Is your training in sync with your cycle?
It is commonly known that women’s hormones fluctuate throughout the month during the menstrual cycle. These hormones are partly responsible for the creation and breakdown of muscle, regulating energy levels, mood swings and sleep function so if there are peaks and troughs throughout the month wouldn’t it make sense for your training performance to follow suit? Guidelines for progression and structure of monthly training are largely based on men, who have a very different hormonal profile to women; therefore the guidance may not be specific enough to women.
The two hormones that vary most throughout the cycle are oestrogen and progesterone. Some authors have suggested that you should structure your training around your monthly cycle to maximise the different phases, whereas others think there is no effect. To give a background the typical hormone profile looks like this:
The follicular phase (FP) is the time between menstruation and ovulation and the lunar phase (LP) is the time between ovulation and menstruation. Oestrogen levels are higher in the (FP) when the egg is being formed, whereas progesterone levels remain lower until ovulation when oestrogen levels decrease and the levels of progesterone rise. Testosterone, another sex hormone responsible for muscle growth, spikes just before ovulation, but mostly remains level throughout the cycle. There is a difference in the ratio of oestrogen to progesterone in the FP which has been highlighted as an important thing to consider when comparing the LP to the FP.
It is thought that the fluctuation of hormones can influence the trainability of muscle strength and acute exercise performance. Oestrogen can have an anabolic effect; it affects the release of human growth hormone, insulin-like-growth factor-1 (IGF-1) and the proliferation and differentiation of myoblasts, which are all muscle builders. Oestrogen has been seen to have a positive effect on muscle growth as seen in postmenopausal women, where the decline in muscle strength and quality is known to occur, it can be mitigated by hormone (oestrogen) replacement therapy.
Progesterone on the other hand has been seen to influence the breakdown of protein. Cortisol, which has a catabolic effect also peaks during the LP. The mid LP has seen to have higher protein degradation due to the peaking of these hormones. Comparing the two phases, it would appear that FP has better conditions for muscle growth than the LP, which should mean structuring training to suit these phases would maximise training gains.
Practical research in this area is mixed. The initial reviews of targeting the hormone cycle in maximising strength training did not support the use of menstrual cycle periodisation. They highlighted the problems with the research in this area in particular the verification of the menstrual cycle and the timing of testing.
In one of the earlier studies by Reiss, Frick and Schmidtbleicher, (1995) studied 7 female athletes and had one group perform resistance training every other day in the FP and once a week in LP compared to a control group constantly doing 3 workouts a week over 2 menstrual cycles. They found despite both groups completing 9 workouts in 28 days, there was a significant increase in the menstrual cycle training groups maximal strength (32.6% vs. 13.1%).
This was in contrast to a study done on 14 women training in the FP or LP performing bicep curls. They used BBT to measure cycle phase. Although both groups improved their 1RM and muscle cross sectional area the difference between the groups was not significant. However in other recent studies there have been more positive results in favour of modifying training to accommodate hormonal changes. Sung et al., (2014) looked at 20 females who trained one leg during the FP eight times and only twice in the LP and the other leg eight times in the LP and twice in the FP. They used BBT and hormone profiling to measure cycle phase. They found there was a significantly higher increase in the maximum strength in the leg that was trained during the FP. This was suggested to be due to the higher protein synthesis in FP vs. the protein breakdown that is thought to occur with the increased progesterone levels during the LP. The muscle diameter of the FP group was also significantly better than the LP leg. This was attributed to the higher concentrate of anabolic agents (testosterone and oestrogen), which encourage the growth of muscle fibres.
Obviously for most of us monitoring our hormone levels throughout the month is not realistic but it might help to understand why you’re randomly finding strength workouts tougher than expected and if you have a semi regular cycle you should be able to work out which phase you are in and plan your tougher workouts around it simply by counting days from the first day of your period. Apps such as Clue (displayed below) can give you an idea of where you sit in your cycle to see if this affects your training.
Endurance and Metabolism
As well as muscle strength, the effects of the menstrual cycle on endurance capacity has also been studied. The difference in endurance capacity was thought to be due to the changes in basal body temperature (BBT), substrate availability and basal metabolic rate (BMR). The BBT can vary between 0.3-0.5 degrees during the menstrual cycle as seen in the figure below:
The increased temperature seen in the LP is linked to the increased progesterone which is thought to affect the body’s temperature set point. This increase in BBT can mean high intensity cardiovascular training in your LP can be harder as your BBT is already raised, increasing the CV strain. Therefore avoiding prolonged endurance exercise in hot, humid conditions during the mid luteal phase is recommended as you are likely to fatigue quicker.
The BMR has also been seen to vary between 6.1-7.7% within the menstrual cycle. BMR decreased at menstruation and was lowest one week before ovulation (during FP). The difference in phases has been seen to be between 90-300 calories in studies monitoring energy intake. The increase in the BMR (meaning you’ll be burning more calories) during the luteal phase has also be seen to be when cravings for food high in carbohydrates and fats increase. Therefore monitoring the processed carbs and fats during the FP when BMR is lower is recommended. Although BMR is higher in the LP, so you can increase food intake slightly, watch out for the increased sugar and fat cravings.
Take home points:
Consider planning you harder training sessions in the first 2 weeks of your cycle (aim to PB in week 2 when the ratio of oestrogen to progesterone is highest).
Focus your recovery work in the last 2 weeks and don’t be too hard on yourself if you are finding the harder sessions tougher than usual.
Your BMR is lower in FP and higher in the LP but you will likely be having more food cravings in LP so you can eat more in the LP but easy on the cake!
As with most research in strength and conditioning there is nothing 100% conclusive however the fact that hormones fluctuate throughout a women’s cycle would indicate that there is going to be a difference in how we feel and how our bodies respond to our training. Obviously you can’t help it if you’re in the LP when you have an event coming up but it might mean you adjust your build up accordingly. In the world of ‘marginal gains’ this may give your training an extra boost maximising your biology to get the most out of the work you’re already doing.
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