‘Women are not small men’. The title of a brilliant TedxTalk from Dr Stacy Simms, who has spent her career leading pioneering research into women’s health and sports performance. When you hear that phrase, it’s so blatantly obvious it’s almost comical. And yet, the majority of the women I coach have never paused to consider whether this differentiation is reflected in their experience of exercise.
Cast your mind back to your earliest memories of wearing sports kit. For most of us, PE classes in primary school were a slightly chaotic introduction to team sports, with traditional ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ options (netball skirts kind of seals the deal). As we grew into teenagers, the segregation intensified. Whilst it was generally assumed that most boys, regardless of actual sporting talent, would be keen to kick a ball about at lunchtime, get sweaty and stay active, there was a specific group of ‘sporty’ girls. No grey areas. You were either a girl who wore her kit with pride, or you were never seen dead in it.
If you were a kit-wearing, netball-catching, A-team playing young woman…you apparently didn’t have a period. Show up for training, follow the drills and give it your best. Feeling under the weather? ‘Man up and pull yourself together girl!’ The only acknowledgement of your menstrual cycle was in PHSE classes…as part of the mortifying ‘sex ed’ banana/condom debacle. Hardly a place to ask pertinent questions about your body and the impact of menstruation on sporting performance. These formative years are such a crucial opportunity to educate young women about how best to utilise their cycle, but for decades, it’s been neglected.
Stepping into adulthood brings a brilliant opportunity for some women to reframe their view of exercise. Lots of the members of my online community, Ladies Who Crunch, didn’t come from the ‘sporty’ group at school, but slowly started to question whether they might enjoy trying the huge variety of options available as they settled into university and beyond. From spinning, to kickboxing, to weight lifting, to ballet…finally exercise isn’t just open to those who get ‘picked’ for the team.
For so many women, this joyous discovery is liberating, but the legacy issue of inadequate education remains unresolved. Ever been to your favourite class, and for some reason, something just isn’t clicking that day? Or out of the blue, maybe even on a hangover, one morning you totally smash a PB? But the day after, you’re ten steps back? It can be a huge confidence knock. It’s frustrating, confusing and sometimes, I’ve even seen it put women off exercising for an extended period of time, because they feel ‘not fit enough’.
And here’s the thing. Without an understanding of what’s happening in your body as you exercise on any given day, women are essentially following programmes and training recommendations built for men. From running, to strength training, right through to yoga routines, there’s so much work to be done to empower women navigate the nuances of their hormonal cycle.
I’m going to bet you’re never walked into a gym and seen a list of recommendations for exercise programmes mapped to your menstrual cycle… Here’s how I can help! Let’s have a look at some of the basics, mapped against a standard 28 day cycle (with the caveat that most women don’t have a cycle that follows that pattern, but it’ll give you some parameters).
Nancy, founder of Ladies Who Crunch
Your experience of your menstrual bleed is totally unique to you - and will be affected by multiple factors, including what contraception you’re using (if any), lifestyle and broader health factors, but these recommendations are a great starting point.
On your bleed (day 1-7)
Lots of us feel pretty ropey on our bleed, struggling with water retention, IBS and fatigue, to name a few! This is a great time to stick to low intensity steady state movement (think walking, gentle running and cycling). Be aware that are increased inflammatory markers during your period and this can lead to water content in the joints. So if you have an existing niggle or injury, for example, you might find the pain flares up during your bleed. Gentle yoga and stretching could be just the ticket if that’s the case.
As oestrogen starts to climb back up, in line with your period coming to a close (k thanks bye!), it’s a great time to get into your heavy strength training, if that’s your vibe. You’ll be ready to hit PBs with some slow, low repetition compound movements.
Follicular phase (day 8-14)
Oestrogen is now at it’s highest point and I’ve got good news - you’re primed to create sexy muscle mass. So you want to try and focus on hypertrophy strength training. That means higher repetitions, using medium weights, so you can really get the volume in.
You’re also feeling sharper, so it’s a great time to focus on skill based training - think anything from boxing to tennis, where you need to focus on technique.
Ovulation phase (day 15-21)
If you’re a HIIT hun, this is your week! Time to utilise the energy you’ve got before progesterone settles in and slows everything down. Big sweaty circuits, spinning, sprinting…whatever makes your heart rate soar!
Make sure you’re rebuilding your body - lots of high impact training and no mobility is not the one!
Luteal phase (day 22-28)
Suddenly, exhaustion hits! Cramping might be coming in, and for some of us, our mood takes a turn for the worst. This is when active recovery is really helpful to keep you moving, without draining you. Long walks, deep stretching sessions and some light resistance training can really help to look after your mental, as well as physical, wellbeing.
About the Author
Nancy Best is the founder of Ladies Who Crunch, an online female training community built to help busy women find mental strength and confidence through training. She also runs a female-only strength training studio in London, where she offers bespoke, individual coaching.
Nancy started her career working for large corporates and graduated from UCL in 2014.
Want to hear more from Nancy? Check out this Q&A series one of our co-founders did with Nancy below for her online series at LWC, talking all things from periods to starting a new business and the menopause: