Menstrual Cycle and Training (we’re not just little men)

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I think it’s more than fair to say that women are exceptional when it comes to our physiology. Every 24-32 days, our bodies go through the series of 4 distinct events known as the menstrual cycle and it complicates our entire system. 

While many are aware of the common premenstrual symptoms such as pain, breakouts, water retention, and cravings, I don’t think many know the effect it can have on our strength and metabolism.

Up until the 70’s, sports science didn’t even include women in their research — and — it really wasn’t until after 2013 that the first textbook was released on the earth shattering idea of female sports nutrition. To quote Lyle Mcdonald, it was simply assumed that women were just, “little men.” 

Even today, roughly 80% of scientific studies exclude female participants altogether, largely because of how unpredictable the hormonal shift can be. 

Key Hormones: Estrogen and Progesterone

For those who don’t know, estrogen and progesterone are the key hormones that fluctuate and vary throughout the menstrual cycle.

Estrogen tends to get a bad rap in the industry, but this isn’t really fair; since it’s responsible for a variety of positive training implications such as increasing the metabolic rate, using carbs for energy, and controlling hunger. Most likely due to its effects on leptin. Some studies have even supported that estrogen can hold anabolic properties by increasing the muscle’s capacity to grow and repair. 

Progesterone, however, is generally the hormone that makes women feel awful, hungry, and lethargic during their cycle, and worse, some studies suggest it can even block estrogen and cause the muscle to break down (catabolic).

1st Phase: Follicular Phase - Progression & Most Adherent

In 2016, Lisbeth Wikström-Frisén, conducted a study to discover whether using the method of menstrual timing in resistance training could improve muscle growth and strength without increasing the number of sessions. She divided 59 women into two groups for 4 months, where half of the participants performed high intensity and frequency lower body training during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, and the other half did the same program but only during the luteal phase. 

At the end of the study, Lisbeth found that the group training in the follicular phase saw a greater effect on muscle mass, strength, and power versus the group training during the luteal phase -- the same comparison was also made to a control group that consistently performed 3 workouts per week during the entire month (regular training) 

In 2005, a study showed that women training in the follicular phase had a higher tolerance for pain, the highest maximum voluntary force generations capacity, and increasing levels of endurance.

In short, it seems with estrogen increased and progesterone normalized, we can recover quicker and more efficiently from more working sets and heavier reps. And this creates an ideal environment for muscle growth.

Nutritionally, studies support that the follicular phase is the best time to start dieting, since your insulin sensitivity and cravings will be at their lowest, and your body will be more likely to utilize carbs for energy. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that basal metabolic rate decreased during menstruation and then proceeded to decline to its lowest point one week before ovulation took place. Meaning, it might be useful to implement carb refeeds during the follicular phase to help counteract the decline in resting metabolic rate. 

2nd Phase: Ovulation - Hit PR

Halfway through the menstrual cycle (around day 14) ovulation starts and estrogen levels peak. You’ll start to feel warmer and hungrier. 

Your strength levels will still be high and you may notice the highest shear force generation capacity during this phase. This could be an ideal time for you to attempt a PR. According to research in the Journal of Physiology, ovulating women showed an 11% increase in both quadriceps as well as handgrip strength. 

3rd Phase: Luteal Phase - Cravings & Heat

You know the workouts where it seems your body is just fighting you every step of the way? You feel weaker, bloated, and lethargic? Chances are it's all happening throughout the luteal phase.



In the last two weeks of the menstrual cycle, estrogen drops, progesterone increases, and your body temperature rises. Metabolically, energy expenditure will be at its highest and your body will start to burn more calories (2.5-11.5% increase in metabolic rate) digesting more than it normally does (89-279 kcal per day).

This sounds great for dieting. However, appetite increases for every macronutrient: protein, carbs, and fats; have been strongly reported during this phase. And as a whole, most women aren’t particularly good at resisting these cravings either since 85% of them admit to indulging their cravings at least 50% of the time.  

That said, not all women have cravings with the same frequency or intensity. Women who tend to have more depressive symptoms during the premenstrual period tend to have more severe cravings.

To make matters worse, with your body temperature higher than normal, you'll also experience higher cardiovascular strain and a decrease in time to exhaustion. Your body shifts to burning fatty acids for fuel more readily during the luteal phase instead of muscle glycogen (carbs) as we saw earlier in the follicular phase. In short, you’ll fatigue a lot quicker. 

So there are more total calories burned throughout the luteal phase, but the real application of this comes down to what the goals are for each individual as well as their ability to cope with dietary restrictions during what can also be the time cravings are at their highest. 

