Updated: Oct 22
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Hormone Cycles & Workout Performance: A Guide for Women
Sources linked below.
The relationship between female hormone cycles and athletic performance has been the focus of scientific research for several decades. Researchers have sought to understand how monthly hormone fluctuations impact women's physical abilities and how these shifts can be utilized to optimize athletic performance.
While we still have a lot of uncertainty within this field, a good amount of evidence suggests that understanding and leveraging hormonal cycles can be advantageous for female athletes.
So what does that mean for us? We're not "athletes" per say, but we do need to optimize our physical performance in day to day life, and during out workouts.
Because the research focuses mostly on athletes, I will add my interpretation of the data as it applies to regular women, and how we can utilize these findings to feel better, perform better and increase our energy.
The experts are looking at the impact of physical activity on ovarian function and hormone levels and they are finding that women who engage in regular, strenuous physical activity experience alterations in ovarian function, such as lower mean hormone levels and longer menstrual cycle lengths (long full cycles, not longer bleeding during that one phase) (Dube and Ragogna). We also have evidence to suggest that athletes may experience anovulatory (when the release of the egg does not happen) menstrual cycles, which only contributes to the idea that exercise influences hormone levels.
Another sector of research has looked at muscle strength as it relates to cycle phases (Jonge et al.). This one shows that the menstrual cycle can affect physiological parameters (aerobic capacity, anaerobic power and muscle strength) and athletic performance. For example, fluctuations in female steroid hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, can affect autonomic nervous system function and metabolic processes. Translation: Estrogen promotes relaxation (lowered heart rates and better digestion) and progesterone is similar to a natural sedative.
Understanding Monthly Hormone Cycles
Let's take a look at the monthly changes that occur within us, whether we realize it or not. Our cycle has 4 distinct phases and each is characterized by different hormone levels and physiological changes. This goes without saying, but symptoms of hormone changes vary quite a bit from person to person and as we get older.
Phase 1: Menstruation: Estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest during menstrual bleeding. We all know this, but low levels of these hormones can cause fatigue, mood swings, bloating, more sensitivity to pain, headaches, and decreased energy and motivation (DUH!). Let's plan this week for low energy yoga practices, walking, mobility exercises, and a good amount of rest and self care. To help support the hormone change, we can also make sure to be well hydrated and focus on getting healthy fats in our diets with lots of leafy greens. Think: green goddess type salads with olive oil, feta and avocado.
Phase 2: Follicular: During this phase, follicle-stimulating hormones are released from the pituitary gland, causing the development of ovarian follicles and the production of estrogen. As estrogen levels increase, this phase is associated with improved endurance and cardiovascular performance. This is the time of the month where you go hard with your cardio and HIIT training and try to up your protein intake with good quality lean meats. Not fitness related, but this is a great time to plan out projects, do research and learn new skills.
Phase 3: Ovulation: The egg starts it's journey. During this phase, there is a surge in luteinizing hormone which then triggers an increase in progesterone levels. This surge in hormones the time to take advantage of increased strength and power. Let's do our weight lifting/power yoga/etc during this time and make sure we have enough magnesium. Meal prepping a big pan of roasted cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, broccoli and Brussel sprouts will help during this time.
Phase 4: Luteal: The fourth phase of the menstrual cycle is the luteal phase, which begins after ovulation and lasts until bleeding starts again. Progesterone remains high, but our estrogen drops low, which contributes to water retention and that sluggish feeling. Not surprising at all, the luteal phase is associated with decreased exercise performance and longer recovery times. Extra carbs will help with energy here (think: potatoes, not cupcakes). Flush out the extra water with more water, (weird, but it works!) but make sure you replenish those electrolytes with something salty. It's a good time to do pilates, barre, or go swimming or hiking.
The Role of Diet and Exercise in Hormonal Regulation
Diet and exercise play a crucial role in hormonal regulation, and this extends to the menstrual cycle.
Estrogens and progestogens, the primary hormones involved in the menstrual cycle, are influenced by exercise and nutritional intake (Rocha-Rodrigues et al.). Exercise regulates estrogen and progesterone levels, which affects menstrual cycle regularity and hormonal balance. Nutritional intake impacts hormone levels as well and thus affects menstrual cycle regularity and symptoms. For example, low energy availability and inadequate nutrient intake can disrupt the normal hormonal fluctuations of the menstrual cycle and potentially impair physical performance. Think: low energy days and trying to make up for that with a sugar filled afternoon, only to crash and burn later on, and be unable to put adequate effort into your workout.
Another rabbit hole to explore are the benefits and risks of hormonal manipulation in women. The use of hormonal contraceptives, such as The Pill, have been marketed as a way to regulate the menstrual cycle ease many of the symptoms that come along with it(Heather et al.).
Unfortunately, the use of hormonal contraceptives can come with potential side effects that could negatively impact athletic performance and more importantly, an entire life. Think: THE BIG C. Stroke. I won't ramble on about the difference between a birth controlled woman's athletic performance vs a non-birth controlled woman's athletic performance, but it’s important to be aware of the long term affects of hormonal birth control and worry about that risk more than athletic performance. Trust me on this. There will never be a source to cite here and we all know why.
Case Studies: Successful Athletes Using Hormone Cycles to Their Advantage
There have been a few case studies of successful female athletes that utilize their own hormone cycles to their advantage. Here are two:
Olympic gold medalist track cyclist Kristen Armstrong has stated that she planned her training and competition schedule around her menstrual cycle to optimize her performance. If you'd like more information on how she does that, please google and search.
Professional tennis player Serena Williams has attributed her success to understanding and working with her menstrual cycle. By tracking her hormone levels and adjusting her training and match schedule accordingly, Williams believes she is able to perform at her best during certain phases of her cycle while also incorporating self-care practices to manage symptoms and optimize her health.
While the research on the direct impact of monthly hormone cycles on athletic performance is still evolving, there is evidence to suggest that these fluctuations can affect physiological responses to exercise in athletes. Interviews with athletes reveal that menstrual cycle symptoms can also have psychological and performance-related effects(Giménez-Blasi et al.). For all of us regular women, if you've noticed your energy levels shift throughout the month, it may be beneficial to track your cycle and implement some of the suggestions above.
Dube, W., Jonathan, and Paul J. Ragogna. Synthesis and Onwards Coordination of an AsICentered Zwitterion. 11 Jul. 2013, https://chemistry-europe.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/chem.201301003
Jonge, de, Janse, X., et al. The influence of menstrual cycle phase on skeletal muscle contractile characteristics in humans. 1 Jan. 2001, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2278395/
Rocha-Rodrigues, Sílvia, et al. Nutrition and Physical Exercise in Women. 21 Jul. 2022, https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/14/14/2981
Heather, K., Alison, et al. Biological and Socio-Cultural Factors Have the Potential to Influence the Health and Performance of Elite Female Athletes: A Cross Sectional Survey of 219 Elite Female Athletes in Aotearoa New Zealand. 18 Feb. 2021, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fspor.2021.601420/full.
Giménez-Blasi, Nuria, et al. Menstrual Cycle and Sport: effects on the performance and metabolism of the athlete woman. 28 Jul. 2022, https://openaccess.uoc.edu/handle/10609/147839