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Exercise and Your Period: Everything You Need to Know!

  • Exercise and Your Period: Everything You Need to Know!
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by Lorraine Conwell, Perpetua Crossfit & SWEAT Coach

Ladies, let’s be honest….. we deserve a medal!

We always want to get the best out of our training sessions and to look and feel our best, but our bodies don’t always cooperate. Having a better understanding of the hormonal changes during our cycle can help us adapt and accept that we can’t, and shouldn’t expect to, feel damn good all the time or perform to our best every day.

Throughout the cycle, the primary sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone are continuously fluctuating. A woman’s menstrual cycle has different phases: Menstrual (Phase 1), Follicular (Phase 2), Ovulation (Phase 3), and Luteal (Phase 4). The cycle is often broken down more broadly into just the follicular and luteal phases.

The food we eat throughout our cycle dictates how we function. Fueling your body with the right nutrients can positively affect how you feel and perform during each phase.


Essential Nutrients for Women

ZINC – Women often don’t have enough zinc in their diet. Zinc helps to support the immune system and is essential for hormone synthesis, recovery, adaptation and repair. Some food sources of Zinc: whole grains, chickpeas.

PROTEIN – It is important to hit your daily protein requirements as protein is essential to help with recovery and adaptation to training. Some food sources of protein: lean meat, fish, eggs, beans.

B VITAMINS – These are essential for maintaining health, supporting metabolism, regulating menstrual flow, growth and development as well as red blood cell development. Some food sources of B vitamins: fish, avocados, bananas.

IRON – Women often eat less iron than men and lose iron through menstruation, increasing their susceptibility to iron deficiency. Iron is essential for red blood cell development and many other factors involved in health and wellbeing. Some food sources of iron: red meats, beans, lentils, spinach.

CALCIUM – A key mineral that helps with bone health and muscle contraction. It should be consumed alongside vitamin D. Some food sources of calcium: broccoli, milk.

The Phases, Explained

Menstrual Phase (Days 1-5)


Days 1-5 of our period are the first five days of our cycle. During these five days, our hormone levels drop. If you are lacking in iron at all, this will cause energy levels to drop as well as increased cravings (we’ve all been there!)

Consuming fewer sugary and processed foods during this phase can help reduce bloating. A lack of iron can make us feel fatigued, particularly during this phase. Eating iron-rich foods such as red meat, green vegetables, lentils, and seeds can support iron production.


The Follicular Phase Days 1-14)

Hormone levels begin to rise in anticipation for ovulation during this phase, which comes in the middle of the cycle. This is normally a ‘feel good’ time of your cycle (get those selfies!)

Digestive health is really important during the follicular phase in order to support the production of these hormones. Foods containing omega-three fats (oily fish, nuts and seeds) as well as coloured vegetables will all help support the liver detoxification pathway.


Ovulation Phase (Day 14)

At this stage, oestrogen levels reach a peak, leading to a rise in luteinising hormone (LH), which results in the release of a mature egg. One sign that you are ovulating is a slight rise in body temperature, which happens around day 14 of your cycle. Surging oestrogen levels can provide a natural energy boost at this time of the month, making good quality sleep vital for rest and repair.


Luteal Phase (Days 14-28)

This phase starts the day after you ovulate, and goes until the day you start your next period. This is where we see a rise in progesterone and a slight bump in oestrogen levels, followed by a drop in both hormones and the restart of the cycle (barring pregnancy.) The luteal phase is when we experience those *lovely* PMS symptoms – bloating, headache, weight changes, food cravings, breast tenderness and trouble sleeping. This phase lasts 11-17 days.

During the mid-luteal phase, there is a marked decrease in time to exhaustion, which is believed to be a result of increased body temperature, so pay extra attention to your water intake those days.


Adapting your training for your cycle

Training With Your Menstrual Cycle

Now, let’s get into specifics. As a general guideline, training with your menstrual cycle is broken down into a 4-week period (pun intended.) While the days set forth here are a 28 day cycle, this may change from person to person. The type of workouts you choose to do isn’t what matters. What matters is the intensity or level of effort you put in, the weight you choose for your barbell, the speed you chose to hold on the treadmill.

Please note: this is not absolute. This is my opinion based on what I have been learning and reading, and from my own experience.

