Fri, March 5, 2021 | Lifestyle & Happiness
EMPOWERING WOMEN ON INTERNATIONAL WOMENS DAY
Our way of challenging gender bias and inequality is to empower women with education on how to approach their training and nutrition based specifically on their bodily functions.
The female body is complex and treating training and nutrition with a one size fits all approach isn’t often supportive of the physiological and psychological changes that can occur, especially through the female menstrual cycle.
With support and education we hope to empower more women, boosting their confidence in choosing the correct training and nutrition methods relative to their body.
This week we’re discussing the menstrual cycle, the hormonal changes that take place, and how training and nutrition could be adapted to support the processes.
The Menstrual Cycle
The menstrual cycle derives from the Latin word for month and refers to the roughly one month (28 day cycle) that a woman endures from the time she enters puberty until she loses her cycle at menopause.
A ‘regular’ menstrual cycle may be anywhere from 24-32 days in duration (NB – while most women report a 28 day cycle, few actually have a 28 day cycle). The primary purpose of the menstrual cycle is to prepare for the potential of pregnancy and most of the hormonal changes and their effects are aimed at this goal.
Day 1 of the cycle occurs at the onset of menstruation, this typically lasts 3-5 days. From this point, the remainder of the cycle is divided into two distinct phases.
The first half of the cycle is termed the follicular phase and within a 28 day cycle will typically last 14 days. Strictly speaking this can be divided up into an early-, mid-, and late follicular phase of roughly 3-5 days each but I’ll only use early and late follicular. Hormonally, progesterone remains very low during the follicular phase. Estrogen starts at a low level, shows a gradual increase leading up to a large surge in the final few days of the cycle.
The release of the egg on day 14 (the halfway point of the cycle) is termed ovulation and this marks both the middle of the menstrual cycle along with the end of the follicular phase (testosterone spikes briefly at this stage as well). At this point, a woman enters the luteal phase which can again be subdivided into early-, mid- and late phases.
Over the first half of the luteal phase both progesterone and estrogen increase gradually reaching a peak at mid-cycle. Progesterone levels are higher than those of estrogen, which only reaches about half of the level seen during the peak of the follicular phase. Body temperature also increases slightly after ovulation, as well as a minor increase in metabolic rate.
In the late luteal phase, progesterone and estrogen start to drop again and this is when Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS), if present, typically occurs. PMS can be marked by an enormous number of symptoms including cramping (as a woman’s body prepares to shed the uterine lining) mood swings, low energy, depression and others.
Basic Training & Nutrition Considerations
As you can see there are a few changes that occur throughout the menstrual cycle, some lending themselves to certain training modalities… others not so much. Every female is unique and will have a different experience during their cycle, therefore we advise that although these guidelines offer an interesting picture, you should always personalise them to your specific needs.
While studies have shown strength to remain the same throughout the menstrual cycle (1), Estrogen promotes an ‘insulin sensitive’ state meaning carbohydrates are metabolised well, suggesting an improved ability to perform anaerobic and power based activities with increased recovery.
As you reach ovulation things will start to tip in the favour of progesterone with the hormones changing in their dominance. Although testosterone will be near its peak, progesterone causes insulin resistance, therefore a woman’s body will use more fat for fuel (and less carbohydrates) both at rest and during exercise, however the fat utilised comes from within the muscle.
Moving into the final ‘late-luteal’ stage, blood sugar levels often become even more unstable during this period. This can cause women to experience low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) negatively affecting energy, mood and hunger. Both progesterone and estrogen begin to drop and you may have cravings for high-fat and high-sugar foods. This could be related to a drop in both serotonin and dopamine levels. A lack of serotonin might also have an impact on melatonin production and sleep quality.
Lastly, with an increased calorie burn at rest in response to your body temperature being higher, energy levels could feel lower during this phase. We suggest increasing your total calorie intake slightly and pulling back on intensity.
‘Aerobic’ style training works well with lighter loads. Reducing carbohydrate intake slightly and replacing them with naturally occurring fats can help with sustained energy levels too!
During the follicular phase, push the intensity with strength and HIIT sessions. Keep carbohydrate intake higher to fuel, and refuel, your tough workouts. This is also an optimal time to be in a calorie deficit if your current goal is fat loss.
As you reach ovulation, pull back on the intensity slightly and keep going with the strength training. If you are in a calorie deficit, be more mindful of your body temperature rising and potentially adding to that calorie deficit.
Finishing in the luteal phase, depending on how you feel… reduce the volume of sessions and move towards aerobic style sessions. Keep overall calorie intake slightly higher leaning towards slightly more fats than carbohydrates as an energy source.
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