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Female Athletes' Blueprint: Tailoring Training to Your Unique Menstrual Cycle

Updated: Apr 5



Introduction


Have you given much thought to your period? Other than how annoying it is when it comes on race day!


The truth is that our menstrual cycle is our secret weapon. Understanding its role and the different phases of our cycle, allows us to adapt our running training to match and make the most out of our available time. Given that the number one reason why women do not participate in physical activity is due to family commitments, it is important to use any time for training effectively. 


However, the vast majority of running programmes (especially the free ones online) are based on a 4 week cycle (3 weeks of building and 1 rest week).  As women do not actually have a period that is exactly 4 weeks long, these programmes are unlikely to fit in with your body’s natural cycle. In fact most of these 4 week programmes and sports research are based on the male response.


Why is this significant? Read on to find out how tailoring training to fit your own natural cycle has the potential to produce better performance on event day and minimise injury and burn out.


Understanding your Menstrual Cycle


The first thing you need to do is track your cycle. There are more and more apps which do this but one of the best is Wild.AI. I know this is another thing to add to your to-do list, but the insights that you’ll gain are well worth 1 min of recording every morning.


If you don’t track your cycle then it is going to be very difficult to work out your training plan and how you will cycle through the phases. If you are serious about reaching your set goal (regardless of how fit, fast or competitive you are), you’ll start tracking today!


This diagram sets out the phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle. For simplicity of explaining the phases, this diagram does set out a 28 day cycle.



Your cycle begins on the first day of your period (day 1). Now you are in the follicular phase of your cycle.


During the follicular phase all hormonal levels start low. Estrogen begins to rise over the course of this phase, which lasts around 14 days. During this time you may feel more energetic and quicker to recover. You may also notice changes in your sexual interest as you move closer to ovulation (for obvious reasons!). However, it is not unusual if you do feel fatigued or emotional, but this could be due to hormonal imbalances so worth tracking and exploring further.


After ovulation (when an egg is released for fertilisation) you’ll move into the second “half” of your cycle, the luteal phase. In this phase your body realises at some point that there is no fertilised egg and sends a signal to shed your uterine lining i.e your period. This is a high hormone phase with progesterone being the dominant hormone. It is worth noting that the stress hormone cortisol is also higher in this phase. This can impact on your energy levels and make your more susceptible to illness.


In most women the luteal phase length is relatively consistent at 14 days long. It is the follicular phase that varies in length, as it is dependent on the time it takes to mature the egg. This is what will determine whether you have a long or short cycle length. If you are tracking your cycle you can either track back 14 days from the start of your period to determine your ovulation point or use other tools such as body temperature to determine when you are ovulating. 


Tailoring Training to Each Phase


Remember, we want to have periods! This is a key sign that our body is healthy and performing its functions properly. Missing periods or having your periods stop can be a sign of overtraining and underfueling, or other issues. If this happens please seek the advice from a medical professional. Of course if you are in the breastfeeding stage then it is normal not to have your period.


Once you have worked out your normal cycle length then you’ll be able to tailor your training plan to fit certain types of workouts in with your cycle phases. You can use the following as a guide for the types of sessions to include and when.


Follicular phase (days 1-14 ish):


Due to the low hormonal levels this is a great time to train at higher intensities (e.g HIIT, interval training, heavy weight sessions, VO2 max). You may also find that you recover more quickly during this phase (or rather that in other weeks your muscles hurt more and you feel more fatigued from the same type of session).


Estrogen will peak around ovulation and you also get a boost of testosterone around this time. This can make some women feel like “superwomen” and again, a good time to do high intensity sessions.


However, this phase is not a licence to go all out! You still need to build into your training time and intensity levels, especially if you are starting a new training programme or have had time off. In previous articles I’ve talked about the 80/20 rule and the 10% rule for running training.


You still need rest days and proper recovery. Recovery is where you keep your fitness gains from your training!


Luteal phase (days 14 ish-28ish):


As this is the high hormone phase the body is under more stress and may be more affected by other stressors in your life, including training stress. As you’ll need more recovery time during this phase, the intensity of training will need to drop. This means more endurance, sub-threshold and tempo type sessions. There is also a place for plyometrics early in this phase. However, only attempt plyometric work if you are confident with your technique as the risk of injury is higher. 


As you get into the pre-menstruation phase it is a good time to focus on mobility and technique. So instead of going out for another “easy paced” run, try a run session that focuses on running related drills. Then you can literally hit the ground running once you are back in the follicular phase!


What if you are on the Pill?


If you are on an oral hormonal contraceptive pill then you do not have the usual fluctuations in hormones to signal the different phases of your cycle.


You may be able to follow the generic 4 week training plans with this caveat. On day 1 of your bleed your body still has the effects of the pill in your system. Therefore it may take a couple of days for the higher hormonal effects of the pill to wear off. This would then be where you could time your hard and fast training sessions for. Similarly, when you start taking the active pill again you may have a couple of days before the hormonal levels increase again.


Benefits of Adapting Training to your Menstrual Cycle


You can perform on race day regardless of the phase or stage of your cycle. Your mind set has much more of an impact on how you perform rather than your physiology (assuming you have done the training of course!). 


The guidance in this article is to help you get the most out of your training and recovery. By tailoring your training cycle to your menstrual cycle you’ll:

  • Reduce your injury risk by reducing your training loads to match the times when your body is more prone to injury. 

  • Allow for more recovery when you need it. 

  • Push yourself at times where you’ll gain the most benefit.

  • Allow your body to adapt and grow from the training stress.


Thus achieving prolonged periods of consistent training. Which will allow you to continue to build and improve.


What to know more?


Join me for an online Masterclass on 10th April 2024 at 7pm NZT. Register via this link. Even if you can’t make the live session it will be recorded and sent to you.


My SparkleFit Squad is gearing up for events in June. This is where you can put training to your cycle into practice. The programmes have options for the follicular and luteal phases so that even on a group programme you can tailor it to suit where you are at!


The next SparkleFit intake starts on 27th April 2024. Register now and find out more information at https://www.sparklefitness.co.nz/sparklefitsquad


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