The menstrual cycle represents a unique series of hormonal changes that underpin female reproductive capabilities. But when it comes to exercise we too often deem these physiological fluctuations as something that may impair our ability to move. Instead, by becoming aware of the changes occurring at each phase, it is thought that we can ‘cycle sync’ our training to match our individual cycles, and so maximize our health potential regardless of the time of the month. Whilst research into this area is still somewhat in its infancy, studies do exist that offer validity to this practice, and so it definitely warrants some closer consideration.
Let’s start with some cycle fundamentals
The menstrual cycle, as the name suggests, is a repeating sequence of phases that can typically take anywhere from 28-35 days for one complete cycle. That being said, every woman is different, and so variation will exist between females, and even any one individual will often experience variations around this average.
These phases are typically categorized as menstrual, follicular, ovulation,
and luteal phases and a woman will go through each of these in any one cycle.
The menstrual phase
What is it?
This is the phase we commonly refer to as the period. It typically lasts between 3-7 days and results from the lining of the uterus breaking down. Levels of oestrogen and progesterone drop during this time.
-Since progesterone is suggested to suppress the rate at which muscle growth and repair can occur, the relatively low levels of this hormone during the menstrual phase means that this could be a great time to focus on your strength training.
-Moreover, testosterone which is a hormone involved in building muscle, is higher during this phase, again suggesting a strength training focus.
The Follicular phase
What is it?
This phase starts with your period and ends at ovulation i.e. when an egg is released. During this phase, estrogen and testosterone reach their peak and energy levels are likely to be increased.
-Studies suggest that estrogen improves the quality of muscle tissue, and so the force that the muscles can generate. The high estrogen levels and relatively low progesterone levels during this phase may provide a great opportunity to work on your strength goals and increasing muscle mass.
-Ovulation occurs towards the end of this phase, during which there is a rapid rise in hormones. As testosterone also increases during this time, some females may find this is when they are most likely to be achieving those strength PRs.
-Additionally, by acting as an antioxidant, estrogen has been shown to limit muscle inflammation post-exercise and so aid recovery. Whilst adequate recovery time is still critical to factor into any training programme, the body’s superior recovery during this time means that higher volume training can be factored in.
The Ovulatory Phase
What is it?
This phase lasting roughly 12-48 hours is marked by the release of an egg into the fallopian tube and occurs approximately 14 days into your cycle. There is an initial dip in estrogen levels, whilst progesterone increases here.
-Whilst there is no need to slam the breaks on your strength training, the higher levels of progesterone have been suggested to negatively impact muscle growth potential, and so it could be a good time to include some endurance training here.
The Luteal Phase
What is it?
This is the interval between ovulation and menstruation and can be divided into the early and late luteal phases, spanning approximately 14 days. Progesterone initially rises to reach
its peak as your body prepares for the egg to be fertilised; if the egg is not fertilised, there is a rapid drop in both estrogen and progesterone.
-Whilst your energy may feel relatively stable during the first few days to a week of this phase, the rapid drop in hormones towards the later luteal phase often results in the PMS symptoms experienced by many women. You may notice your energy wane, your mood to drop and increased appetite to name just a few of the enviable symptoms (eye roll). Whilst exercise may be the last thing you want to do, partaking in more gentle exercise or incorporating a de-load week here can be a great way to boost those endorphins, whilst still honouring your body’s needs during a time when it is doing some pretty amazing work behind the scenes.
-The increased inflammation that occurs during this phase can negatively impact recovery, and so whilst it is great to keep moving in any way you feel appropriate, be sure to factor in enough time for a good recovery.
So, is it worth practicing cycle syncing?
Crucially, everyone is different, and each individual female will be impacted differently by their menstrual cycle. As such, whilst broad recommendations such as those discussed herein definitely provide interesting points of consideration, a one size fits all approach almost certainly does not apply here. As aforementioned, research is limited. Whilst the above information is supported in the literature, at the other end of the spectrum are studies that suggest that for the general population the menstrual cycle shouldn’t impact performance, and hence contradicts the idea of cycle syncing. This isn’t particularly surprising, and it is often the case in research that for every study that suggests one thing, another will exist that suggests the opposite.
With that in mind, regardless of whether or not science currently supports this practice, only you as an individual can know exactly how you are impacted by the remarkable series of hormonal transitions that occur within your body month on month. It is important to honour how you feel physically and emotionally at each phase, and train in a way that best suits you. It could be a good idea to start recording how you feel throughout your cycle, and on the back of that, design your exercise routine to respect your individual needs throughout the month.
The bottom line is that by tuning into our bodies and understanding the incredible changes that occur throughout our cycle, we are best positioned to work with rather than against our physiology. This in turn will help us to strive towards, and succeed in our goals regardless of the time of the month.
Toth MJ, Poehlman ET, Matthews DE, Tchernof A, MacCoss MJ. Effects of estradiol and progesterone on body composition, protein synthesis, and lipoprotein lipase in rats. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2001;280:E496–E501
Sung E, Han A, Hinrichs T, Vorgerd M, Manchado C, Platen P. Effects of follicular versus
Constantini, N.W., Dubnov, G. and Lebrun, C.M., 2005. The menstrual cycle and sport performance. Clinics in sports medicine, 24(2), pp.e51-e82.