health

Your period seriously affects the way you exercise. Here's how to use it to your advantage.

If you're anything like us, exercising is the absolute last thing you want to do when you're on your period

Sit on the sofa and eat tasty things? Yes. Watch comfy TV shows you've seen 322 times? Big yes. Smash out a HIIT class? Hard no.

Not once have we ever connected monthly bleeding to anything else other than uncomfy, just-gotta-get-through-it feelings.

But here's the thing: Not only can exercising during your period help ease annoying symptoms (hey stabby period pain), but it could also actually help you score that PB. 

No, seriously! 

According to science, women are stronger, more motivated, and more of a bad a$$ when they're menstruating.

Watch: If your period was a person... Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

But exactly how does your period affect your physical endeavours? And why isn't this something we didn't already know? 

All good questions.

We spoke to a doctor, a personal trainer, and a sports nutritionist and asked them everything we need to know about the way our menstrual cycle affects our energy levels, and how we can use it to our advantage.

The relationship between exercise and your period.

Up until now, there's pretty much been a gaping lack of evidence in relation to menstruation and physical exercise. In fact, menstruation, in general, is still quite an understudied area.

"For a very long time, women were actually excluded from a lot of research, because we were too dangerous - for example, in case we're pregnant and it hurts the fetus. We're so dynamic because of our hormones, so it's a lot harder to do clinical testing," said naturopath and sports nutritionist Kira Sutherland from Uberhealth.

"We are kind of three or four different people, depending on when you're testing during the month. You can have different results when you test a female a week into her cycle versus three weeks into her cycle," said Sutherland.

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While there's currently not that much research in this field, what's coming out is really interesting. So, the more and more we talk about it, the more this type of research will be funded. 

When it comes to the research that is out there, earlier this year the Apple Women's Health study team at Harvard released first-of-its-kind research - preliminary scientific data on menstrual symptoms of over 10,000 participants.

Speaking to The Cut, Dr Shruthi Mahalingaish, one of the study's investigators, said this knowledge would not only impact gynecologic decisions but overall health.

"It will be really interesting to really understand how the phases of the menstrual cycle might underlie patterns on sports and activity."

Image: Getty 

"The relationship between our menstrual cycle and how we can absorb, adapt and recover from training is extremely intertwined," Lydia O'Donnell, who founded Femmi, a coaching program that focuses purely on coaching female athletes to their menstrual cycles, adapting the training to work with the athletes.

"Throughout the menstrual cycle, our hormones are constantly changing. With these hormonal fluctuations, our body goes through different phases of energy levels which can affect our performance when exercising as well as the adaptations we make to our training," she said.

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While this is all new information to most of us (hello!), it turns out that using your menstrual cycle to tap into your physical goals isn't exactly a new phenomenon. In fact - it's pretty common.

Take the Brisbane Lions Women's team, for example - who structured training around their cycles to optimise players' recovery in a bid to help them secure a premiership title. 

They used a similar method to what was used by the USA women's soccer team, who tracked player's periods in the lead-up to the 2019 Women's World Cup. 

In the UK, the Chelsea Women's Football club also uses an app to track their player's periods.

"Professional athletes have to be able to perform at all stages of the menstrual cycle and it is well documented that moderate amounts of aerobic exercise may help with psychological and physical premenstrual symptoms such as bloating, breast tenderness, and mood swings," said Associate Professor Gino Pecoraro, an obstetrician and gynaecologist in Brisbane.

The menstrual calendar is fascinating and complex. There's a phase driven by enthusiasm and motivation, perfect for high-intensity movement. There's a phase for endurance training. There's even one for rest and recovery. 

"As far as the whole cycle goes, there are now theories around when you could be doing different forms of training in relation to your cycle. What you might not know is that you utilise the stored fuels of your body differently between the rest of the cycle," said Sutherland.

The way in which our menstrual cycle impacts our bodies is forever shifting and changing, calling for us to tune into our bodies and, well... listen.

How your menstrual cycle impacts your physical energy.

Okay, let's go back to health class, shall we?

A textbook menstrual cycle is 28 days (keeping in mind everyone is different, so don't panic if this ain't you!). 

There are two phases in a menstrual cycle: the follicular phase and the luteal phase. Ovulation is usually smack bang in between these two phases - generally landing on day 14 for people (again, everyone is different).

Throughout your cycle, the main hormones that will have an impact are estrogen and progestogen. 

"In the first half of the menstrual cycle, (the follicular phase) the ovaries produce more oestrogen than progesterone. Its role is to make the endometrial lining thicker and receptive should a fertilised embryo need to implant. The rising oestrogen levels are also important to prime the ovaries to ovulate or release an egg," explains Professor Pecoraro.

