Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard many menstruators talk about “hacking” their periods, that is, following them to get the most out of their workouts. I initially thought it was just another nonsensical wellness trend and kept it going.
But when I noticed that my Whoop device – a fitness tracker that gives you insight into your recovery, fatigue, sleep and health – had a new menstrual cycle coaching feature, providing recommendations on how to train through the different stages of menstruation (yes, your cycle isn’t just when you’re bleeding!) I decided to pay more attention to. So for a month I tracked and “hacked” my cycle to see if it would improve my athletic performance and make me feel better overall.
The phases of your menstrual cycle
During a cycle of about 28 days, there are hormonal fluctuations that can affect things like exercise tolerance, recovery, heart rate and mood, says Amy West, MD, EdM, sports doctor, assistant professor of orthopedics and physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Hofstra medical school.
“The body sends out certain hormones to basically prepare the uterus to have a baby and then ovulation happens and then if that egg isn’t fertilized then the body gets rid of whatever was made there to support any type of pregnancy,” adds Kathleen L. Davenport, MD, sports medicine physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Florida.
Throughout each phase of your cycle, your hormones change and therefore affect your body as it prepares to get its period or get pregnant. It “can also affect our exercise and other things in our body since our hormones aren’t just located in the uterus, ovaries, or eggs,” says Dr. Davenport.
The follicular phase
Most menstrual cycle lengths vary from 25 to 30 days, but this is individual for each menstruator and can also vary from cycle to cycle. According to Dr. Davenport, the follicular phase technically begins on the first day of your period. Taking around 14 days, it’s considered the “low hormone state”, when your estrogen and progesterone levels are low, and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) – which stimulates the ovarian follicles to develop and mature a egg – and luteinizing hormone – which triggers the release of an egg from the ovary – occur at lower concentrations, Dr. West explains.
At the start of this phase, you’re able to build more muscle than at other times of the month because that’s when your body can handle the most stress, according to Dr. West. Now is the time to take advantage of high intensity and resistance training. You may also notice that your recovery is better and your heart rate variability is higher, which means your body can perform at a higher level.
The ovulation phase
As you approach the ovulation phase, when the egg is released, your estrogen levels rise to their highest levels, and progesterone also rises slightly, says Dr. West. This phase usually occurs from the 11th to the 21st day of your cycle.
As your body prepares for a potential pregnancy, the increase in estrogen allows you to build muscle more efficiently because your body is in an anabolic state, your immune system is “somewhat boosted” because your body is optimizing for pregnancy, and your testosterone levels increase slightly, which could explain why you feel more energetic and have a greater desire to exercise, according to Dr. West.
But, as your estrogen levels rise, research has shown that ligament laxity increases, and so you may be at greater risk for ACL injuries and tendinopathy, where your tendons begin to swell and become inflamed.
The luteal phase
The luteal phase occurs between the time the egg is released and the start of your period, says Dr. Davenport, and lasts from about day 15 to day 28 of your cycle. When it starts is “when we see progesterone levels really go up,” Dr. West adds. These levels will decrease just before menstruation as the uterine lining builds up.
During the luteal phase, your body can’t handle as much strain, so that’s when you might want to focus on recovery days between workouts. At this point, your body also isn’t using carbs to store energy as efficiently, which is why Dr. West advises increasing your carb intake.
You may also experience traditional PMS symptoms like water retention and fatigue, in addition to a higher body temperature (note this if you do endurance activities outdoors). Dr. West recommends using this time to do fewer high-intensity workouts and opt for more restorative practices, like yoga, and spending more time focusing on rest, especially at the end of the phase. luteal.
As your progesterone levels drop, your body begins to prepare for your period if the egg hasn’t been fertilized. This is when your uterine lining starts to come off, says Dr. West. Your progesterone and estrogen levels are at their lowest, signaling the brain to increase your FSH levels, and then the cycle repeats.
When it comes to activity, “During your period, what’s really important is to keep moving. Some activities are better than none,” says Dr. West. This move can help fight symptoms like cramps.
How Menstrual Phases Affect Physical Activity and Performance
Experts agree that more research needs to be done on the effects of menstruation on sports performance. According to Dr. Davenport, what little research there is has been inconclusive because each menstrual cycle is different and releases different levels of hormones. Still, Dr. West is a champion at discussing the impact of your cycle on performance, tracking it, and better understanding how it can help athletes and non-athletes alike.
One thing the data suggests so far is to listen to your body and respond to its needs, says Dr. Davenport. For example, if you’re feeling tired, maybe you skip the five-mile run you had planned and take a long walk instead.
What I learned from biohacking my own cycle
I was lucky enough to never really experience severe PMS. I generally have a fairly light and easy period, minus being a bit more emotional and irritable in the week leading up.
During the luteal phase, I had a track and field competition and was competing in the pentathlon, so I didn’t follow the Whoop app’s advice that it was a good time to focus on strength training and focus more on my recovery. . During the week of my competition, I felt tired because I didn’t get enough sleep. But I was reducing my training (i.e. lowering the volume) so it felt good.
The day I met, Coaching Whoop said my stress tolerance was low, but not competing was not an option. I pushed my body to the max and felt great. I had so much energy and I felt everything you want to feel in a competition: powerful, strong and confident. This was definitely due to me feeling good with my trainer and training program, feeling well prepared, resting and focusing on nutrition with a dietitian to help me fuel myself. and help me recover.
I will say that I heeded Whoop’s recommendation to spend more time warming up to avoid injuries. Ironically, I ran over a hurdle the day before my competition, but didn’t get hurt – it just comes with the territory and had to happen sooner or later.
Once the competition was over, I took a week off to allow my body to rest and mentally process everything, which was the menstrual phase. I didn’t train, but tried to get out every day for walks and focused on recovery work like hip mobility and stretching.
During the follicular phase, I felt great and got back to my usual sprint and strength routine. I definitely felt more energized during the ovulation phase (except the days I stayed up until 3am). But I haven’t really changed my training as it often consists of high intensity speed and strength work.
Overall, I found it somewhat intimidating to pay attention to the different phases of my cycle, and although it was anecdotal, I didn’t feel any better or my performance improved or decreased while following my period. But it was helpful to get insight into my body, especially the physiological changes that occur during the different phases. I understood better why some days my workouts are extremely hard and other days I feel amazing, instead of just thinking I suck or need to work harder. Overall, the biggest benefit was just being more aware of my body.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be the person who completely adjusts my training habits to my rules, partly because it seems too rigid (I know it’s really about creating habits) but also because ‘As an athlete, I don’t always have the option of changing my training – I have to compete, no matter what phase of my cycle I’m in.
Yet we all deserve to understand how our bodies work without feeling ashamed, embarrassed, or feeling like we’re the only one going through something. The more this area is studied, the more information we will be able to use.
Want to know more about how to optimize your rules? Here are some tips on how to eat for your menstrual cycle:
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