For the most part, it has been assumed that female athletes have similar requirements to men in terms of their training and recovery. However, thanks to emerging research, we now understand that this is not the case. In fact, women have their own physiological and nutritional needs which should be considered when designing and implementing training programs. One of the more obvious considerations is the menstrual cycle.
For an overview of what is considered a ‘normal’ menstrual cycle and the importance of TRACKING your cycle, read our blog post here. In this blog, we’ll cover how women and girls can tweak their exercise during the four phases of the menstrual cycle in order to increase muscular gain, reduce injury, improve recovery, and support performance.
PHASE ONE: Menstruation
Make the most of the high levels of testosterone! You might notice that it’s easier to spot out your teammates in a field, or smash that reverse parallel park – this is because testosterone is involved in spatial awareness. Phase 1 is a great time to learn a new complex skill where good coordination is required (or show off a 10/10 reverse parallel park outside the busy cafe).
Focus on strength training! It is thought that progesterone negatively impacts the way in which a muscle builds and repairs. Thanks to the low levels of progesterone during phase 1, studies show that the body has an increased muscle building capability! Kind of cool, huh!
Injury prevention is important. Unfortunately, some research shows that phase 1 can mean reduced neuromuscular control, leading to an increased injury risk. The research does vary as to why, but it may be due to the fluctuating levels of oestrogen. To best reduce injury risk in phase 1, training should include sport-specific warm-ups through landing drills and muscle activation exercises.
Ensure adequate recovery. There may still be increased inflammation occurring in the body due to the rapid drop in hormones prior to phase 1. It’s important to allow plenty of time for recovery, particularly ensuring adequate sleep.
PHASE TWO: Follicular
Perform high volume training. The body has a recovery advantage during this time! While it’s still important to set aside time for recovery, you might find you can recover faster in phase 2. Because of this, it’s a great time to schedule in high volume training and progress your exercises (increase reps/weight/sets)
Focus on strength training. The increase in oestrogen and low levels of progesterone means that adaptation after exercise is boosted, so your muscles can essentially build strength more effectively. Make the most of this time and focus on strength/resistance/HIIT training.
Include effective warm-ups. Similarly, to phase 1, phase 2 may carry an increased injury risk due to reduced neuromuscular control. To counteract this, ensure a sport-specific warm-up with landing drills and muscle activation exercises, particularly for sports that require sudden change of direction.
Crack that PB! Thanks to the high levels of oestrogen, you might notice increased alertness and more energy in phase 2. Again, this will support exercise progression, but research also shows the reaction times may be faster during phase 2! Make the most of this and really strive for those PB’s during this phase!
PHASE THREE: Ovulation
Ensure adequate hydration. During phase 3, research shows some vital signs including heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature increase. This increase in temperature can be anywhere from 0.2° to 0.5° which can have a huge impact on hydration requirements. Particularly if you’re exercising in warmer weather, you should up your water intake during phase 3.
Include extra recovery strategies. Due to the higher levels of progesterone, recovery during phase 3 of the menstrual cycle may take a bit longer than usual. As always, you should prioritize things like sleep and load management, but phase 3 is also a great time to add in some extra recovery strategies that make you feel good, like foam rolling and stretching. Particularly if your workout is on a hot day, you could also add in some cold water immersion (cold water immersion is much more effective for women than for men!) For more ideas on recovery, you can check out our previous blog post here.
Focus on endurance. Although all types of training are beneficial in phase 3, the higher levels of progesterone mean that it may be more difficult to build muscle. Therefore, phase 3 may be a great time to focus on aerobic and endurance training.
Ensure sufficient protein intake. Research shows that due to higher levels of progesterone, breakdown of muscle is increased. Currently, it’s recommended protein intake of 20-30 grams, both before and after an intense session. If you need further help with nutrition, I’d suggest consulting a sports dietician (those guys rock!)
PHASE FOUR: Luteal
Do not skip exercise. I hear a lot of women who don’t want to exercise during phase 4 which is understandable – the body is doing some pretty amazing things behind the scenes in this phase, so you may feel increased fatigue and again, notice that recovery takes longer. During phase 4, the decline in hormones leads to an inflammatory response which is thought to trigger PMS, or premenstrual syndrome. The goal of this phase should be to continue to exercise, in whichever way you can. This is because exercise has been shown to be great at reducing the symptoms of PMS. Light aerobic activity like a brisk walk or jog, yoga and pilates have been shown to be particularly effective at reducing PMS symptoms
Support sleep. Unfortunately, research shows sleep may be disrupted more than usual in phase 4 of the cycle. This is thought to be due to increased psychological stress associated with PMS, and the increase in body temperature due to higher levels of progesterone. During phase 4, it’s more important than ever to pay particular attention to night-time routine, allowing time to wind down, switch off the screens, and ensure the bedroom is a cool temperature – between 16 and 18 degrees is recommended. For more tips on a good night's sleep, check out our previous blog here.
Include additional recovery strategies. Again, progesterone is still quite high throughout the beginning of phase 4, but due to the dropping hormone levels, inflammation also increases which can impede recovery. Similar to phase 3, focus on adding some additional recovery strategies into your schedule that make you feel good.
Focus on good food (sorry, but in this case chocolate is not deemed a ‘good’ food!). The increased inflammation that’s associated with PMS and delayed recovery can be counteracted with choosing foods that are rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Focus on getting your diet right in phase 4, and fuel up with foods such as fish, eggs, fruit, veg and nuts.
If you would like to learn how to get the most out of your body & optimize your performance, we will be conducting a FREE webinar "5 tips for the active female" on 5th and 6th August. To learn more & register, please head here
If you need any further assistance with your training or health needs, please don't hesitate to contact us at www.healthhp.com.au
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