Your menstrual cycle starts with the follicular phase, which commences after you finish menstruating and runs for 14 days. From here, we move into the ovulation phase, which only lasts a day or two. After the ovulation phase, we then move into the dreaded luteal phase, which runs until day 28 of your cycle - this is where things get nasty. In this phase you start to experience all of your PMS symptoms. You’ll then soon transition into the last phase of the cycle, the menstrual phase. At the end of the menstrual phase, the cycle is complete and you start all over again. Let’s have a look at what happens in each phase to get a better understanding!
This phase is the fun phase when you can really push the boundaries with training! Your metabolism is at its lowest compared to any other phase, however your pain threshold is increased, endurance levels are augmented, and your insulin sensitivity is increased so your body burns through muscle glycogen like an out-of-control furnace to fuel your training. Take advantage of this situation by performing high-intensity, glycogen-depleting and resistance type workouts, and by also keeping your carbohydrate and protein intake high around your workouts to refuel your muscle glycogen stores and to help build muscle to tone!
The reason why guys can burn body fat and build more muscle easier, is because they produce more testosterone (the male hormone). This phase is when you turn into superwoman. Your testosterone increases, meaning you’re at your strongest and best! This is the time when a lot of female powerlifters test their max lifts. There’s an estimated 11% increase in both quad and hamstring strength in this time. However, oestrogen also peaks during this phase as much of your testosterone and progesterone is converted into oestrogen, which can actually increase your risk of injury as it can affect collagen metabolism. Therefore, it’s extremely important you keep your exercise form on point to reduce the risk of injury while you’re pushing heavier weight. In good news, your metabolism is starting to increase so it is normal for appetite to increase. Adding calories from protein and good fats is a good idea instead of from carbs, as insulin sensitivity is decreasing at this point.
This is when your PMS symptoms kick-in and you return from being superwoman. Your body experiences an increase in body temperature, reduced time-to-fatigue (lowered performance), water retention, and a metabolic increase of 8% (hence the increased appetite). Serotonin - your feel-good hormone - is lowered, which is why your mood is lowered, you’re snappy at everyone, and you’re craving sugar (you can be excused for consistently being busted sneaking in squares, or blocks, of chocolate) - this is your body’s natural mechanism to try and increase serotonin from the carbohydrates. Your body, however, relies on fats more as a fuel source as opposed to muscle glycogen, which is why it’s important to slightly decrease your carb intake as insulin sensitivity is at its lowest. Stick to moderate-intensity weight training & lower intensity cardio - no convincing needed when everything feels like a tonne of bricks! It's also a good idea to increase tryptophan-rich foods such as turkey and seeds - a precursor to serotonin - which will help spike serotonin production in the body and curb the carb cravings.
This is when we transition into that-time-of-the-month and your body feels like it’s returning to normal. Body temperature reduces, water retention starts to pass, energy begins to return, performance increases, fatigue reduces, and insulin sensitivity starts to increase again - good news for carb lovers! As exercise output and intensity begins to increase, increasing carbs to where they were prior to decreasing them in the luteal phase is important. However, the increase of 8% in your metabolic rate drops, so it’s important to opt for high intensity style training, and use dropsets and supersets to keep intensity higher for resistance training. Once menstruation passes and you re-enter the follicular phase, you can then further increase carbs in the endeavor to build lean muscle and drop more body fat!
With knowledge comes power! Learning what’s happening with your body’s hormones throughout our cycle gives us girls the ability to take advantage of certain times to increase power, strength, drop body fat and build more muscle! It can be so disheartening feeling tight and strong one week, to watery and weak the next, so I hope this gives you an insight into why us girls can vary on the scales, body-fat measurements, progress pictures from week-to-week. Yes, the joys of being a lady!