hormone changes you experience each month can pose several unique nutritional and training challenges.
The menstrual cycle is 28 days of your body preparing an egg (the follicular phase), releasing that egg (ovulation), and then acting as if it’s pregnant, just in case (the luteal phase). During each phase your hormones fluctuate drastically, and the entire cycle repeats itself every month from when you’re a young teen until you reach menopause, usually around age 50.
On average, that’s about 450 cycles in your lifetime, not accounting for pregnancy, medical conditions, or gynecologic surgery. Fortunately, you can learn to augment your intuitive cravings and training preferences with a basic understanding of the science behind your cycle. Then, you can learn to work with your body instead of against it to optimize your overall health and fitness.
Consuming and Burning Energy Differently
Various individual needs, training goals, and hormone fluctuations make it tough to give an exact daily calorie requirement for female athletes in general. Calorie and macronutrient intake should be tailored to each of these factors. Regardless of the specific numbers, though, your cycle will follow a definite pattern that you can use to adjust your diet and training accordingly.
For example, during the first couple of weeks of each cycle, when your body absorbs and uses energy more efficiently, restricting calories could work against your body’s efforts. It wants to build muscle during this time, and depriving it of the energy to do so can be especially fatiguing.
However, in the latter half of your cycle, the luteal phase, your body wants and needs to rest. That means it’s also more likely to convert a high carb intake into extra fat. The science shows that the underlying physiology accompanying each phase of your cycle should provide at least an outline of how to adjust your training and nutritional regimens throughout the month.
It’s also critically important to mention that overall healthy nutrition habits, including caloric intake, should be based on your caloric output — or how physically active you are throughout each phase. A chronic caloric deficiency throws off your entire menstrual cycle, leading to diminished or missed menstrual cycles, bone loss, increased risk of stress fractures, and more.
Training With Your Body, Not Against It
When you understand what your body needs during different phases of your cycle, you can optimize its energy consumption and usage at any given time. For instance, during the follicular phase, it needs extra energy, so your calorie cravings will be high. Insulin also increases and becomes more efficient at making protein at this time, so your body puts the extra carbs to good use.
Because your body is making protein at a high rate, it builds muscle easier. Therefore, you should focus on strength training more intently for those couple of weeks. If you already lift weights or do bodyweight strength training twice a week, then kick it up to three times a week. You can also try fewer reps with more weight to build lean muscle mass. Carbs don’t have to be your enemy, and that’s especially true during the follicular phase.
After ovulation, your estrogen rapidly drops, and your progesterone kicks in to make your uterus habitable for a potentially fertilized egg. Your cravings will drop, too, which is helpful because your body is more likely to store fat as insulin becomes less efficient. For this phase, focus more on burning fat through cardio and lower-weight, higher-rep weight training rather than building muscle. However, you still need enough high-quality protein to maintain your muscles.
Finally, a few days leading up to the start of your next menstrual cycle, your body will realize that it’s not pregnant and your progesterone will plummet. This change looks different for everyone and can include junk food cravings, water retention, or mood swings. Avoid the scale and its unnecessary frustration; it won’t accurately represent the hard work you’ve put in so far. You might also feel more fatigued and less able to exercise, and that’s perfectly normal.
Allow yourself time to rest more than usual if you feel your body needs it. A few days after bleeding starts, everything will reset, and you’ll be back to building muscle again. After a few months of trying out these steps, get a feel for how your body responds, and then adjust your diet and exercise routine as needed. Before long, optimizing the interaction between your hormone changes, training, and nutrition will become second nature.
Dr. Aloiya Earl works with University of Alabama athletics as a Sports Medicine Fellow. She received her Bachelors of Science in Exercise Science from the University of South Carolina, her M.D. from The University of Toledo College of Medicine, and she completed her residency training at The Ohio State University. She is a member of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.