How to Exercise with Your Menstrual Cycle
Today, we’re breaking down something that’s rarely talked about: exercising with your cycle. Most women tend to do the same types of workouts throughout the month, powering through when they feel tired or beating themselves up when they have a less than stellar day in the gym. But what if your fluctuating gym performance and energy levels were the result of your naturally circulating hormones and not any fault of your own? Yep - we like that truth a lot better, too.
If you’ve never heard about this before, you’re not alone. Since most research done on exercise has been centered around men, it makes sense that women’s hormones and exercising cyclically haven’t yet made it into the conversation. But we think it’s time to change that. Just as you can eat with your cycle, you can move with it too. Let’s dive in!
Shifting Exercise with Your Cycle
One quick note before we fully dive in - this advice is largely for those who are not on hormonal birth control, since hormonal birth control suppresses ovulation and removes many of the elements that come with a natural cycle. While you can certainly still take the tips we outline here and implement them, you might not see the same energy fluctuations throughout the month as someone off the pill will.
As menstruators, our hormones are constantly fluctuating throughout the month, and with that comes different energy levels and different capacity for intense workouts. At the end of the day, we’re all unique and have different needs, so it’s important to listen to your body. Even the definition of an “intense” workout varies from person-to-person depending on physical capabilities, fitness level, stress load, and overall health.
With that in mind, let’s talk through what the experts recommend when it comes to exercising with your cycle.
While it’s totally safe to exercise on your period (and movement may even help PMS symptoms), you won’t always feel like it. Play it by ear and focus on how you’re feeling to determine the best workout for you during this time. During the first few days of your period, you may find that you prefer walking, stretching, yoga, pilates, or other low impact activities. But if you’re someone who regularly exercises intensely, you may find that you’re able to get back to your regularly scheduled programming after the first few days of your period.
As your period comes to a close and your hormone levels begin to increase, with higher levels of estrogen and testosterone, your body is primed for harder workouts. If you enjoy lifting weights, you’ll probably find that you have more energy in the gym and can lift heavier during this part of your cycle. You’ll find you have more capacity for workouts like HIIT (high intensity interval training), running, weight training, and bodyweight workouts.
If you’re someone who is very into weight lifting, think of the follicular phase as the perfect time to focus on lifting heavier in pursuit of a PR.
We’ve discussed this before, but your hormones peak during ovulation, which means that energy from the follicular phase carries over into the ovulatory phase too. As in the ovulatory phase, you might find that you have increased capacity for HIIT, running, weight training, cycling, bodyweight workouts, and other more intense forms of exercise.
After ovulation, your hormones are shifting yet again. Progesterone levels rise, estrogen levels dip, then rebound, and then both decrease again as your period approaches. Practically speaking, this means you’ll likely have higher energy at the beginning of this phase that starts to wane as you edge closer to your period. All this to say, you may find that you can maintain your normal, more intense workout routine in the early days of the luteal phase. But, if your energy dips and you’re not feeling up to it as this phase progresses, it’s a great idea to work in some lower impact, less intense exercise, like walking, yoga, pilates, or swimming.
And interestingly, since progesterone increases the laxity of ligaments and tendons (aka - it increases their ability to stretch!) you may want to avoid lifting too heavy in the days before your period. It’s a lot easier to get injured with your body in this state.
If you’re someone who lifts weights, the luteal phase is the time to focus more on form and consistency while lifting lighter (for you) weights.
The Bottom Line
While it would be lovely if our hormones and our motivation fit into a neat little box, that’s rarely the case. Think of the above breakdown as gentle guidelines rather than something set in stone. We all have hormones that fluctuate differently, and we also have lifestyle factors that might interfere with our energy or desire to workout. Maybe you’re going through a stressful season at work, or you had a night of really poor sleep - our hormones aren’t the only things that impact our willingness to workout.
Above all, be gentle with yourself and listen to your body’s cues. When it comes to exercising with your cycle and in a way that supports your overall health, you know best.