Should You Sync Your Workouts to Your Cycle?
Some experts say adjusting your training to match your menstrual cycle could give you a power-up in the gym—and in life. Here's what you need to know.
Let's talk periods. Ever since you got that "Your Period and You" leaflet in high school, you've known that it's a healthy part of life for every woman. And yet, we bet no teacher or doctor ever told you that menstruation—and the 28ish-day cycle it's part of—could potentially give you a performance edge.
The Lowdown on Hormones
Every female has oestrogen (which is mainly responsible for reproductive development) and progesterone (it preps your uterus for possible pregnancy). The levels of these hormones regularly fluctuate, which can affect the way you move, think and feel not just during your period but on every day of your cycle, says Georgie Bruinvels, PhD, a research scientist at the bio-analytics company Orreco. It's why one day you might feel like you have non-stop energy, and the next you're glued to your couch and crying over an animal-rescue ad.
This variability can also affect how your body adapts to exercise—and that can be a good thing. It means that on any given day of the month, you might be able to strategise when and how you train to get the results you want. "Syncing to your cycle means adjusting your training and nutrition plan based on what's going on hormonally so you reap maximum physical, mental and emotional rewards", says Stacy Sims, PhD, a female-athlete physiologist and the author of Roar, a physiology-based nutrition and training guide for active women. While the research on adjusting your training based on your cycle is constantly evolving, there may be benefits to putting it into practice.
If you're willing to go with your natural flow (read: no hormonal birth control, as most types affect hormonal shifts and thus require a different approach), this menstrual map from Sims will help you navigate the distinct phases of your cycle. Just keep in mind that every body and every cycle is different, so results aren't guaranteed. But at the very least, trying a new routine could be a welcome change of pace—and you might uncover new intel about what makes your body feel good.
Days 1–12ish: Push Yourself
Let's get orientated: Day 1 is the first day of your period. Both oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest during this time. "Because your hormones are so low, your body should be able to recover and sleep better now than during other times in your cycle", says Sims. "You should feel more energised, clearer-headed, better coordinated and ready to go hard in the gym". If you have period symptoms—cramps, brain fog, stomach issues—wait until they subside. Within a few days, you'll probably start to feel pretty great.
This physical and mental 180 may be just what you need to take your training to the next level. If so, try this:
- Work on a new skill or activity.
Whether it's pull-ups or Pilates, that surge in clarity and coordination could help you tackle an exercise you've never tried before. To set yourself up for success, choose something that's a progression of a movement you've already crushed. Love kettlebell swings? Try a KB snatch. Feeling solid in dolphin pose? Maybe kick into a headstand.
- Go hard.
Long story short, when your hormones are low, your body has an easier time accessing fuel for exercise, particularly the high-intensity type. On top of that, Sims explains, as your oestrogen starts to rise towards the end of this phase, so does your pain threshold. And on top of that, this hormone sweet spot primes beat-up muscles to repair faster and stronger. So sprint faster, WOD harder, chase that new record—your body can handle it.
When channelling your inner Mat Fraser, make sure you prioritise a regular sleep schedule and eat plenty of protein, healthy fats, complex carbs and colourful vegetables to optimise muscle repair, says Sims. If annoying period symptoms get in the way of your performance, try eating anti-inflammatory foods rich in calcium and vitamins D and B, such as bananas, plain yoghurt or green leafy vegetables, she adds.
Days 13–19ish: Amp Up Endurance, Then Back Off
The middle phase of your cycle includes ovulation (when an ovary releases a mature egg) and the week afterwards. For most women, oestrogen levels surge at first, so you might feel a boost in confidence and strength around this peak, says Sims. The hormone is known to do good things for your brain's neurotransmitters. But oestrogen drops quickly right after the egg is released, which might leave you feeling flat. No fun for anyone, though you can make the most of it if you:
- Challenge yourself at the start.
When your oestrogen is riding high and you're feeling strong, try cranking up the intensity on your usual aerobic workouts. Go for a hilly hike or a longer run, as steady-state cardio should feel more sustainable, says Sims. And eat more healthy carbs, like fruit, whole grains and sweet potatoes, pre-workout. Since the oestrogen peak can make it harder for your body to access them for fuel, you want a sufficient supply.
- Learn to taper.
As oestrogen plummets after you ovulate, it can tank your energy, says Sims. This is totally normal, especially if you're prone to PMS. Some movement might be more energising than none at all, says Sims. If you're feeling low-vibe, scale back your training as needed, either in intensity or duration, as going hard now might only deplete you further.
Or don't: Some people feel fine throughout this phase, says Bruinvels. If that's you, feel free to think of it as a time to maintain your training rather than drastically advance or modify it, she says.
Days 20–28ish: Recover and Restore
For most women, the week or so leading up to their next period is their least favourite week. It's common to feel anxious, irritable and blah at this point, thanks to high hormone levels, says Sims. You might even be completely fatigued, physically and mentally, or notice inflammation and bloating (hi, PMS). On top of that, peak progesterone levels typically activate your stress response, causing a higher resting heart rate and body temperature, which can make some movements feel harder than usual. Stay active, encourages Sims, as it can help you feel better all round. To strike the right balance:
- Curb the intensity.
If you aren't feeling up to your usual workout routine (fair), then don't do your usual workout routine. Drop the weight, shave some reps, extend your rest periods, slow your roll … just take things down a notch, says Sims. Or stick with low-intensity activities that help your body recover, such as yoga or Pilates. Bonus: These mind-body practices encourage you to focus on and control your breath, which can help regulate your heart rate and bring you into the present moment to help lower anxiety, she notes.
- Treat yourself.
Self-care was practically invented for this week. Enjoy a massage, bubble bath or anything that puts you at ease. Sims recommends spending time with friends and loved ones (even a call works if an in-person hang doesn't) to help boost levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin. Taking some downtime now should help you feel physically and mentally recharged for when your energy starts to pick back up in the early phase (your period and the days afterwards), allowing you to get back to training harder, explains Sims. It all comes full circle.
As you experiment with syncing your training to your cycle, remember: You have an opportunity to try different things every month as you learn about your hormonal patterns. But if you're not seeing or feeling much of a difference from all the trial and error, or you're stressing out over the process, it might not be for you. Ultimately, training in the way that works for your body and your temperament is what matters most. Period.
Words: Charlotte Jacobs
Illustration: Xoana Herrera