Using Your Cycle as a Guide for Sport Performance

Tanya Jones Female Hormones, Hormone Cycle Training, Nutrient Timing, Performance, Running Performance, Training Leave a Comment

Do you notice that your menstrual cycle affects your workouts, your hunger levels, and your sleep? I sure do, and as an athlete and sports nutritionist, I wanted to understand how best to train and nourish my body during each phase to achieve optimal training results. There are times when I have really struggled to hit the same targets that I was able to achieve just a few weeks ago despite eating the same food, sleeping the same amount, and performing my normal recovery routine, that of course includes a recovery smoothie. This can be confusing and mentally draining; you’re doing all the right things but not having consistent outcomes. As we go forward, it is important to know that you are likely training hard enough and putting in the time. However, natural female hormone fluctuations influence how you utilize fuel, respond to hydration, build, and recruit muscles and cope with inflammation, and this impacts how you respond to your training.

Understanding your cycle will allow you to adapt your training and eating to support your sport and athletic performance. We will discuss how to do this based on the role of each hormone and when it is dominant.

Menstrual Cycle

The average menstrual cycle spans 28 days, give or take 7 days, and consists of three hormonal phases: follicular, ovulation and the luteal phase. Estrogen and progesterone are the two major hormones that play a key role throughout all phases. Estrogen rises during the follicular phase before a sharp drop off right before the mature egg is released. In the luteal phase, progesterone rises significantly, and estrogen has only a slight increase. They both drop off before the menses and the cycle repeats. 

Estrogen is the hormone responsible for the development and maintenance of the reproductive system, physical female characteristics, muscle mass and bone density. Progesterone plays an important role in the menstrual cycle and in maintaining the early stages of pregnancy. After you ovulate each month, progesterone helps thicken the lining of the uterus to prepare for a fertilized egg. If there is no fertilized egg, progesterone levels drop, and menstruation begins.

Phase 1 – Follicular Phase

This first phase is a time where the female body is primed to hit intense workouts that are of an anaerobic nature. Increased insulin sensitivity, along with an increase in pain tolerance, can explain this capability.

Menstruation occurs approximately day 1-5. During this time, both estrogen and progesterone are low. This is actually a great time to focus on those harder training sessions.

Training Tips During Menstruation: 

This is the best time to seek fitness gains via high intensity, strength and HIIT sessions.

Nutrition and Fueling Tips During Menstruation: 

  • With low hormones, your physiology is similar to a male’s
  • Your body’s preference is to store and utilize carbs for fuel, therefore this is the best time for high intensity cardio training and strength sessions
  • You experience a lower rate of perceived exertion
  • You will recover faster from hard or taxing efforts
  • Carbohydrates are essential during this time – particularly pre-exercise
  • Your hydration status is optimal
  • Aim for 25 to 30 grams of carbs per hour of training if your session is longer than 75 to 90 minutes.
  • Fruit & vegetables for antioxidants to support immune function
  • Ensure you are getting adequate Vitamin D, calcium, fish oils and B vitamins
  • Prioritize a snack within 30 to 45 minutes of your workout consisting of 20-plus grams of protein and easy-to-digest carbohydrates. Ideally looking for a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein.

After menstruation, the follicular phase lasts to approximately day 14 and is dominated by a rise in estrogen. We are more estrogen dominant in relation to the lower levels of progesterone. Estrogen rises and peaks just before ovulation. This can reduce hunger so it will be important to pay attention and match your nutrition needs based on your activity levels. Studies have shown that with higher estrogen levels, resistance training has a greater effect for strength gains, and on type two (fast twitch) muscle fibre growth.

We need to consume more carbohydrates for fuel during this phase when participating in high intensity training. With an increased intake of carbohydrates, you should also include protein for muscle building blocks and to keep your blood sugar balanced. This is also a good time to increase your intake of iron rich foods to make up for the loss during the period. To help absorb that extra iron, an increase in vitamin C is also encouraged.

Here are some iron rich foods:

  • Red meat, pork and poultry
  • Seafood
  • Beans
  • Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale and chard
  • Dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots
  • Iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas
  • Peas

Vitamin C is also found in:

  • Broccoli
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwi
  • Leafy greens
  • Melons
  • Oranges
  • Peppers
  • Strawberries
  • Tangerines
  • Tomatoes

Training Tips for Remainder of Follicular Phase:

  • The body finds glucose an easy energy source so sprinting, power and HIIT strength workouts are great
  • Sweating begins at higher than normal body temperatures so heat tolerance will be optimal here
  • Sleep is restful and consistent, less likely to be interrupted by periods of wakefulness

Nutrition Tips for Remainder of Follicular Phase: 

  • Estrogen also promotes muscle building over muscle breakdown and hydration needs are lower than average. 
  • Ensure you are fuelling adequately (eating enough) during this time as you may feel like you require less. This will have knock-on negative effects a week or so later if you under-fuel
  • Carbohydrates are essential during this time – particularly pre-exercise
  • If racing an endurance event in this phase, consider carbohydrate loading.
  • Your hydration status is optimal
  • Aim for 25 to 30 grams of carbs per hour of training if your session is longer than 75 to 90 minutes.
  • Fruit & vegetables for antioxidants to support immune function
  • Ensure you are getting adequate Vitamin D, calcium, fish oils and B vitamins
  • Prioritize a snack within 30 to 45 minutes of your workout consisting of 20-plus grams of protein and easy-to-digest carbohydrates. Ideally looking for a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein.

Include carbohydrate rich foods, lots of protein, and iron rich food paired with Vitamin C.

