As the researcher, Dr. Stacy Sims says, “Women are not small men”. We are simply not supposed to train or eat like a man. The menstruating body requires us to pay more attention to training and nutrition plans, and we need to start educating every menstruating person* about this. Having a balanced training and nutrition plan which follows your hormonal fluctuations is crucial for you to look, feel, perform, and be at your absolute best. With that being said, let’s get started…
Why Should I Align My Training & Nutrition With My Cycle?
Over the years, I have met lots of people who feel like they have tried everything to manage the symptoms of their cycle, and they say that nothing works. They stick to hours of cardio, diets, and HIIT training but they still can’t lose weight. This is because they are missing a key element.
Their hormones. The role hormones play in the way our bodies function impacts the way we should care for our health. Training needs to be adjusted to synchronise with changes that happen in your body due to the fluctuations of our hormones over the month. These changes can include performance, coordination, strength, and more.
It appears that, in the early follicular phase of our menstrual cycle, aerobic performance outcomes are likely to be enhanced but strength performance is diminished. Similarly, endurance is diminished in the ovulatory phase, while strength and anaerobic performance improves in the same phase.
When I first came across these facts, I felt a huge relief. I finally understood why I felt the way I did during different times of the month and, ultimately, why I wasn’t always performing as well as my male friends. I began a learning journey that has led me to help myself and other women. Now I’d like to share my learning with you and help you to improve your performance and feel your best. Therefore I have created a workout routine for you that takes hormonal changes into consideration.
To dive deeper into the connection between our menstrual cycles and our fitness, read our guide on the science so far on menstrual health and performance.
Menstrual Cycle 101: The Basics
So now it is clear: before we can even begin creating our fitness and nutrition plans, we first need to have a thorough understanding of our cycles. If you think you know it all, you can skip ahead to the training plan... however, I recommend that you don’t – most of us sadly haven’t received a full education on our cycles.
Menstrual is a latin word for ‘month’. This is because many of us experience 28-day long cycles from puberty to menopause. What you have to remember is that there is no “normal” cycle, it varies between every individual and it can also differ from month to month. The menstrual cycle starts the first day of bleeding, which normally lasts for about 3-5 days. After that, we have the period leading up to ovulation which occurs around day 14, this is when you either get pregnant or your body pushes away the egg and you get your period.
However, our learning shouldn’t stop there. The menstrual cycle is divided up into four main phases. These are called menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. Your follicular and luteal phases can also be split further into early and late stages in which your hormones are also rising and declining. Menstrual cycle hormones vary a lot during the different phases, and as they do, they cause the body to go through different changes. To learn more about the impact of the phases of your menstrual cycle on your body and mind, read our full guide to the phases as part of our “The Cycle that Guides Us” series.
There are many different hormones involved in your ovarian cycle, but the four main types are follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, progesterone, and oestrogen. To learn more about the influence of hormones on your body, read our full guide on the impact of hormones on your performance.
Below is an overview of what happens in your body during the different phases and days. This will impact nutrition, training and how you feel and perform in general. To know where in the hormonal cycle you are will not only be beneficial for you in terms of bodily performance, it will also help to perform in all aspects of life.
For now, what I want you to remember is that your menstrual cycle can be different from the standard that is often described. You might have a shorter cycle, a longer cycle, less days of bleeding, experience more or less hunger due to a difference in metabolic increase or see a difference in how much your body temperature increases. It can be due to several different factors and some of them are nutrition or diet, exercise, and stress. Therefore, it is important that you always listen to your body and keep track of key factors such as energy, sleep, mood, hunger, and stress. These are the five main factors I recommend that you track daily through the month so you can learn about your body.
Got it! So, How Do I Align My Training With My Cycle?
Now you understand the basic science, what you need to track, and the importance of it to your fitness regime, we can begin planning our fitness and nutrition around our cycles.
Studies have shown so far that tension is the most critical factor in order to grow muscles. Short rest periods, partial range of motion, failure training, and blood flow restricted training do not seem to benefit muscle growth on their own. Therefore, we will be doing a total body resistance training routine which makes sure that you hit each and every body part every session, but which also allows you to have enough time to rest and recover between sessions.
