Let your body take care of you.
When we think “menstrual cycle,” we think PMS, cramps, chocolate cravings, and mood swings.
However, the menstrual cycle affects you all the time, not only during PMS week and when you’re bleeding. These hormonal changes can alter the way your body responds to training and nutrition, too.
For example, a study from 2018 showed that a resistance training programme and a high-protein weight loss diet, tailored to the different phases of the cycle, may result in higher weight loss than a protocol that doesn’t take the cycle into account.
With a deeper understanding of each phase, you can optimise your training and nutrition, learning to predict when you might need more recovery and when you are more likely to smash training and/or dieting.
What are the phases of the menstrual cycle?
Depending on the individual, a regular monthly cycle can last between 24 and 32 days. The average length is 28 days or about four weeks.
The cycle is divided into three main phases, starting from the first day of menstruation, which is when the bleeding begins. These are the follicular, ovulation, and luteal phase.
The balance between hormones – especially between oestrogen and progesterone, the two main female sex hormones – varies in each phase. These changes affect:
For each phase, I will review:
Follicular Phase (Days 1-11)
Located in the ovaries, ovarian follicles are sacs filled with fluid that contain immature eggs. During the follicular phase, one of these eggs develops inside a follicle, which becomes gradually bigger and releases more and more oestrogen.
After the hormonal whirlwind of the week before menstruation, the early stage of the follicular phase is a gradual return to stable conditions.
Both oestrogen and progesterone levels start low, with a gradual increase in the former as a result of the growing follicle.
This progressive rise in oestrogen makes you more tolerant to fatigue and more efficient at building muscle. In other words, it’s prime time for some heavy lifting!
Furthermore, hunger and metabolic rate (the speed at which you burn calories), which tend to increase in the week prior to menstruation, go back to normal. You also become more sensitive to insulin, which brings blood sugar levels back to baseline following a meal.
This combination of factors means that your appetite becomes more manageable and the cravings disappear.
Bear in mind that this happens over the course of about 10 to 14 days. You may well still be having “period cravings” until the bleeding stops.
Be patient: things will get better during the later stage of this phase. In other words, the higher your oestrogen levels, the better you will feel.
In fact, around the second week of the follicular phase may be an ideal time to embark on a fat loss diet. If you are already on one, you may find that adherence becomes much easier.
Ovulation (Days 12-15)
At this point, the egg reaches full maturity and the follicle releases it.
After a progressive increase throughout the follicular phase, oestrogen levels peak, which makes everything awesome. You may feel on top of the world and hit new performance highs you didn’t even know you were capable of.
However, be careful not to push too hard. You may be as strong as the Hulk, but you aren’t as invulnerable as Superman. You can still get hurt!
After this hormonal peak, unfortunately, oestrogen drops. Strength starts decreasing, while metabolic rate and hunger begin to rise as you transition into the next phase.
Luteal Phase (Days 16-28)
The freed egg leaves behind an empty follicle, which takes the name of corpus luteum. This gradually releases progesterone and a small amount of oestrogen.
Throughout the luteal phase, you experience more and more intense hunger and food cravings.
You also burn more calories than in the follicular phase, but the caloric surplus resulting from a heightened appetite usually outpaces the higher metabolic rate.
Lastly, your body becomes more prone to fat storage and less responsive to muscle growth.
All of the above effects are amplified in the final week before menstruation. The following strategies can help ease the pressure of pre-menstrual syndrome.
As you may have already guessed, this is the toughest time to stick to a fat loss diet. A three-day refeed or longer diet break may be a good idea to reduce your chances of overeating.
This programmed and controlled caloric increase back to maintenance may give you a much needed mental and physical break without undoing the previous two weeks of successful fat loss.
Assuming that protein intake is already high – and kept that way – the increase in calories should come from either carbohydrates or fat.
In general, I prefer to increase carbohydrates in order to eat more food, since carbs have 4 calories per gram, while fat has 9 calories per gram.
The hormonal roller coaster experienced in the luteal phase also affects strength levels and motivation to train, which tend to plummet. All of a sudden, an afternoon on the couch with your best friend Netflix looks a lot more appealing than a workout.
You may want to consider either a deload – a period of reduced workload at the end of a training block or phase – or high-rep, low-load sessions that cause less mental and physical fatigue and perhaps help you burn a few more calories.
Finally, if the released egg isn’t fertilised, the corpus luteum stops its activity, so progesterone and oestrogen levels decrease, menstruation occurs, and the cycle starts again.
My Perspective as a Trans Guy
Studying female bodies is fascinating and empowering for me.
For one, I would hate to allow gender dysphoria to hold me back from reaching my health and physique goals and from becoming a better coach.
The learning process contributes to my transformation, transition, and professional growth.
Lastly – and perhaps most importantly – trying your best to appreciate the body you have doesn’t mean that you are “betraying” your gender identity or that you aren’t “really” trans.
Striving to be grateful to yourself and your body against all odds is strength, not weakness.
In Future Episodes:
I have already received a few questions on my opinion on vegetarianism. I’m also currently running an experiment, going 100% vegetarian for the week, something I’ve never tried before.
So next week I’m going to do my best to answer the following: can vegetarianism be sustainable? Do you risk nutrient deficiencies? If so, how do you avoid them?
Do you feel that your period affects your mood, body, and exercise performance? Please join the discussion in the comments!
A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
Want to work with me? Check out my services!