In the end, according to Lyle McDonald, “If you’re a women looking to start a diet in the luteal phase, you’re setting yourself up for failure.” 

4th Phase: Menstruation

Menses follows when the woman first bleeds and this is when everything starts all over again. Estrogen becomes the dominant hormone again while water retention begins to subside, blood glucose, metabolic rate, energy, and body temperature finally normalizes. 

Resources and References:

My Top Three Rules For Coaching The Female Athlete
http://3dmusclejourney.com/coaching-the-female-athlete/

Sport, exercise and the menstrual cycle: where is the research?
http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/51/6/487.long

Women Training and Fat Loss
http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/announcements/women-training-and-fat-loss.html/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sccpOg1-4i4&t=2s

The Menstrual Cycle and Contraceptives: A Complete Guide for Athletes
https://www.strongerbyscience.com/menstrual-cycle-contraceptives-complete-guide-athletes/

Gender Differences in Training and Metabolism
https://www.strongerbyscience.com/gender-differences-in-training-and-diet/

Mechanisms behind estrogen's beneficial effect on muscle strength in females.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Lowe%2C+D.+A.%2C+Baltgalvis%2C+K.+A.%2C+%26+Greising%2C+S.+M.+(2011).+Strength+in+Females%2C+38(2)%2C+61%E2%80%9367.+http%3A%2F%2Fdoi.org%2F10.1097%2FJES.0b013e3181d496bc.Mechanisms

The anabolic effect of estrogens on nitrogen metabolism of growing and finishing cattle and sheep.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/782874

The menstrual cycle and sport performance.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15892917

The effect of the menstrual cycle on exercise metabolism: implications for exercise performance in eumenorrhoeic women.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20199120

THE EFFECT OF PROGESTERONE ON AMINO ACID METABOLISM
https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article-abstract/21/11/1355/2719601/THE-EFFECT-OF-PROGESTERONE-ON-AMINO-ACID?redirectedFrom=fulltext

Phase of menstrual cycle affects lysine requirement in healthy women.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Phase+of+menstrual+cycle+affects+lysine+requirement+in+healthy+women

Effects on power, strength and lean body mass of menstrual/oral contraceptive cycle based resistance training
http://umu.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A881205&dswid=-4572#sthash.mkUjvTBr.dpbs

Increasing training load without risking the female athlete triad: menstrual cycle based periodized training may be an answer?
:http://umu.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?dswid=-1954&pid=diva2%3A928642&c=4&searchType=SIMPLE&language=en&query=&af=%5B%5D&aq=%5B%5B%7B%22personId%22%3A%22liwi0001%22%7D%5D%5D&aq2=%5B%5B%5D%5D&aqe=%5B%5D&noOfRows=50&sortOrder=author_sort_asc&onlyFullText=false&sf=all#sthash.J1O6EjV0.dpuf

Frequency variations of strength training sessions triggered by the phases of the menstrual cycle.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12705527

Pain perception across the menstrual cycle phases in women with chronic pain.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12705527

Changes in maximal voluntary force of human adductor pollicis muscle during the menstrual cycle.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Changes+in+maximal+voluntary+force+of+human+adductor+pollicis+muscle+during+the+menstrual+cycle
.

Training "On Cycle", Done Right - Women See Much Better Results When Periodization is in Line W/ Menstrual Cycle
http://suppversity.blogspot.com/2015/11/training-on-cycle-done-right-women-see.html

Menstrual cycle and basal metabolic rate in women.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7124662

Changes in muscle strength, relaxation rate and fatiguability during the human menstrual cycle.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8735711

Changes in maximal voluntary force of human adductor pollicis muscle during the menstrual cycle.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Changes+in+maximal+voluntary+force+of+human+adductor+pollicis+muscle+during+the+menstrual+cycle
.

The isolated and combined effects of menstrual cycle phase and time-of-day on muscle strength of eumenorrheic females.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=The+isolated+and+combined+effects+of+menstrual+cycle+phase+and+time-of-day+on+muscle+strength+of+eumenorrheic+females

Menstrual cycle and appetite control: implications for weight regulation.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9221991

The Menstrual Cycle and Contraceptives: A Complete Guide for Athletes
https://www.strongerbyscience.com/menstrual-cycle-contraceptives-complete-guide-athletes/

Clue pilot study results: Resting heart rate changes during the cycle
http://blog.helloclue.com/post/146939456931/clue-pilot-study-results-resting-heart-rate

Impact of the menstrual cycle on determinants of energy balance: a putative role in weight loss attempts
https://www.nature.com/ijo/journal/v31/n12/pdf/0803699a.pdf?origin=ppub

Women Training and Fat Loss
http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/announcements/women-training-and-fat-loss.html/