Why should we focus on resistance training?
Weight training or resistance training should be a part of all exercise programs due to the benefits it offers. The primary goal is to improve muscular strength and size which makes the activities of daily living easier and even small increases in size may improve appearance and body shape. Another great benefit is that it helps limit lean body mass or muscle loss during a diet phase, or even loss caused by ageing. Also, if you are afraid that you will look bulky as you build muscles, don’t be. Building lean muscle mass as a woman takes time, and you will not become bulky without the use of drugs.
I prefer total body splits over traditional bodybuilding splits because, first of all, women generally recover more quickly between workouts than men, therefore it’s recommended that women hit all muscle groups at least twice per week. The science also shows that the difference in muscle growth is small when they compare hitting a body part once a week vs three or more times per week. You can choose to only hit a muscle group once per week, but hitting one muscle group at least twice per week typically allows for more impact per week and higher quality workouts.
However, what matters more is:
The quality and effort you put in each and every workout.
Whether you allow yourself to properly recover between workouts.
How consistently you stick to the plan.
That’s why I am here: to help you achieve all of the above. I also invite you to join our wonderful and motivating wellness community to stay on track. Now, here’s what you’ve been waiting for...
Your Hormone-Guided Training Plan
In this training plan, there are three key strength sessions each week, with week four being a deload week when you really focus on recovery. You will start your cycle on day one of bleeding, when your body is starting to feel in a better place. At this stage, we perform 10-15 reps and focus on muscle building. As your body approaches week two (and ovulation), you will most likely feel your best and strongest and therefore we will focus on strength. In week three, you might feel like your strength is starting to decrease again, so we go back down to hypertrophy focus. In week four, when most females experience PMS, recovery will be our main focus.
Tracking Your Progress With RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion)
When using this plan, I want you to record your RPE, which is a rating of perceived exertion when you lift. Perceived exertion is how hard you feel like your body is working when lifting.
The RPE Scale
RPE 10: Max Effort, No Reps Left
RPE 9: Very tough, 1 rep left
RPE 8: Difficult but still 2 reps left
RPE 7: Not Difficult 3-5 reps left
Managing Your Nutrition Throughout Your Cycle
The Reason Behind Your Food Cravings
Your hormones play a huge role in not only appetite but also food cravings. Studies show that women in general eat more during the luteal phase vs follicular phase (Lyle McDonald, The Women’s Book). Generally they say that women ate 305 kcal more each day in the luteal phase. This is right after ovulation; the time leading up to your first day of menstruation. It seems to be because of a drop in oestrogen, which is thought to lead to more sugar cravings. In the luteal phase, ensuring at least some fruit intake can help to maintain blood glucose and the allowance of a small amount of chocolate may help with cravings.
This table shows the impact of your cycle stages on your body.
How To Cope With Food Cravings
First of all, try to get in tune with your body. If you are craving something, most likely your body is trying to tell you that you are lacking something in your diet. This is something I have experienced myself and with clients I have worked with. I am not saying you should go all in and make yourself feel crazy, but if you tend to binge eat and have cravings it can be a sign of a vitamin or mineral deficiency or you are not consuming enough food altogether.
Our body and hormonal health can really be influenced in a positive way by a well balanced diet. You need to incorporate all the macronutrient groups, protein, carbohydrates and fats and make sure to get them from a variety of sources. It’s important to get enough protein and fibres with every meal and be mindful of the carbohydrates you choose and how they affect your body and mind. We are all different and respond differently to different foods, so always listen to what your body likes and dislikes.
Okay, so what should I eat, and at what point in my cycle?
Everyone is different, so there are no definite rules here. That said, we are beginning to discover that certain nutritional changes can support your health and manage your symptoms at different stages of your cycle. There's lots that you can incorporate into your diet to see how your body responds, so keep track of changes you make to be sure that you really know what’s influencing you at different times of your cycle.
