Understanding how your body works and feels during your cycle will give you a great indication of when it may be time to push hard or lower the load of your training.
August is Women’s Month in South Africa, where we pay tribute to the more than 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. It is also a time to shine a spotlight on women’s health, so this month we are dedicating our health content to the greater cause of spreading valuable information and awareness.
Let’s look at exactly what happens to your body during your period and how this may impact your energy levels and training.
Exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist Dr Stacy Sims says: “My life’s work is largely devoted to helping women work with their unique physiology to train and perform their best. That means adjusting training sessions to leverage how our bodies respond to stress according to the hormonal fluctuations of our menstrual cycle. But it’s important to bear in mind that this doesn’t mean there’s a ‘bad time of month’ for performance. You can crank out a PR at any phase of your cycle,” she says.
The days before your period hits
In the days building up to your period, your body prepares to shed the uterine wall if there has been no fertilisation. Both progesterone and oestradiol (oestrogen steroid hormone) begin to drop. This could lead to symptoms of fatigue, irritability, low-mood and low energy. You could also experience tender breasts, fluid retention, headaches and bloating, all of which can make the idea of exercise much less attractive.
This is often the stage in your menstrual cycle where exercising may feel like the most effort. But we also know that moving our bodies can also increase mood – thanks, endorphins! – and help combat pain. If you struggle with PMS symptoms, instead of pushing hard to continue with your usual training, change things up! A yoga class, a walk or hike or even a swim can ease symptoms of PMS, while boosting mood. “You may need to tweak your hydration and fueling depending on your hormonal status. Your best effort may feel harder – or easier – depending on your hormonal status. But you can absolutely perform your best regardless of where you are in your menstrual cycle,” says Dr Sims.
When your period hits
Some women experience painful cramps, severe bloating and headaches during their period and none of these feelings may entice you to get outside and exercise, but know this: exercise may ease these symptoms.
Also, your hormone levels are at their lowest and this hormone shift can actually make you feel more powerful. Maybe a time to try strength or resistance training? “This is your low hormone phase, when your body is generally primed to take on stress and adapt well to heavy training. This is a great time to do high-intensity workouts, heavy resistance training – and recover well,” says Dr Sims.
For example, this study found that high frequency periodised leg resistance training during the first two weeks of the menstrual cycle is more beneficial to optimise resistance training, than the last two weeks.
Of course some women do experience heavy bleeding or even amenorrhea. If you have any concerns or regularly experience severe menstrual or premenstrual symptoms, it might be time to consult with your doctor.