  • Oatmeal
  • Kidney beans
  • Soybeans
  • Lentils
  • Poultry
  • Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale and chard
  • Strawberries
  • Oranges
  • Peppers

Phase 2 – Ovulation

Approximately day 12 to 14. During ovulation, estrogen levels are high and progesterone levels are low but beginning to slowly rise. Here overall strength is peaked, heavier weight training can be appropriate rather than the high intensity cardiovascular efforts. Energy levels are at their highest, progesterone levels are low which results in an increase in the body’s overall pain tolerance so this is a good time to push yourself for personal bests and overall total body strength training. It is normal during ovulation for a woman to feel warmer and for this to continue for the remainder of the cycle. 

Training Tips During Ovulation:

  • Due to elevated estrogen levels, the body’s ability to store carbs can be negatively affected which may affect performance in an endurance session.
  • For training sessions or endurance events longer than 75 to 90 minutes, prioritize carbohydrate fueling to optimize performance and recovery.
  • Sports fueling during training sessions helps the body combat stress from training and hormonal fluctuations. Click here for a recap on how to fuel based on your activity levels.

Nutrition Tips During Ovulation:

  • The effect of your progesterone impacts your base metabolic rate (BMR), which then starts to rise so you may recognize an increase in appetite and cravings
  • Plan for this by having some foods that will meet those cravings but in controlled portion sizes
  • You may notice an elevated heart rate as well as an increase in body temperature and sweat. Ensure you are drinking slightly more water during this time to balance sweat/fluid requirements
  • Ensure protein and carbohydrates are evenly spaced throughout the day to help manage blood sugar levels and limit cravings
  • Aim for higher fibre (complex) carbohydrate sources as they will digest slower and provide even releases of energy

Phase 4 – Luteal Phase

The luteal phase is the phase between ovulation to menses, approximately day 15-28. For the first half of this phase, there is a significant increase in progesterone and a smaller increase in estrogen resulting in high levels of both estrogen and progesterone. Fat usage for energy is increased in this phase at the same time as glycogen storage and use are upregulated. Long endurance workouts and races would be best planned for this time.

As your body will prefer fat for fuel, high intensity and heavy strength sessions are not optimal. Muscle building will not be as easy and in fact, muscle breakdown is a risk. You may also suffer from PMS symptoms that cause discomfort and lack of motivation. This is an opportunity to have a plan to maintain motivation and focus primarily on aerobic activities.

Due to the change in hormones, our bodies switch to being more fat-dominant as a fuel source during this phase. So, your diet should consist of healthy fats, regular intakes of protein and less starchy carbohydrates. The switch in fat/carbohydrate ratio will also help to increase the calorie intake.

Good quality fats to consider:

  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds
  • Olives
  • Avocados
  • Fatty fish

Supporting your detoxification pathways to make it easy to metabolize and eliminate the used hormones from your follicular phase is also important in this phase. The goal is to focus on liver-loving foods like cruciferous vegetables, antioxidant-rich berries, protein, and plenty of fiber to ensure you’re able to eliminate properly. Some women struggle with digestive issues at this time so you may consider eating easily digestible foods.

With an overall increase in body temperature, heat tolerance is reduced in the first part of the luteal phase (high hormone phase), which could lead to earlier fatigue. It is important to stay hydrated and keep cool when working out. Incorporate more mineral-rich sea salt and water during this time.

Try my recipe for Ginger Lemon Electrolyte Drink

  • 2 Tbsp Lemon Juice (freshly squeezed)
  • 1 Tbsp Maple Syrup
  • 1 tsp Ginger (peeled and finely grated)
  • 1/8 tsp Sea Salt
  • 1 cup Water
  1. Add all ingredients to a mason jar and shake vigorously.
  2. Strain into a glass with ice. Serve immediately and enjoy.

Water retention is also common prior to menstruation and can impact performance. Keep this in mind for sports such as weightlifting and distance running. To best support your body during this phase, it can be helpful to schedule in rest days, and choose workouts such as yoga and Pilates to relax the body before menstruation.

Training Tips During Luteal Phase:

  • The rate of perceived exertion is higher even at moderate efforts, and it’s harder to build muscle
  • It is harder to reach high-end efforts/intensity since carbs are harder to utilize
  • Your heart rate will be higher at moderate activity levels
  • You may find that you’re less tolerant to heat, you’re more tired than normal and recovery seems to be slow
  • Sleep can be impacted during this time which has knock-on effects for recovery, mood and concentration.

Nutrition Tips During Luteal Phase:

  • The increase in metabolism (5-10%) can lead to increased cravings, so plan accordingly
  • Even with cravings for higher salt, fat, etc. ultra-processed foods can increase symptoms
  • Plan your nutrition and be mindful of eating well with adequate protein, fruit and veggies and add salt to foods to support optimal hydration
  • Increase fueling to 40 to 50 grams of carbohydrates per hour during sessions lasting longer than 90 minutes or high-intensity workouts
  • Prioritize recovery fuel of 20-plus grams of protein and easy-to-digest carbohydrates within 30 to 45 minutes of your workout
  • Limit fructose and maltodextrin as fuel sources in sports fueling as these contribute to GI distress, aim for glucose and sucrose
  • Limit protein and fat in sports fueling products to reduce GI distress

We are all individuals and will have different reactions to the foods we eat during these phases. Monitoring how your body responds to certain foods along with your training load is important to developing an understanding of what to eat and when. Identifying the foods and nutrients that best support your body during each stage of your cycle will allow you to develop a nutrition and training strategy for your best performance outcome.

Train well and empower yourself.

Tanya R.H.N

Sports Holistic Nutritionist

Strength and Conditioning Coach

Multisport Coach

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