A few truisms about women, about health, about fitness:
We’re not smaller versions of men.
We work out differently.
We can get strong without getting bulky.
We probably don’t eat enough.
Our menstrual cycle explains a lot.
And … not only are we different from men, we’re also different from each other.
“Fitness is very individual,” says Alyssa Olenick, exercise physiologist and owner of Little Lyss Fitness, a training program that focuses on — music to the ears of Orangetheory Fitness — science. “There’s an overemphasis on saying everyone should train the same and that everyone’s period is the same.”
So what does your period have to do with working out? Well, once again that depends on you. The answer could be a lot … or not much.
“Some women feel the effects of their cycle,” Olenick says,“ and others are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to pay attention to yet another thing?’” says Olenick, whose doctoral studies include researching sex differences in metabolism and exercise. “Women don’t need to live and die by their menstrual cycles, but they should use them as a tool in their toolbox.”
Depending on where you are in your cycle, hormone fluctuation determines why you’re craving certain foods; how high or low your energy level might be; whether high-intensity workouts are worth plunging into or if you’d be better off skipping them.
We asked Olenick as well as registered dietitian and Orangetheory medical board member Kimberly Plessel to explain the four phases of menstruation and what each phase might mean as far as nutrition and exercise.
Menstruation. This phase starts with the first day of a woman’s period and lasts three to eight days. As estrogen levels rise, you may notice it’s harder to train at high intensities, Plessel says. To compensate, “during the first half of your cycle, you may need to increase your carbohydrate intake level.”
Some women may notice a slight potential decrease in performance during a workout, Olenick says. But, she adds, “the research isn’t strong enough to draw conclusions. Women can expect to be as great or maybe slightly less great, but it won’t hurt to work out during your period.”
Follicular phase. During this phase, which lasts 10 to 16 days, estrogen levels rise, peak as the phase ends, and drop just prior to ovulation.
“During this time, we tend to conserve glycogen and utilize more fat for fuel,” Plessel says. “If you notice it’s harder to train at high intensities during the first half of your cycle, you may need to increase your carbohydrate intake.”
Ovulation. This prime time to become pregnant occurs midway between your cycle. “Some people say you’ll have your best workout week going into ovulation,” says Olenick. “But others say injury rates are higher during this time.”
Yet another reminder that we’re all different.
Luteal phase. During this final phase, which lasts around 14 days, progesterone becomes the most dominant hormone, setting off PMS symptoms that tend to occur during the latter part of this phase.
During this time,” Olenick says, “progesterone and estrogen are really high, so there is an effect on hydration status and heart rate. It’s really important during this time to hone your nutrition. Make sure you’re putting an extra emphasis on recovery if you feel run-down during those weeks.”
Increasing your protein will help you feel more satiated, Plessel says. “Consuming 15 to 25 grams every three to four hours is more supportive than consuming it all at once.”
During this time, striking a balance between carbs and fat is important, she says. “Carbohydrates provide fiber for satiety, nutrients for health, and calories to prevent the breakdown of lean muscle mass for fuel.”
Additionally, she says, “give yourself permission to increase your fat intake a few days prior to menstruation.” Opt for nuts, avocado, fatty fish such as salmon, or even dark chocolate.
Above all, listen to your body. “There are real, biological reasons contributing to these symptoms. Try to avoid labeling food as good or bad, or attaching a sense of morality to your choices.”
As progesterone levels rise, so does body temperature, she says. “If you notice a reduced tolerance for heat, you may fatigue earlier in your workouts. Ensure you’re hydrating with adequate fluid intake, especially if you are exercising in hot or humid environments.”
Yes, that’s a lot to take in; if you’re confused or want more clarification, check with your health care professional. Again, experts advise that you use such information as one of many tools to make sure you’re doing the best you can for your body.
Here are a few more:
Eat enough. “Undereating is rampant in female populations,” Olenick says. “Women need to make sure they’re eating enough calories, especially if they’re doing a lot of high-demand exercise, and are hydrated. If advice is a pyramid, that would be at the bottom; it’s most important.”
Temper your high-intensity workouts. Yes, they’re wonderful, improving cardiovascular, aerobic, and anaerobic fitness; lowering blood pressure; reducing body fat while maintaining muscle mass. But there’s a reason that Orangetheory recommends you limit its workouts to two to three workouts every week; namely, that recovery is imperative, and a mix of movement makes for better fitness.
“You can do HIIT at any phase of your cycle,” Olenick says. “Just don’t overuse it, especially if you’re not sleeping enough or eating enough to support it.”
Strength train. A lot of women worry they will get bulky, but we don’t have the potential to do that,” she says. “We’re as capable of getting stronger as men are.”