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The menstrual cycle and its effect on performance

The menstrual cycle is a funny topic because nearly 50% of the population will at some point experience this bodily function yet people aren’t willing to talk about it or learn about it. I will hold my hands up and say that what I am about to tell you I did not know until my master degree…that is roughly 7 years of higher education without a single lesson on something that happens to every female once every 4 weeks (give or take).

How many of you knew that there is 3 phases to the cycle- Follicular, Ovulatory and Luteal phase, and how many knew this could effect how many calories you burnt or how well you performed? Me neither!

The menstrual cycle

The menstrual cycle starts with menses- bleeding and shedding of the uterine lining, which occurs at the start of the follicular phase. A ‘perfect/normal’ menstrual cycle lasts around 28 days and is divided into these three phases, during which the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone fluctuate and bring about different symptoms that either positively or negatively effect day to day life or exercise routine. During the first phase (follicular) oestrogen and progesterone levels are low. The middle phase (ovulatory) oestrogen levels are high and progesterone levels are low and the final phase (luteal phase) both hormones are high, image above.

But what does this mean?

As many females can probably verify, menses comes with negatively side effects, commonly including cramps, back pain, headaches and bloating. It has also been shown in research that strength, metabolism, inflammation, body temperature, fluid balance and injury risk also fluctuate across the cycle, likely due to the fluctuations in sex hormones.

I see so many stories, blog posts and infographics from influencers or individuals working the field that promote their knowledge around menstrual cycles and how their 'bespoke' training programmes are tailored around each phase of the menstrual cycle will help females boost performance and allow them to reach their goals quicker and more efficiently. Which to some individuals this will be true as its the way their body is designed, however this is only down to luck. Some research has shown that exercise performance might be slightly reduced during the follicular phase, meaning females should reduce workload, weight or any intense exercise during this period. It has also highlighted that when the oestrogen levels in the body increase leading up to the luteal phase it releases the luteinising hormone that is responsible for releasing eggs. This has shown to boost strength and energy for some females and helps with recovery through increased muscle regeneration and repair and therefore seen as a crucial time in trainers eyes to increase strength in females programmes and 'train in-align with their menstrual cycles' - this is the absolute goal for many athletes! The problem with these statements is that the research behind these comments are low in quality and inconsistent in their findings. Meaning that although the findings might be correct for certain individual, one shoe does not fit all and athletes and everyday gym goers should understand their own personal symptoms and feeling across the month and develop a bespoke training programme fit to that individual, not to every female.

That being said we do know some changes that occur across the menstrual cycle. We know that during the luteal phase, your body temperature increases which can result in an extra 150-200cals burnt per day. This means that during certain times of the cycle you might be feeling more hungry or crave carbohydrates and this could be the reason why. So don’t be too hard on yourself. Track your symptoms and learn about when you feel your strongest, when you can aim for your personal bests, fastest times or heaviest weight and learn when you need a break, more sleep and exercise that is steady.

In summary:

1. Don't buy into a generic female training programme that fits exercise sessions around the menstrual cycle phases. Each female should track and record (or work with a coach) to figure out which sections of the cycle are optimal for performance vs. the week where you need to de-load and rest. But be aware this could change each month- this is why research into females is so hard, even you are not consistent within yourself!

2. Research has shown (although low quality) that carbohydrate storage might be affected during the follicular phase and so carbohydrate loading might be more important during this phase to aid athletes/ gym goers at those high intensities. Athletes are always striving to be the best, so even if the research is low in quality, if there is the slightest chance this could boost their performance with no negative impact then the athlete should trial and error to see if it works for them.

3. Another possible theory is that ovulation is a time of increased strength, so trial new pb's. BUT, caution around this time of your cycle as oestrogen levels are high and therefore increased risk of injury.

4. The luteal phase is common time for pre-menstrual syndrome, so be aware, record how you feel and be aware that body temperature might be higher.

5. Hormonal contraception might be a smart way to help reduce menses symptoms that might allow females to train more efficiently and consistently across the cycle. But speak to a qualified individual before making rash decisions on contraception if not needed.


If you are interested in the menstrual cycle individual researchers such as

- G.Bruinvels

- K.Elliot-sale

- Dr. Stacey Sims

- De Souza

- T. Stellingwerf

Are great for research within this area. Be aware a lot have strong views that need to be weighed up as a whole. Don't just pick one of them and go with what they are staying, a holistic approach is needed.

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