In this blog, you'll learn:
- What is your menstrual cycle?
- What's happening hormonally during each phase of your cycle
- How to adjust your workout routine (with clickable examples)
- How to adjust your diet/nutrition
ALL with the goal in mind to help you live more in alignment with your naturally fluctuating hormones. This will help you decrease PMS & improve your performance on and off the field.
What is the Menstrual Cycle?
Your cycle is divided into four phases during the span of 21-35 days:
- Phase 1 - Menstrual Phase (bleeding)
- Phase 2 - Follicular Phase
- Phase 3 – Ovulation Phase
- Phase 4 - Luteal Phase
What Changes Occur During the Cycle?
Without getting too "science-y", your hormones like estrogen, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), progesterone, and luteinizing hormone (LH) are consistently fluctuating throughout each month or cycle. These hormones are doin' their thaaaang so that you can experience a period or get pregnant! This is a beautiful and normal part of being menstruators!
HOWEVER, WARNING: When we are not living in alignment with our hormones (for example, when we overexercise, or are chronically stressed with schoolwork, or can't get ample sleep/recovery, or have a poor diet lacking nutrients), our hormones are impacted greatly.
If there isn't enough of or hormones being produced, or if they are being overproduced, that's when hormonal symptoms can occur (like PMS) which impact our game, big time!
Though this is highly individual, you may experience these symptoms:
- Mood changes (irritable to unstoppable)
The majority of female athletes report the peak of these symptoms happening during the Luteal Phase as estrogen is on the rise. Some research suggests that neuromuscular coordination, judgement and reaction time for complex tests have been shown to be adversely affected in women with premenstrual syndrome or symptoms, but confounding variables may include nutrition status (Lebrun 1993).
While all of this may sound defeating to you, I want to point out that although PMS symptoms are common - does not mean that they are NORMAL & that you have to live with it constantly!
I want to hammer home that just because I list a plethora of symptoms that may jolt you, just know this: nothing is wrong with you.
If there’s anything you get from this article, it’s to take back your power and pour love into your body, train & eat in a way that supports your internal state, and recover hard so your hormones are in check and you feel like you’re energized, focus, motivated and empowered.
Given the oscillations of each phase, you can optimize your training and recovery to ensure you are keeping your body in equilibrium.
This is how you step into your power, and blossom into the unstoppable athlete and beast that you are.
Let’s do this:
Phase 1 - Menstrual Phase (Bleeding)
(Day 1 of your cycle is your first day of your period. Your period on average lasts 4-7 days)
PHYSIOLOGICAL CHANGES: potential changes in mood, increased stress, and delayed reaction times and neuromuscular control, while hormonal changes are progesterone and estrogen dipping low.
For most girls, this is when energy levels can be at their lowest, and you might be painfully introverted you hate humans. While recovery is still key during this phase, you can begin to take advantage of low volume strength and mechanics training.
Here is a short strength circuit that attacks all major muscle groups:
- Split Squat 3 sets of 6 reps
- Nordic Hamstring Curl 2 sets of 8-10 reps
- TRX Row 3 sets of 10 reps
- Dumbbell Floor Press 2 sets of 8-10 reps
*2-3 minutes rest between sets*
WORKOUT FOCUS: Your workouts can be more bang-for-buck, meaning they do not need to drag on and be high in volume. You can be efficient, train the muscles you need to, then exit stage right.
With these strength movements, there is no pressure to be superwoman and lift your heaviest. Focus on slow and perfect execution, honing in on technique, and better yet, focusing on deep belly breathing as you perform these movements.
Your recovery between sets can be relaxed as well, and there’s no need to get wild and jump from one exercise to other so rapidly. I encourage you take 2-3 minutes rest between sets to receive the physiological benefits of strength development. If your recovery is too short, your muscles will be too tired each set and this will hinder your form and strength gains.
NUTRITION FOCUS: increase zinc for improved immune function, iron and B vitamins for increased energy (follow Reilly Beatty, RD and learn more specifics in the Total Youth Female Athlete Fitness Video Course HERE)
Phase 2 – Follicular Phase
(When your period ends, you enter the follicular phase. This phase lasts 7-10 days)
PHYSIOLOGICAL CHANGES: During this phase estrogen begins to rise, while progesterone remains low. The physiological changes during this time include increase muscle glycogen, fat, protein and water storage.
WORKOUT FOCUS: The follicular phase has been associated with an increase in endurance, with Julian et al showing that performance of the Yo-Yo test was considerably higher in the early follicular phase (3,288 ± 800m), compared to the mid luteal phase (2,833 ± 896m) (Pitchers et al. 2019). This can be a great time to build aerobic and anaerobic capacity.
