As an active woman, you’re probably familiar with the ups and downs of exercise. Some days, you might feel like you can conquer the world, and other days, you might feel more tired and find it harder to push yourself.
There’s a valid reason your body responds differently to exercise on different days: your menstrual cycle can have a huge impact on your training.
TRIA’s board-certified sports dietitian, Jillian Tholen, helps educate women about the close connection between their period and performance.
“Once many women realize this close connection, they also understand their period doesn’t have to be a negative thing,” says Jillian. “It can be extremely empowering to discover how to work with your body instead of against it.”
It’s important for women in sports to understand how nutrition, the menstrual cycle, training habits and pregnancy history can impact the female athlete triad, injury patterns and energy. With this knowledge, active women can thrive in sport and life. To start, Jillian shares three of the main ways your period impacts training.
Women have different needs than men
In the past, most sports science research has excluded females due to changing hormone levels. Because of this, a lot of the nutrition and training research out there applies to men, but hasn’t been tested on women.
“It’s important to remember women are not the same as men, and active women have different needs when it comes to nutrition and exercise,” says Jillian. “As women, we need to be aware of this when reading training and nutrition articles and considering how to implement different strategies into our own lives.”
For example, some injuries are more common for women, such as:
- kneecap pain or knee injuries
- bone stress fractures
- ACL tears
This is partly due to the differences in men’s and women’s bodies. A woman’s period can also influence joint laxity. To perform at her best, an active woman should keep these factors in mind as she trains.
Hormones impact training and performance
There are two main phases of the menstrual cycle: the Follicular Phase and the Luteal Phase. And they’re very different from each other when it comes to hormone levels. These fluctuating hormones have a big impact on how a woman feels and performs.
During the Follicular Phase, which is roughly the first two weeks or first half of the cycle, hormones are at a lower level. A lower level of hormones is actually helpful for training, in part because the body is better able to access stored carbohydrates. This is helpful for higher intensity workouts. Jillian often shares with her patients that this phase is a good time for muscle-building exercises and peak performance.
During the Luteal Phase, which is roughly the second two weeks or second half of the cycle, hormones are at a higher level. This is due mainly to an increase in the hormones estrogen and progesterone. A higher level of hormones causes a decrease in anabolic, or muscle-building, capacity. This can make it more difficult to perform at a high intensity or build muscle. According to Jillian, the Luteal Phase would be a good time to focus on lower-intensity workouts. It’s also important to give yourself more recovery time and not beat yourself up if you’re less able to perform at a high intensity.
Fueling needs vary throughout the menstrual cycle
Jillian also helps educate active women on how to fuel their bodies with their period in mind, because fueling needs differ throughout the menstrual cycle.
During the low hormone phase, or Follicular Phase, there is a greater need for iron due to the blood lost during your period. To replace iron stores, it’s helpful to focus on foods rich in iron, such as:
- legumes such as beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils or soybeans
- red meat
- dark chicken meat
- whole grains
In addition, try to eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids due to increased inflammation during this phase. It’s also easier to stay hydrated and cool during this phase. Continue drinking water to your thirst level during the day.
During the high hormone phase, or Luteal Phase, it’s important to focus on getting enough carbohydrates because it’s harder for your body to access stored carbs. Take in carbohydrates before and during your workouts to fuel exercise. During this phase, you may also notice you feel hungrier. Jillian says this is completely normal, and the body actually uses up to 5-10 percent more calories during the pre-menstrual phase of your cycle. Jillian’s advice to her patients: listen to your body and eat. It can also be more difficult to stay hydrated during this phase. Make sure to drink plenty of water before, during and after your workouts.
“Knowledge is power,” says Jillian. “Once you know how your period affects your training, it’s so much easier to work with and care for your body.”
These are just a few of the specific ways your menstrual cycle impacts nutrition and fitness. Learn more and get information about upcoming seminars and events at tria.com/women.
About Jillian Tholen, MS, RDN, LD, CSSD
Jillian Tholen is a registered dietitian nutritionist at TRIA specializing in sports nutrition, women’s health and eating disorders. As part of Women’s Sports Medicine at TRIA, she helps female athletes with proper nutrition and sport-specific fueling needs. Her passion is helping her patients to explore and improve their relationship with food, and she is driven to increase awareness of disordered eating and