Having to deal with your period is a literal pain—there’s no doubt about that. Cramps, PMS, and hormonal acne are no fun, but not every period has to involve heating pads, ibuprofen, and junk food galore. Cycle-syncing your workouts around the different stages of your period might actually help decrease the pain and increase optimal fitness results.
After I started doing specific exercises based on the various stages of my menstrual cycle, I began each menstrual phase with less pain and discomfort. I’ve learned to listen to my body when I need to rest and recharge, or when it’s time to reach for higher heart rate levels. Below, we’ve asked the experts why and how you should sync your workouts up to your cycle, so you can embrace your period rather than dread it every month.
What are the four stages of the menstrual cycle?
In order to sync your workouts around your cycle, it’s important to know which cycle stage you are in and understand what happens to your body during that stage. The first stage starts with your period, or your menstrual stage. When an egg from the previous cycle hasn’t been fertilized (and therefore pregnancy hasn’t taken place), your uterus sheds its lining and breaks down due to a drop in the hormones estrogen and progesterone. This breakdown is accompanied by cramping and bleeding, and if your bleeding is particularly heavy, you might feel weak and tired. “During menstruation, we are less social, less energetic, and our body goes into more of a ‘self-care’ mode, where it encourages us to take it easy, rest, and prepare for the cycle ahead,” explains Jenn Cino, a certified hormone specialist, personal trainer, and cycle syncing coach. “While it may be easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily life and business, it will be more productive longterm to honor the signals your body sends you at this time and take the opportunity to replenish your energy and move a little bit slower until your period is over.”
The follicular phase is the overarching phase that begins with your menstrual cycle and ends at ovulation. “By days three to five of our period, we will find our energy shifts upwards as our estrogen begins to ascend toward ovulation,” says Cino. “If we have listened to our body and mind during our menstrual cycle and allowed for sufficient rest and relaxation, your follicular phase should feel light, energetic, and full of new opportunities. You will feel particularly more social and enthusiastic, but it's important to maintain a sense of control and be mindful of what you had envisioned for this cycle during the menstrual phase so you don't end up burnt out.”
The next phase is ovulation, which occurs around the 14th day of your cycle. It’s a process that takes place over the course of 24-36 hours as a result of the peak in estrogen that signals the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone, and when this hormone surges, the egg is released from the dominant follicle. “This typically happens mid cycle if a woman has a 28 day cycle—some women can feel ovulation, which is pelvic discomfort that is either more to the right or left of midline, and this is called ‘mittleshmertz,’' explains Karen Patrusky, MD, an OBGYN and founder of Voila Intimate Mood Oil. “Women may also notice a change in color and consistency in vaginal discharge, becoming more mucoid and clear.”
According to Cino, you’ll probably be feeling on top of the world during your ovulatory phase: your estrogen is peaking, your testosterone is coming out to play, and you're in a total state of flow and positive energy. Because your body is trying to get you pregnant, you may feel more confident, sexual, and definitely more energetic. “During ovulation, your body requires less sleep, so it's a great time to dive headfirst into the projects you have been putting off or you may want to go to that social event that you would've passed up two weeks ago,” says Cino.
The final stage is the luteal phase, which occurs post-ovulation, before menstruation. “This phase is marked by an increase in progesterone levels, produced from the part of the ovary where the egg ovulated from,” explains Lucky Sekhon, MD, a fertility specialist and board-certified OB-GYN. “Progesterone can cause sleepiness, as it has a relaxing effect, and it can also cause ligaments to be more lax. In the late luteal phase, the rapid drop in progesterone hormone levels can give rise to fatigue, irritability, and mood swings [(a.k.a. PMS)].”
Why should you tailor your workouts around your cycle?
According to Sekhon, different types of workouts (i.e. gentle, stretching, high intensity, weight training) may best suit particular phases of the menstrual cycle. “Being mindful of the biological changes occurring at various parts of the cycle can help you choose a type of exercise that will be most effective and have the least amount of discomfort,” she says.