- Acceleration Work – prime nervous system for intense workouts as you jump into Ovulation Phase
- Tempo Runs – focus on sprint mechanics sub maximally, 80-85% of max heart rate
- Medicine Ball Slams (anaerobic, non-impact) – prime nervous system with explosive movements
When you come out of this phase and plunge into ovulation, you may feel more like Beyonce coming on stage. You have a new spark, a new energy, and you’re ready to get to work!
NUTRITION FOCUS: Keep hydration in check due to rise in estrogen with plenty of electrolytes and water, as well as maintaining a balanced diet packed with carbohydrates for energy, protein for muscle building and fruits and veggies for nutrients and energy regulation (see Reilly Beatty RD for specific meal plans).
Let’s segue into Ovulation…
Phase 3 – Ovulation
(Ovulation is tricky because not every woman ovulates on the same day, but for the average 28-day cycle, women ovulate on Day 14. This phase lasts 3-4 days long)
PHYSIOLOGICAL CHANGES: Testosterone peaks during this phase, which is exciting to reap the physiological benefits from strength and power training. You may feel your energy is through the roof, and your confidence is unmatched.
WORKOUT FOCUS: With that said, it is time to take advantage of your glow with these higher intensity movements (feel free to shoot for new personal records too!):
Of course, I could give thousands of other exercises to reap the benefits during this time because I do enjoy getting after it, but start with these first. To learn more about specific programming, more advanced conditioning, and speed, strength and change of direction technique, learn more in the Total Youth Female Athlete Fitness Video Course.
NUTRITION FOCUS: Since energy expenditure is higher and workouts more intense, you will be consuming more calories. Be sure to eat adequate protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats for optimal muscle building and recovery, calcium and vitamin D for bone health.
Phase 4 – Luteal Phase
(Following ovulation, your luteal phase lasts 10-14 days.This leads up to your next period!)
PHYSIOLOGICAL CHANGES: Estrogen and progesterone peak, which causes an increase in muscle protein breakdown and low muscle endurance. In addition, changes in mood can creep back in, as well as delayed reactivity in complex tasks and increase sympathetic (stressful) state in the nervous system.
WORKOUT FOCUS: Low intensity aerobic work, low to non-impact recovery. I urge you to stop going for jogs as recovery.
When we look at the purpose of recovery, it’s to slow the heart rate to a resting state and to ensure the nervous system is in rest and digest (parasympathetic mode). Expounding further, if you’re a growing female athlete, your muscles, joints, and bones need rest from impact movements, so you can avoid highly preventable overuse injuries like stress fractures, muscle strains and chronic soreness.
Remember, you are practicing several times a week with games on the weekends and this continues year-round, so you are better off going for walk, or doing low impact movements on your off day.
Here is a sample recovery circuit to do.
NUTRITION FOCUS: increase vegetables and fiber filled foods for improved digestion, increase carbohydrates for energy, eat anti-inflammatory foods, avoid under-fueling (see Registered Dietician, resource Reilly Beatty, RD), increase meditation for improved sleep and recovery.
Give these a try with yourself as you go through your cycle, and be sure to keep track of your own symptoms and how your body is feeling, as well as what it is capable of that week when it comes to your training regimen. It’s worth noting that you don’t need to always avoid a tough workout, but rather, making sure you alleviate the negative symptoms you are experiencing with dialed in nutrition, meditation and sleep.
There is still conflicting research on the performance differences between the Luteal and Follicular Phases, as some athletes report greater fatigability during the luteal phase whereas others show greater fatigability during the follicular phase (Pereira et al. 2020).
Be sure to track your own cycle as it will be unique to you. An excellent tool to use is a period tracking app called FitRWoman, where you can journal all of your symptoms each step of the way.
As a female athlete, you are incredibly powerful and can control how you nourish, train and recover so you continue to be the healthiest, strongest, and most confident expression of yourself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erica Suter is a certified strength and conditioning coach in Tampa, Florida, as well as online coach to thousands of youth soccer players. She has worked with kids, starting at the elementary level and going all the way up to the college level, for the past nine years. She believes in long-term athletic development and the gradual progression of physical training for safe and effective results. She helps youth master the basic skills of balance, coordination, and stability, and ensures they blossom into powerful, fast and strong athletes when they’re older. Beyond working with kids, she mentors coaches of youth athletes in her Total Youth Female Athlete Fitness Video Course and Community. Erica is driven and excited to provide youth coaches with simple, actionable drills to build their athletes into strong, fast and healthy humans.
Lebrun CM. Effect of the different phases of the menstrual cycle and oral contraceptives on athletic performance. Sports Med. 1993 Dec;16(6):400-30. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199316060-00005. PMID: 8303141.
Pereira, H. M., Larson, R. D., & Bemben, D. A. (2020). Menstrual Cycle Effects on Exercise-Induced Fatigability. Frontiers in physiology, 11, 517. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.00517
Pitchers, G. and Elliot-Sale, K., 2019. Considerations for coaches training female athletes. Prof Strength Cond, 55, pp.19-30.