How Can I Train Most Effectively Within My Monthly Cycle? Women are not small men. Female physiology is very different from men’s physiology and so it makes sense that training and nutrition plans should take this into account. Too many times there is still an expectation that training plans can be developed for anyone to use. Female-specific training plans are not common, and women are generally expected to just get through a plan regardless of how they are feeling physically, or what is happening within their body at that point in time. This often leaves female athletes frustrated that they can’t complete a session and that there must be something wrong with them if they are struggling to complete a plan. Worse still, it can make the athlete feel like they are failing in some way. The changes happening on a regular basis to the chemistry inside a female body have implications for how well and effectively that woman can train on any one day.
Given that this is a natural and normal process it makes sense to then look at how a training and nutrition plan for a woman can work with these changes and not fight against them. While everybody is different, and exact symptoms and experiences will be individual, the information below may be useful to consider in the context of individual situations.
As a reminder, the diagram below shows what chemical changes are occurring across a typical monthly cycle. This is shown as a 28-day cycle but the time span can be longer or shorter.
In the two weeks (approximately) post ovulation the body enters a high hormone phase where both Oestrogen and progesterone levels are elevated. In this phase the base metabolic rate demand can increase by 5-20%, the glycogen stored within the body is less accessible for use in training as the body is preparing itself for a possible pregnancy, and lower leucine levels make protein absorption less effective.
If glycogen in the body is not available as the energy source for the training, and muscle mass is not being built effectively because protein absorption levels are reduced then this could mean that the body is being asked to do something it is just not fuelled for. Eating before training is particularly important during this phase, a snack containing carbohydrates and protein will ensure there is sufficient fuel to conduct the session and available protein for muscle repair.
Training fasted in this phase can mean that the body is breaking down muscle to use as the energy source for the session rather than building it. In addition, the body will be under stress, increasing cortisol levels and encouraging the retention of fat. Having a protein-based snack after training, when the metabolic rate is higher, will also help with muscle repair. There is a general view that for any training of less than an hour in length, there is no need for the athlete to take on any fuel. However, for a woman who is in the high hormone phase, it is important that all sessions are fuelled, and even short sessions should have a carbohydrate intake level of around 60g per hour.
With the reduction in leucine levels, caused by the higher oestrogen levels, the absorption of protein is reduced. In general, women do not synthesize protein as effectively as men and in this phase, it is further reduced. Increasing protein uptake in this phase, from whatever source, will help to mitigate this effect. Increasing leucine levels in the diet will also help, dairy products are a good source of leucine. As a guideline, if the diet contains enough dairy to provide the calcium needs of the athlete, then the leucine levels should also be sufficient.
Additionally in this phase, the amount of sodium within sweat can increase while fluid retention may also increase. Sweat testing is becoming increasingly popular as a way to identify not just how much someone sweats but what level of salt is present within that sweat. This allows a specific hydration strategy for that athlete to be developed. Ideally for female athletes, two sweat tests should be done two weeks apart to check for any variations across the cycle.
During the low hormone phase of the cycle, women’s bodies react to exercise and feel more like a man’s and so the timing and content of pre and post-training fuel can be more similar.
The best time for a woman to do strength and high-intensity training, in terms of the impact on hormone levels, is during and just after a period. This low hormone phase will feel easier to train and race in. There may be other factors, such as bloating, nausea, stomach cramps, and blood loss which may impact the desire of a woman to train through a period but hormonally it is the best time for such sessions. Exercising through a period can also help to reduce symptoms though it is important that the athlete listen to her body and adjusts sessions when necessary. Taking 250mg magnesium, 1g Omega 3, and 45mg zinc daily for 5 days before a period can reduce cramping. While all three of these can be taken as supplements it is possible to get the first two from a diet, such as oats, whole grains, nuts, and fish. During a period, the addition of iron supplements may also be beneficial but having iron levels measured will help to determine if this is necessary.
Training plans generally include three weeks of progressive training with a fourth easier week to allow for gains to be absorbed and give the body a rest. If a female athlete is aware of their cycle and knows when hard training is going to feel most difficult then the training plan can be timed to ensure that the easier rest week occurs at this point in time. At RTT, the whole training approach is athlete-centric and so coaches and athletes can work together to get this right for the individual.
Races can happen at any time in the calendar and as races are often entered months in advance it is usually difficult to predict at just what point a woman will be in her cycle when racing. By developing, and practicing, different fuelling strategies throughout the monthly cycle then come race day nothing will feel new or different. In addition, the athlete will feel much more in control of her own performance and less at the vagaries of mother nature.
A summary of training and nutrition strategies at different times of the monthly cycle is shown below
Stuart has competed in triathlons from Sprint to Ironman distance. As a qualified Triathlon Australia, Australian Athletics Run Coach, and a certified Ironman coach, he is aware of the importance of balancing training with lifestyle, thus complementing other important aspects of an athlete’s life (family, work, study commitments, etc.).
Contact Stuart at firstname.lastname@example.org
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