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Periods and our training

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

Anybody else feel like their periods are getting worse every year? The week before my period is where it all starts. My mood (and patience!) deteriorates, the fatigue sets in, my body feels heavy and bloated and I can literally see my body filling with water! Oh and then there's my appetite, sweet cravings and tummy cramps... It's a fun old time! Yet until recent years I gave little consideration as to how they impact my lifestyle. And we need to pay them more attention! Our cycle has a big impact on how we feel, our relationships, our cognitive function, our training, our strength, our appetite, our sleep... And once we understand more about them, we can work with it! Periods and exercise There is still minimal research around how menstruation impacts training performance, which is crazy given the number of women performing at a professional and elite level. I'm not sure I'd be up for playing the Wimbledon final whilst on my period! We are not smaller and weaker men and our approach to training and nutrition needs to reflect this. We are physically and physiologically very different, even woman to woman. So this week I want to show how we can work with our cycles to optimise your training and nutrition. And I am by no means an expert, but I am always learning more and want to share this with you so we can all be our best, most happy and confident selves, wherever we are in our cycle. The monthly cycle So here it is. These can range from 25 to 36 days; in fact only 10-15% of women have 28 day cycles! And at least 20% of women have irregular periods. There are four phases; our period, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. Hormones The main hormones that dictate our cycle are Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing Hormone (LH), and sex hormones; oestrogen and progesterone. Follicular Phase Day 1 of your cycle starts with your period, lasting typically up to 7 days. Both oestrogen and progesterone levels are low, signalling to the pituitary gland to release FSH, which begins to mature a follicle in our ovaries. Around Day 8, our oestrogen (and a spike in testosterone) surges, boosting energy levels in the second half of this phase. From an evolutionary perspective, this is what would make us most likely to fertilise the egg. This is definitely the week where I feel my best. I feel my strongest, look brighter and feel more motivated. I just have more energy! So, let's use this week ladies and go for the PBs, whether that's strength, distance or speed! It is also the best time to start any new nutrition plan. Our appetite and blood sugar levels are more stable (we can develop some insulin resistance in later stages of our cycle), we utilise carbohydrates better at this point and the increased oestrogen levels can decrease food intake by up to 12%. Psychologically and physically, we feel more motivated. So capitalise on it! Ovulation and the Luteal Phase Ovulation typically occurs around Day 14. High oestrogen levels cause a spike in Luteinising Hormone, stimulating the ovaries to release the follicle. If the egg isn't fertilised, oestrogen levels start to decrease and progesterone becomes more dominant. It's this balance that can see the tide turn on how we feel! You may feel more tired, more hungry and crave sugary foods as ghrelin, our hunger hormone, increases and leptin (satiety hormone) decreases. The quality of our sleep decreases and it is also the most common period for women to injure themselves during training. As we go further into the Luteal phase, the less likely you are going to feel like pushing your workouts to a high intensity and restricting yourself of calories. In fact, you could just be setting yourself up for failure, and potentially injury. So you may want to pull it back a bit, keep things low impact and steady in terms of progress. Listen to your body and keep things ticking over (exercise has a range of benefits too to manage symptoms!), but you may not feel like really pushing yourself. Calorie intake As our basal temperature increases, so does our metabolic rate (our body burns more calories). By up to 300 calories a day! Have you ever been in a calorie deficit and really struggled to maintain it around this time of your cycle? Do you regularly give into your cravings and then feel guilty like you've blown it all? To top it off, you probably look in the mirror (and step on the scales!) and panic that you've put on weight and 'ruined' all your hard work in a few days... Firstly, you haven't blown it! Secondly, it's just water! And thirdly, this isn't your fault! There are some serious hormones at play here and we just need to learn to work with them, not against them. Increasing your calories will help you feel more satiated, more energised and would just be kinder to your body! You could increase by 200-300 calories a day, which could still leave you in a small deficit. Or you could come back up to your maintenance level of calories (i.e. the total calories your body needs to function at its weight and composition it is currently) for this week. Because, guess what? Over the course of the month, you'll still be in a deficit! Three, even two weeks out of every month in a calorie deficit, is still a deficit over the whole month! Yes your progress would be slower, but think how much better you'll feel? More energised, less stressed, more in control... You're listening to your body and giving it what it needs, physically and psychologically. Because we're not after the short term success ladies, this is all about long term lifestyle change. And adherence is the biggest determining factor to your success! So by knowing your numbers and working with your cycle, you are putting yourself in control and adhering to a programme that works WITH you. Tracking and Adapting I want you to tune into your cycles this month ladies. I want you to make notes of how you feel; energy levels, appetite, sleep, motivation, etc. As you start to follow your cycle more closely, you will start being able to make informed decisions about your training and nutrition. Making sensible tweaks to work with your body, not against it. If you do weigh yourself, be sure to weigh yourself on the same days every month and only compare to the same day last month for comparison. E.g. Day 1, Month 1 is compared to Day 1, Month 2, etc. This will give you the most accurate picture of your progress. Comparing Day 1 to your Day 14 is like comparing apples and pears! If you want any help here with your training, nutrition and lifestyle, please get in touch as I'd love to help you understand your body more and get in control. This is all about the long game, no quick fixes. And we need to be kind to ourselves first and foremost. I hope this has been useful. At least next time you find yourself crying at the TV ads you can remind yourself that it's just the damn progesterone! Lots of love, Emma x

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