For Cino, cycle-syncing your workouts is all about optimizing your results. “It's extremely beneficial to be cycle-syncing your workouts because of the hormonal peaks and dips that occur throughout the month,” she says. “Unfortunately, most fitness programs and meal plans are tailored to a male's hormonal cycle, which, obviously, is drastically different from the female hormone cycle. Your energy and motivation levels on day two of your cycle will feel totally different from day 16, for example, so tailoring your workouts to match your mood, strength, and energy at each point in your cycle will result in more optimal results with your fitness as you work with your hormonal fluctuations rather than against them.”
Best workouts to do during your:
Menstruation phase: High-intensity workouts are a no-go during menstruation, and Cino says it’s important to listen to your body during this phase. “Each woman experiences their period differently from the next, so it's important that you have a bio-individual approach to this phase—I would recommend light activity like slower forms of yoga, stretching, or going for a walk, but if your body is telling you that you need to rest for two days, do it,” she says. “During the second half of your menstrual period, you'll notice your energy levels will start to rise, so if you need to take the first few days of your period off, honor that.” Additionally, Cino recommends avoiding strenuous exercise while you're bleeding, and avoiding certain yoga poses that can negatively affect your flow and put excess pressure on your pelvic area, such as headstands and shoulder stands.
Follicular phase: As your estrogen levels start to rise, it’s time to take advantage of your rising energy levels during this phase. “This is the best moment of opportunity for high-intensity work-outs—there’s a higher pain tolerance, improved muscle recovery, and you'll reach your peak heart rate more easily,” says Sekhon. “High impact exercise is likely to be most comfortable during this phase, especially as the ovaries will be small, as ovulation (the release of an egg) has not yet taken place from an enlarged follicle/cyst in the ovary.” However, if you do still feel like your energy is lower at the start of your follicular phase, Cino suggests opting for a lighter form of cardio instead.
Ovulation phase: Much like your follicular phase, ovulation comes packed with a punch. “Your energy levels are high and your testosterone is peaking, so this would be the perfect time to hit some personal records with your squats or deadlifts,” explains Cino. “Be mindful of plyometrics or anything that puts excess pressure and impact on your knees, though, because women are at a greater risk of having an ACL injury during the ovulatory phase.” Some women experience pain or discomfort during ovulation, so if that’s you, Sekhon recommends sticking with gentle, low impact exercise at this phase, as abdominal straining or twisting may also make ovulation pain worse. Listen to your body.
Luteal phase: During this phase, elevated progesterone levels have a relaxing effect on the muscles and ligaments, and it’s important to stretch carefully before exercising. “High impact or any exercise with shearing force might be more likely to cause injury,” says Sekhon. “In addition, high impact exercises like running may irritate sore breasts. Low impact, gentler exercises such as swimming, brisk walking or pilates might be best.”
Cino recommends longer gym sessions (which comes with longer rest periods) during this phase, focused on weight lifting and strength training. “Adjusting your weights dependent on your energy and stamina is a simple way to adjust your routine to match your daily power and strength levels, depending on how much you are affected by luteal.”
Tips for tracking your cycle
You can’t sync up your workouts to your cycle without knowing which period phase you’re in. “If you've never tracked your cycle before, a great place to start to understand your cycle and hormonal fluctuations is to keep a note of your energy level and mood each day of the month,” says Cino. “After a few cycles, you may have collected enough data to see when in your cycle your mood and energy changes (for better or worse) so that you can plan your workouts, lifestyle, and workload around those changes and live in alignment with your cycle.” You can do this with pen and paper, in a note on your phone, or you can use one of the many apps that do the work for you, like Flo or Clue.
Can you still sync your workouts to your cycle if you’re on hormonal birth control?
According to Cino, it really depends on which type of hormonal birth control you’re on. “If you are on hormonal birth control, the extent to which you can ‘control’ your cycle will differ depending on the type of contraceptive you are on,” she says. “For example, birth control pills come in monophasic or multiphasic form—monophasic pills release the same amounts of hormones through each pill (not including placebo or sugar pills). Because there is not much variability in hormone levels on this type of pill, you won't experience the benefits of cycle-syncing.” On the other hand, multi-phasic birth control pills deliver different hormone doses at different times of the pack and would be more similar to a regular hormone cycle, so cycle-syncing would be more effective and may produce better results in comparison to monophasic birth control.