Women often follow workout schedules created by men, but because our bodies have different hormonal activity, we need different things at different times. Through cycle syncing, women can switch up their exercise routine to support each phase of their menstrual cycle and its hormonal activity.
The hormones of your cycle follow a predictable pattern that affects not only your reproductive system, but also other areas of the body including your brain, metabolism, and musculoskeletal system. Theoretically, you can “cycle sync” many areas of your life from self-care, to nutrition, to exercise.
When it comes to cycle syncing exercise, it is important to understand this phrase: “Women are not small men,” coined by Dr. Stacy Sims. We need to qualify the physiological differences between men and women because, while they both experience hormonal cycles, they’re vastly different. Men have a 24 hour cycle, dominated by testosterone, whereas women experience a month-long cycle with several hormones at play.
If you want to create an exercise routine that works with your body and your cycle, here’s what you need to know:
The Follicular Phase
Estrogen and testosterone surge during the first half of the cycle, the follicular phase. Women usually experience more energy, confidence, muscular strength, and power. Your metabolism actually decreases, but you have better blood sugar regulation (i.e. foods like carbs won’t spike blood sugar as easily). Women have better depth perception and cognitive skills during this phase. Plus, bone density increases and soft tissue recovers faster! Essentially, you’re able to push yourself through more challenging workouts, with less likelihood for injury and burnout.
The Luteal Phase
During the second half of the cycle, the luteal phase, progesterone is the dominant hormone. It acts as a mood stabilizer and promotes feelings of wellbeing. Progesterone increases your metabolism, shown by a rise in resting temperature. This is your body’s signal to increase calories in case of pregnancy. With progesterone dominant, you physiologically need to eat more food. If you over exercise during this phase of your cycle, the body might interpret that as too much stress. In response, your body may decrease the production of stabilizing hormones, like progesterone, and increase the creation of stress hormones, like cortisol.
Some Practical Tips
During your period, your hormones are similar to a man’s because they are stable and low. Most women typically don’t feel like pushing themselves, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid exercise altogether. If you’re someone who regularly trains hard, try to include a deload week around your period or focus on muscular power. You’ll do less exercise in terms of volume, but the intensity can stay high. If you exercise casually, heavy days of bleeding are a great time to rest or perform restorative exercises such as walking and stretching.
As you transition into your follicular phase, your intensity and volume of exercise can gradually ramp up and peak near ovulation. During this phase, your athletic abilities, strength, and power increase, and you have an easier time recovering from intense activity.
In the luteal phase, after ovulation, your intensity and volume should gradually decrease as you transition to more endurance-focused exercise. It’s a good idea to avoid higher intensity exercise as you get closer to your period because progesterone increases your joint and ligament laxity. You’re more prone to injuries of those tissues. With your naturally increased metabolism, you need an extra 100-500 calories per day. It’s helpful to increase your fluids and electrolytes, because heightened levels of progesterone thicken your blood, making it harder to pump. Finally, you’ll likely sweat more because your body temperature has increased.
Prioritize quality nutrition, adequate sleep, and restorative exercise
Before exercise, eat a small snack or meal to avoid activity in a fasted state. Ingest some protein within one hour after exercise. Without adequate nutrients, your body tends to break down muscle to fuel and repair. And you can’t build muscle if you’re constantly breaking it down!
Stress can both delay ovulation and deplete your body of the nutrients required to create progesterone. Your exercise routine can either be good or bad stress on the body. Make sure you have a plan to fuel, rest, and exercise cyclically to support your unique female physiology.