Apr 4, 2023
Is your exercise working against your hormones? Could that be making you more tired, or prone to injury? Is your routine limiting your performance results?
It’s widely accepted that exercise is a pillar of good health. For women, though, there’s a gap in exercise recommendations designed based on their unique hormone profile.
In a 2021 British Journal of Sports Medicine study, 86% of exercising women experience tiredness/fatigue and or other menstrual cycle symptoms that have a greater likelihood of missing exercise or competition (or work).
TEDx Talk: https://www.flippingfifty.com/TEDx
Only 39% of all exercise science and sports medicine research features females. Females go through an average of 7 phases of hormone changes…
Save Your Spot
Unless you knew to ask, was this made for me, based on science about me, there is a strong chance you have been doing a workout proven for a young athletic man or a mouse…Hormones that can mean you use more fat for fuel at certain times, may be more prone to injury at others, and be primed for strength gains during certain windows too.
This post is an excerpt from a recently written article for a third party. It explores the science of women’s menstrual cycles and exercise protocols to support better results with reduced risk of injury or unnecessary fatigue.
If you’re in post menopause without a cycle, stay with me, there’s valuable information for you here too.
A Review of the Menstrual Cycle
During a normal menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone take turns driving the process of maturing and releasing an egg and preparing the uterus for possible pregnancy. Estrogen rises in the first half of the cycle, peaks at ovulation, then falls in the second half as progesterone rises. Progesterone is released by the rupturing of the egg follicle during ovulation. Testosterone too is secreted in “surges” around the time of ovulation, and again before your period.
Let’s explore each phase of the female cycles..
Menstruation/Early Follicular Phase
During the bleed, the beginning of the Follicular phase, and for the first few days women often still feel fatigue. Estrogen and progesterone are both at their lowest point just before your period.
If this is true it can be intuitive to cut back and go for walks or do a restorative yoga session instead of more vigorous exercise. More gentle exercise is a proven method of relieving cramps and menstrual symptoms. If you’re prone to pushing yourself hard through days you’re not feeling it and finding your fitness level doesn’t benefit, try backing off.
Gradually rising estrogen levels will kick in and a return to a regular strength and HIIT routine, if that’s a part of a woman’s exercise routine, by about day 7 is expected.
Say, you like to workout and find it hard to take time off. Your period can be a good time to do more functional workouts that involve unilateral (single limbed) exercises. This allows you to reach muscle fatigue at lighter loads less likely to tax your adrenal system already dealing with menstruation. If pushing through tough workouts leaves you more exhausted, frame your period as an active recovery period that enables harder work when it’s over.
Mid and Late Follicular
As estrogen rises from the start of your period and progesterone remains low you have a window where you may more easily make strength gains. Generally, within a week of their period starting women feel able to do more volume and recover faster. This may be the most powerful you feel during the month. Even though you may tolerate more volume, don’t skip recovery (it’s when fitness happens, after all). Find volume in the addition of weight, sets, or repetitions, rather than more frequency. That will prevent forfeit the recovery needed to reap the rewards.
You want to continue to reduce impact and rapid change of direction. Your rigid tendons (as a result of high estrogen) support strength gains since they afford the ability to lift heavier but estrogen also causes laxity of ligaments along with reduced neuromuscular control and means easy injury. So, while you can do High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), focus on bicycling, swimming, or elliptical rather than multidirectional or high impact options.
You could also still be tired and need additional recovery because your hormones were at an all-time low just before your period. This is no time for comparisons. (See Note) Whatever you’re feeling, honor it with an appropriate training and recovery response.
Note: The State of Women’s Exercise Science
Science is still relying on women’s diaries or apps to collect information. Women often report feeling their strongest and most energetic during days 7-14. This may have to do with better insulin sensitivity during this phase as compared to the luteal phase. The female body is primed to burn fat and gain muscle during this time.
Ovulation occurs in the middle of follicular and luteal phases. According to women’s hormone expert, Dr. Jolene Brighton, it’s a one-day event with still peaking estrogen levels, when progesterone is cued to start rising.
This is the last two weeks of your cycle when many women begin to feel more tired or less motivated to exercise. As progesterone rises, because of its anti-estrogenic effects, performance is lower than usual. It’s when estrogen is high in comparison to progesterone in the cycle that performance increases. So, there is a dramatic difference for some women in the strength and energy they have in the first two weeks of their cycle compared to the luteal, or last two weeks.
Many women also begin to have cravings related to Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS)...
Each woman responds uniquely…[Includes tips on nutrition for blood sugar stabilization]
What About Testosterone….
No Cycle? Periodization Still Reigns in Postmenopausal
The concept of periodization doesn’t pertain just to women, nor only to women having a period. It’s been a longtime tool of strength & conditioning coaches and personal trainers used to produce optimal benefits with reduced injury risk. Exercise benefits require a level of overload beyond daily activities of life. In order for (reasonable) overload to be beneficial and not damaging, there needs to be conscious planning of the overload and adequate rest.
Both male and female athletes benefit from exercise periodization, males minus the actual period, of course. Cycles of periodization (10) exist within weeks, months and a year. Female cycles will do best honored outside of periodization.
It’s Not Time to Slow Down
For post menopausal women, there’s both more latitude and reduced obstacles of fluctuating energy and safety due to hormonal change.
With reduced levels of estrogen, adequate intensity is needed more than ever to offset menopause symptoms and increase muscle, bone and brain health. The best partner of adequate intensity is adequate recovery. So, cycling times of work with times of recovery will always be the key to optimizing women’s fitness.
Four Week Post Menopause Cycling
Week 1: Functional Strength (unilateral, multi directional)
Week 2: Strength w Power (moderately heavy with speed on lift)
Week 3: Hypertrophy (heavy with fewer repetitions)
Week 4: Endurance (lighter with higher repetitions)
Female cycles for exercise don't have to be complex, but it should not be by accident. Exercise with just a little more thought can give you the optimal energy and results you want and deserve. Period.
Other Episodes You May Like:
Holding Onto Metabolism in Menopause: https://www.flippingfifty.com/muscle-in-menopause/
What’s the Best Exercise Schedule at Midlife: https://www.flippingfifty.com/best-exercise-schedule/
The What, When & Why to Exercise for Women 40+: https://www.flippingfifty.com/womensexercise [May 1-7 FREE online event]