Increased research has shown the extent to which the monthly menstrual cycle can affect the body. Indeed, scientific research has demonstrated that women are more prone to specific injuries, struggle with endurance training and are more adept at lifting weights at certain points throughout the month. How then do we learn to work with our monthly cycle to ensure that we get the best out of ourselves? How do we tailor our exercise regime and diet in accordance with our monthly cycle?
The first day of our period is the first day of our cycle. At this time, hormone levels drop. A lack of iron can affect our energy levels and increase cravings, says nutritionist Laura Southern. On days where we are menstrating, it is recommended that we balance our blood sugar levels by eating a combination of protein, good fats and complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes and vegetables. If you suffer from cramps, avoid “gas-producing” foods, such as raw foods and sugary processed foods.
Nuts and seeds contain magnesium, which is known as a muscle relaxant and may help alleviate some of the cramps and discomfort in some women. As caffeine is a natural diuretic that dehydrates the body, consider swapping caffeinated drinks with herbal teas during this phase, to prevent excess water loss.
At this stage, it’s important to listen to your body and reduce the intensity of your workouts, if necessary. Light cardio, shorter stints of aerobic exercise and swimming or yoga are all good options at this point. It is also a good time for some light weight-lifting. Oestrogen levels are at their lowest during your period which can make some women feel stronger when strength training.
On the follicular phase, which comes in the middle of a cycle, hormone levels begin to rise in anticipation of ovulation. In this “feel-good” time of the cycle, digestive health is very important. At this time, we should consume probiotic-rich food (fermented foods, such as kimchi, yoghurt and kombucha), omega three fats (oily fish, nuts and seeds) and a range of coloured vegetables “to support the liver detoxification pathways”. Bitter greens, such as rocket, help promote the production of digestive juice and enzymes.
Strength training during this period may result in higher increases in muscle strength, compared with other times of the month. However, studies have indicated that women suffer musculoskeletal injuries in the follicular phase leading up to ovulation, particularly tendon and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL, or knee) injuries when oestrogen levels are high. This is believed to be due to lower rates of tendon collagen synthesis following exercise. Longer warm-up exercises and not overstretching can help minimise this risk at this time of the month.
On Ovulation day, our base temperature – or the lowest body temperature your body reaches whilst at rest – can increase slightly, making it a great time to get lots of colourful salads and smoothies into the system. Vitamin B rich whole grains, such as brown rice, help support this energy production.
With energy levels at their highest, it’s a good time to push yourself physically and enjoy the additional endurance that often characterises this time. Progesterone remains low, meaning that the body’s overall pain tolerance increases. Now is a good opportunity to strive for a personal best and focus on total body strength training.
The luteal phase comes after you release an egg and before your period starts. At this time, we often suffer from pre-menstrual symptoms, such as acne, cravings, bloating and breast tenderness. Avoid sugar-rich and processed foods at this time, as these can stimulate sugar cravings. Limit salt as salt can retain water, thus adding to the bloating feeling. Try to consume Fibre. Fibre-rich food includes fruit and vegetables and whole grains. Also, certain teas can help with bloating, such as fennel and turmeric. Foods rich in essential fats such as oily fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado and olives are also recommended.
In the luteal phase, body temperature rises by at least 0.3 degrees Celsius after ovulation and remains high until menstruation. Progesterone in the body also increases. For this reason, it’s important to stay hydrated and keep cool when exercising.
While you might not want to skip training entirely during this period, the luteal phase can be a good time to schedule rest days. During the days leading up to your period, activities that relax your body, such as yoga or Pilates, may help relieve symptoms such as cramps and muscle fatigue.