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So, at the very start of the early follicular phase, which is when you have your period (usually day one to day five), you have low estrogen and progesterone, and you'll also have typical PMS symptoms like pain, sore boobs, tiredness, etc.

According to research, during this time most women will experience reduced motivation, and a decreased willingness to train.

*Raises hand*

It's also important to note here, that your period is an inflammatory process, which means your body is pretty stressed out around this time - so you're going to recover slowly if you are training. It's kind of your body's way of telling you to back off on the heavy stuff.

Around this time, if you feel well enough, most experts would actually recommend a bit of movement because moderate-intensity exercise can actually improve menstrual symptoms. 

"The moods within PMS - like anger and sadness - there's a lot of research that proves exercise can improve those moods, at least for a few hours. So, exercising with PMS is one of my big prescriptions for people," said Sutherland.

So, if it feels good for you and you're not curled up in a fetal position with a hot water bottle, some gentle exercise can have its benefits. But yeah - this is not a good time to go all in. Just do what feels right for your body.

"Menstrual cramps are not pleasant and can make training feel a lot harder and not enjoyable. Forcing yourself to train when you are facing severe cramping will not be fun and could put you in a position of creating a negative relationship with exercise," said O'Donnell.

"If this is you, then it would be wise to focus more on mobility and stretching through this time. Breathing exercises and meditation can help some women," she adds.

As you reach ovulation, your estrogen level will spike. During this time you'll find that your motivation and energy levels are up. 

"Exercise often can feel easier around this stage because it's considered a lower hormone phase, and we often feel like we can train harder," explains Sutherland. "We access our storage of carbohydrates in our bodies more easily. And again, it's probably why exercise feel a bit easier."

It's also important to note that estrogen is anabolic - meaning it helps build muscle. So, most experts say that now is the right time to start working on your strength, lifting those weights, and doing high-intensity exercise.

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"During the ovulatory phase, oestrogen peaks alongside testosterone, we are able to recover quicker and therefore can push our training and exercise a lot harder," said O'Donnell.

Image: Getty 

Most research shows that focusing all of your energy on training during this phase (the follicular phase) seems to be more beneficial rather than saving it for the second phase. 

So, this continues around ovulation - until your estrogen begins to drop.

(Not so) fun fact: Research shows that there's an increased risk of ACL injury (the ligament in your knee) during ovulation. Yes, really! Apparently, all the hormones cause more laxity in your knee, making things a liiiittle less stable and therefore increasing your risk of an ACL tear. Coolcoolcool. So - just be careful! You don't have to stop exercising - just make sure you're warming up properly before exercise.

The next phase? The luteal phase (which is around days 15-28) - where progesterone reaches its peak.

"Following the release of the egg, the cells lining the cyst that the egg-formed in (corpus luteum) produce the hormone progesterone," explains Professor Pecoraro. 

"The higher levels of progesterone in this phase are important to help maintain the early placenta of a developing baby and if pregnancy does not occur, and a period is initiated, to help minimise the loss of blood with a woman’s period," he adds.

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Umm... we're amazing.

"Through this phase, our high hormones cause an increase in our metabolic rate, our muscle protein synthesis is affected, impacting how we build muscle and how we are able to recover," said O'Donnell.

According to our experts, this is when we should start pulling back the intensity of our training and make the most of doing more endurance-based work. 

"This phase is about making the most of rest and recovery to reset the body before we enter our menstrual phase again," said O'Donnell.

Image: Getty 

During this time there's a whole lotta stuff going on inside our bodies.

"In that fourth week leading into our period, we can often feel unmotivated to train hard and will generally experience more PMS. We actually have a harder time accessing our stored carbohydrates (called glycogen). And we're more dependent on our fat stores for fuel," said Sutherland.

"Your metabolism goes up, and we often burn anywhere from 90 to 300 more calories per day in that second half of the cycle. But our cravings are up - especially sugars and fat. So, we tend to make up for that increased metabolic rate."

Around this time you'll probably notice more PMS symptoms. You might feel a little bloated because you typically retain more water at this time. 

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You might also experience a higher temperature during this stage - which can obviously cause havoc with your sleep quality and therefore impact your performance and training. 

So, yeah - this is when most experts will recommend that you should take a few rest days and pull it back it bit. 

And that's your full cycle!

So, wait. What's the best time to hit a PB?

Have you been... skimming? Rude!

Okay, in a nutshell, you'll be at your peak performance during your follicular phase and late follicular phase, and your energy levels and motivation might take a wee dip around your period.

According to O'Donnell, training to our cycle can help give us a great guideline to follow and helps us to periodise our training, and let us know when to take the rest. 

"Understanding your female physiology and how your menstrual cycle is affecting your performance is the best first step to accepting these changes and learning how to work with them," said O'Donnell.

"In your follicular phase, no matter what sport or exercise you are doing, you should be focusing on higher intensity training, alongside your normal strength and endurance work."

