Training With Your Hormone Cycle
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
Every running coach I've ever had has been a man. Not that there's anything wrong with men, but the men coaching me generally had very high-level understandings of how female bodies function, and could therefore not provide the best training plans possible. It's not entirely their fault; most research on effective exercise programming is done on male test subjects. The data we have regarding exercise is skewed toward men, producing objectively bad workout criteria for women.
The female hormone cycle is typically 28 days, and during those 28 days, our hormones rise and fall in a very specific fashion. In week one, our estrogen levels start rising. In week two, estrogen and testosterone rise until they peak. This is also typically when ovulation occurs. The first two weeks of your menstrual cycle are peak periods for gaining muscle and endurance. You'll find it easier to push yourself harder during these two weeks. In week three, estrogen and testosterone dip, but then estrogen starts to rise again. Progesterone also rises, and tends to have a sedating effect, making you more tired and sometimes more prone to sadness. This is the week when women typically feel the most tired. Finally, in week four, estrogen and progesterone plunge. You might crave carbohydrate rich foods or feel more pessimistic than normal. But at the end of the fourth week, you'll be back to feeling chipper again.
Alternatively, the male hormone cycle is only 24 hours, with testosterone at its highest in the morning and at the lowest point in the evening. Many exercise programs are built off the male hormone cycle. Not only that, but many diet trends, like intermittent fasting, are built around the male hormone cycle as well.
By understanding your hormone cycle, you can build a training plan (and a dietary regimen, if you need one) that's better suited to your body. You'll not only get better results, but you'll feel better as well.
Above, I broke down how hormones fluctuate over a woman's 28 day cycle. Our menstrual cycles have 3 phases: the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase.
The Follicular Phase
The follicular phase begins on day one of your period, and it's characterized by the lowest levels of female hormones throughout the month. This is actually the point in time when a woman's body is most similar (hormonally) to that of a man.
The follicular phase generally lasts about 2 weeks, and in the second half of this phase, estrogen levels start rising. During my own follicular phase, I notice I can train harder and feel better during high intensity training. For me, this includes things like hard trail runs with lots of hills, hot yoga, and more intense strength training sessions. I can handle more volume during these two weeks, and I generally feel less tired.
Ovulation often occurs close to day 14 of a 28-day cycle. The female body releases an egg, and if sperm is present, pregnancy has a very high likelihood of occurring.
The luteal phase occurs right after ovulation and lasts for the second half of your cycle, bringing with it a surge of hormones. Estrogen rises again, and progesterone steadily rises until it peaks. When it peaks, the luteal phase generally ends and the cycle repeats itself. During the luteal phase, a woman's body is experiencing a very high hormonal load. Women tire more easily and are more sensitive to conditions like extreme heat. During this time, I generally manage the intensity of my runs and worry less about doing hot yoga or crazy intense lifting sessions.
My running coaches never knew or accounted for these normal, biologic changes. Instead, us women were given a pared down version of the men's training regime. Instead of running 10 miles, we'd run 8. Instead of doing an 8 mile tempo run, we'd do 6. Instead of 5 x 1 mile repeats, we'd do 4, and so on and so forth. I don't think there was much strategy behind this, except a vague notion that women could not handle the same training load. However, there is no real data to suggest that women cannot handle the same volume as men, disregarding individual differences. The data does suggest that women are both better suited to endurance sports and have a better ability to recover quickly from intense endurance training due to (you guessed it) our hormones.
So once I started training for ultra marathons (without the input of a running coach), I started reading about how women can work with our bodies instead of against them. I learned all about our hormone cycles, period loss, and adrenal fatigue. I took blood tests to learn how to supplement and how to eat. I used to push my body every day, thinking that would make me faster or that pushing myself relentlessly would help me excel. That mindset isn't altogether strange, but it isn't very smart. And since I have free reign to train as I see fit now, I know when I can safely and effectively push myself, and when resting might be more helpful. I also know that in the luteal phase, a poor workout or extra fatigue is probably due to my shifting hormones. Knowing all of this allows me to train and race smarter and avoid getting burnt out.
While I've had a lot of amazing coaches throughout my life, I don't have one now because I feel empowered enough to create and follow a plan that works best for my body. If you're struggling with burnout, fatigue, or stalled gains, I encourage you to learn more about your hormones (and have a hormone test done, if possible). Knowledge is power, and by better understanding your body, you'll be better equipped to work with it, not against it.
P.S. Read ROAR How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life by Stacy Sims, read about how to find out if your hormones are balanced (or not) here, or read about Lauren Fleshman's Feminist Approach to Running.