The ‘ramp up’ begins when your menstrual cycle begins to taper off. Why? Because most people feel the worst the last few days of their cycle (because of PMS symptoms) and the first few days of menstruation. However, not everyone ovulates on day 14, so the highest intensity week occurs around ovulation (between days 10 and 16). This may change a little depending on each individual.


Week 1 (Days 3-9) ‘The Ramp Up’ (Increased Load or Intensity)

Week 1 occurs in the first half of your follicular phase. During this time I normally increase the intensity of my training and start to lift heavy. I like to think of it as a week to prepare myself for maximum load and intensity. On week one I feel it’s a good time to hit interval workouts.

Please note: if you are going to be using this as a guide for your own training, you’ll be coming off a down week, so it’s really important to include sufficient warm ups.


Week 2 (Days 10-16) High Load or Intensity

This week is the second half of the follicular phase and beginning of ovulation, and I find my energy is usually at its peak. I like to take advantage of this by incorporating a few workouts that use max efforts and going to that ‘dark place’. Examples would be sprint work on the Assault Bike (everyone’s favourite), or really pushing your intensity to its peak during Tread & Shred. It’s normally during this time where I would PB on lifts or hit high percentages and it would feel good.


Week 3 (Days 17 – 23) Aerobic Efforts

Now we’re going into the first half of the luteal phase. This is where I feel better with aerobic training – moderate loads and longer, less intense workouts. As I’m starting to move towards the end of this week, I taper my training according to how my body is feeling depending on PMS symptoms. It’s important to stay hydrated during this week, as your core temperature has increased.


Week 4 (Days 24 – 2) The Down Week

This phase starts when your PMS symptoms start to become more prominent. I often use this week as an opportunity to do other activities that I don’t normally do like yoga or just getting outside for fresh air. A lot of people (including me) don’t like to take a week off, so if I still train doing this time, then I scale down in weights or intensity levels in workouts. This would be an ideal time to focus on technique and to just move. Your body will thank you for the break!


Adapting Your Training

Here’s an example of how I change my training up week to week without actually changing the movements.

Week 1 (Days 3-9) ‘The Ramp Up’ (Increased Load or Intensity)

A) Build up to 80% of Max Squat Clean

B) 3×3 Clean Pulls at 100%

C) 2min on 1min off x5 sets: 20 Wall Ball, 10 Burpees, Max Cal Bike

Week 2 (Days 10-16) High Load or Intensity

A) 1RM Squat Clean

B) EMOMx10 1. 3 touch and go Power cleans at 60%

C) As Fast as Possible: 10 cal bike & 10 Burpees rest 90sec X5 sets

Week 3 (Days 17 – 23) Aerobic Efforts

A) 4-5 Complexes for Quality: 3 Power Cleans & 3 Front Squats between 50-60% of Power Clean Max

B) EMOMx18 (40 sec work, 20 rest):  1. Cal Bike // 2. 15-20 wall ball // 3. 10 burpees

Week 4 (Days 24 – 2) The Down Week

A) 20-30 mins of Light Movement/Stretching

B) Empty Barbell (focusing on technique)
For Quality 10 Clean Pulls 10 Muscle Clean 10 Front Squats 10 Strict Press 10 Good Mornings
10 Back Squats 10 Behind the Neck Push Press

C) Long Walk/Easy Run

The movements don’t change dramatically, but I change up the weight loads, volume, intensity and structure of each session depending on what phase of my cycle I’m at.


The Bottom Line


As female athletes, taking a closer look at how our bodies change throughout our cycle can be incredibly helpful. When we understand what’s going on the inside we can set ourselves up for success in reaching our health and fitness goals.

So next time you go into class or the gym, don’t worry about the person beside you, they don’t actually care if you’re the fastest or slowest, the strongest or the weakest and most of all, they don’t know your body.

As coaches, we can’t possibly program each class for everyone’s needs and cycle, but there’s no reason why you can’t get to know your body and adjust your training accordingly.

Now, go off and learn about your body and be the best you!

Lorraine Conwell is a Perpetua Crossfit and SWEAT Coach. Her background lies in GAA, playing at the highest level possible and in football playing in the Irish Premier League. In addition to coaching group fitness and Crossfit classes, she leads a Women’s Small Group Training program at Perpetua. Catch her on the schedule!

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