"This phase is for pushing the heart rate a little higher and making the most of the potential gains you can make in your fitness," she said.

Image: Getty 

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However, this is not to say that you shouldn’t set aside rest and recovery days. O'Donnell adds that recovery is key throughout all phases "but the focus on rest isn’t as important as it is in your later phase."

The luteal phase, on the other hand, is where you need to be more aware of your rest days. 

"Recovery here should be more of a priority as it is harder for your body to do so. With the rise and fall of progesterone, your sleep patterns can be impacted, and we all know that sleep is the best performance enhancer for every athlete," said O'Donnell. 

"Pulling back your training and completing more LIT (low-intensity training) vs short, fast, high-intensity work, is a way to allow the body to absorb your training in a more efficient and effective way."

O'Donnell said it also allows us to remove the pressure to be reaching or achieving training that our bodies are not in the best position to do so. "This gives us more confidence in our training and in our bodies."

"If you use the first two to three weeks of your cycle to push harder, you can then take one to two weeks a little easier, this can help to make sure you are getting sufficient rest."

Above all, keep in mind that everyone woman and every cycle is different.

"Although we have an idea of when to push hard and when to take more rest, it is also very important to listen to your body and do what feels right for you."

Important: "If you are in your follicular phase but feeling more fatigued, then take the rest you need and don’t force yourself to push through as this could also lead to other issues.

How your diet can affect your period.

Research has also shown that the foods you eat can affect hormones, as well as your menstrual cycle. 

Eating a diet too low or too high in certain foods can throw your menstrual cycle out of whack - so it's important to give your body the appropriate amount of nutrients to help balance things out.

"One of the most common foods that aggravate cycles - in some people, not everyone - is dairy foods," said Sutherland.

"Sometimes people have what's known as a2 milk or goat's cheese or sheep's cheese - a different form of protein that isn't as disruptive to people. But often, dairy and sugar are probably the two things I look at with people first."

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"And if I don't get anywhere with that, then I would look at caffeine and alcohol. Is there a link to them specifically? No. But it's your overall diet and lifestyle that are really going to affect it," she said.

"Dairy I would find to be a really big one, especially for acne and trouble with periods in general."

When it comes to which foods women should eat during the different stages of the cycle to maximise physical energy levels, there are a few different things you should reach for.

"Things like fish, sardines and anchovies are all great omega-three foods, as well as avocados, olive oil, and walnuts. Green beans and your broccoli family are all really great for the female cycle."

"The big focus is always magnesium, zinc, and B6. So, foods that are high and all of those are really good. And again, that's your dark green leafy vegetables. Zinc is in your seeds, it's in your oysters and your meat."

Grocery shopping, sorted.

Can over-training impact your cycle and fertility?

Yes, our periods can influence our physical performance - but did you know we can also impact our periods and our ability to conceive by training and over-training?

Well, it's true.

When it comes to studies around menstrual cycles and athletic affiliations, there are many incidents of menstrual disorders.

"Physical activity can certainly have an effect on your menstrual cycle. Many Olympians and elite athletes actually stop menstruating as elite-level exercise turns off the function of the ovaries," explains Professor Pecoraro.

"This is important because they can actually achieve menopausal levels of oestrogen and other reproductive hormones which can increase the risk of osteoporosis and fractures. The mechanism is related to turning off the cycling part of the brain sends a message to the ovaries to produce hormones," he said.

Image: Getty 

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It's important to note here that there are many different factors that can contribute to a loss of periods - it's not always a case of over-training. 

The issue is low energy availability, where you're basically either expending too much energy or you're not consuming enough calories. Sometimes this happens unintentionally. 

"There's a whole thing called Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-S). It actually is used to be called the female athlete triad, but it's now called RED-S because it affects so many areas of the body. Whether it's over-training or just the volume of training, it's about low energy intake," explains Sutherland.

"Under-eating for the volume of training you're doing can create a loss of periods, which is called amenorrhea. Other people on their way to amenorrhea can actually still have periods, but stop ovulating, which would mean that you are not producing as much progesterone as you should, which would stop you from being able to fall pregnant," she said.

We also obviously know that stress can play a role here, too. There's a whole heap of different factors at play when it comes to our menstrual cycles and how they work. 

They're like are like a switchboard to what we're doing and what we're able to do, which is why it's so important to tap into them.

"It’s important to remember that menstruation and the cyclical hormonal changes that happen to women are a normal part of life and assign that a woman’s reproductive system is working normally," reminds Professor Pecoraro.

"If at any stage, periods become problematic or interfere with the woman’s ability to study, go to work or have a normal life, it may be a signal that all is not right and that the woman should make an appointment to see her doctor and be checked out."

What are your thoughts on the above? Share with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Getty