This is the time to focus on warming foods that are rich in iron, vitamin C and zinc. Replenish your body’s vitamins and minerals during menstruation by eating leafy greens or broccoli which contains iron, as well as beans such as lima, kidney or white beans. Eating red foods during your period such as red meats, red berries, and beets (etc.), is also often recommended in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Your energy levels will start to rise again following menstruation, this is the time to focus on muscle-building foods that are high in protein to make sure you fuel your body properly when lifting heavy weights.
During this time you want to focus on eating lots of fibre and complex carbs to regulate mood and keep blood sugar stable. Also foods rich in magnesium, zinc and vitamin B6 to support your body in the premenstrual phase. You also want to include detoxifying foods such as brussels sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage.
Where can I get B12?
B12 is naturally in animal source foods such as meat and dairy foods although B12 fortified vegetarian foods are often available.
Where can I get iron?
Iron occurs in food in two forms, heme and non-heme, animal foods contain a mixture of both while vegetable source and fortified foods only contain non-heme iron. You can find iron in foods such as chicken, beef, turkey, oysters, salmon, tofu, chickpeas, beans, pumpkin and sesame seeds.
What about zinc?
Zinc is important for hormonal health, immune system and metabolism of protein, carbohydrates and fats. Zinc, like iron, is found in larger amounts in animal source foods and is absorbed more effectively from those foods.
Where can I get magnesium?
Magnesium is really important for the body and vital for many bodily functions such as heart rhythm, muscle contractions, bone health, protein production, creating energy etc. Magnesium is found in nuts and seeds, legumes, spinach, quinoa and even some bottled water can contain magnesium.
Where can I get vitamin D?
Vitamin D is another important component for health and mainly bone health, but it’s also important for immune function and your nervous system. Foods that are high in Vitamin D is salmon, herring, cod liver oil, egg yolks, mushrooms,
As you can see in the table below, during the follicular phase, you are using carbs as your primary fuel source at rest which means that you might want to increase your carbohydrate intake and lower your fat intake. During the luteal phase on the other hand you primarily use fats as your fuel source at rest because of that you can increase your fat intake and lower your carbohydrate intake. This is also when your hunger level might go up a little due to an increase in metabolic rate.
Other Important Elements To Consider & Incorporate
Calcium and vitamin D are critical for bone health. According to Lyle McDonald, dairy is the best source of calcium. Calcium is often found in vegetable source foods but the amounts are lower and the calcium is absorbed less efficiently (calcium from dairy is absorbed with 97% efficiency versus 22% from broccoli). Vitamin K is found primarily in leafy green vegetables such as broccoli, kale, spinach and turnip greens. Phosphorus is found in foods such as meat, dairy, nuts, beans and cereals
Protein intake should also always be the same each day. You should eat around 0.8-1.2 grams per kg of body weight depending on if you want to maintain or build muscle mass. Also, pay attention to the fact that water retention is higher during week two and week four, this can impact weight and how you look and feel.
And what about my beloved caffeine kick...?
Even our caffeine metabolism is different throughout the month, it is similar to men the first half but different in the second half. So you might find yourself being more sensitive to caffeine during different times of the month.
References (i.e. Your new reading list!)
- Lyle McDonald. The Women's Book
- WomanCode: Perfect Your Cycle, Amplify Your Fertility, Supercharge Your Sex Drive, and Become a Power Source
- Robertson C1 et. al. should weight loss and maintenance programmes be designed differently for men? A systematic review of long-term randomised controlled trials presenting data for men and women: The ROMEO project. Obes Res Clin Pract. (2016) 10(1):70-84.
- L Davidsen et. al. Impact of the menstrual cycle on determinants of energy balance: a putative role in weight loss attempts. International Journal of Obesity (2007) 31: 887-890
- Elliott K.J., Cable N.T., Reilly T., Diver M.J. Effect of menstrual cycle phase on the concentration of bioavailable 17-β oestradiol and testosterone and muscle strength.
- De Jonge X.J., Thompson B., Han A. Methodological Recommendations for Menstrual Cycle Research in Sports and Exercise. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2019;51:2610–2617. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002073