I'm going to be honest: us gentlemen, we really have it quite easy. We go to the gym, lift weights, refuel properly, hit a calorie goal and we're pretty well set to get the results we want.
Ladies however, don't have it so easy! Due to the gift of child bearing, you have to deal with fluctuating hormones throughout your monthly cycle which can massively disrupt your training and nutrition.
As if it wasn't hard enough already - women usually have a lower daily calorie requirement and typically struggle to put on large amounts of muscle mass which, if fat loss is your goal, makes things a bit more difficult compared to your male counterparts. Add in your monthly cycle and things begin to stack up!
Whilst the menstrual cycle can affect your day-to-day life throughout the month, you can alter your training and nutrition to help maximise your results. In order to do this we need to understand what is happening in the body during this time.
The menstrual cycle can be broken down into four main phases, so lets look at what these phases are, how they affect the body and how to change things to maximise results.
Phase 1: The Menstrual Phase (Days 1-5)
What's Happening? - The endometrium lining is being shed due to the egg not being fertilised. Some women experience abdominal cramps during this phase due to a lack of blood flow to the lining of your uterus. You'll probably not want to train at all whilst this is going on, but exercise can help increase the blood flow though, and actually ease the cramps you experience (the same reason you may use a hot water bottle or a hot bath to ease cramps).
Phase 2: The Follicular Phase (Days 1-13)
What's Happening? During this phase the follicle that is holding the egg is being developed. Oestrogen levels begin low from day 1 of your cycle and steadily increase, meanwhile progesterone levels remain low.
How to Maximise Training - As you can see, during the first 1-13 days, there are two phases going on - the menstrual phase and the follicular phase.
During the follicular phase your oestrogen levels are increasing. Oestrogen helps to make you more insulin sensitive in turn making you more likely to build muscle and burn fat during this stage. This makes the first half of your cycle a great time to utilise strength (1-6 reps, longer rest times) and hypertrophy training 6-12 reps, shorter rest times) in order to maximise lean mass building and your overall strength levels, it also helps that energy levels are usually pretty high at this stage too.
How to Maximise Nutrition - Because of higher energy levels and (hopefully) higher output, you can afford to have a slightly higher ration of carbs in your diet compared to fat (45:30). You should also aim to maintain protein levels at around 1.8g per kg of body weight and ensure you're eating plenty of vegetables throughout your cycle.
Phase 3: Ovulation (around day 14)
What's Happening? - The egg is released from the follicle. Oestrogen levels peak here and progesterone levels begin to increase. From this day, and going into the second half of your cycle training and nutrition will slowly transition into a different focus.
Phase 4: The Luteal Phase (Days 15-28)
Whats Happening? - The follicle turns in to corpus luteum ( a structure that helps to try and maximise implantation of a fertilised egg) which secretes progesterone, increasing levels and making the body progesterone dominant. If towards the end of the cycle the egg isn't fertilised the corpus luteum breaks down. Oestrogen and progesterone levels fall at the end of this cycle and menstruation begins again.
How to Maximise Training - You may feel like you can't lift the weights your were lifting during the first half of your cycle and that's fine. Take this as an opportunity to ease off the heavier weights slightly and switch to higher rep ranges. This can also be a stressful time due to hormonal changes, so rather than stress your body even more with high intensity exercise, get outside for fresh air and a nice walk for cardio instead.
How to Maximise Nutrition - As you enter the second half of your cycle, as you can see in the above graph, oestrogen is falling and and progesterone is rising. This switch in hormone levels takes you from insulin sensitive to more insulin resistant, and with that more likely to store fat. This makes it important to manage calorie intake, and you might look at decreasing carb intake at this time - adjusting healthy fat levels accordingly (switching to a 25% carb and 50% fat ratio). You may experience cravings during this part of your phase, something the increase in fat ratio may help with, playing with calories at this time may be useful also.
As with everything to do with the human body, everyone is different. Some may not experience any symptoms throughout their monthly and others will experience symptoms of varying degrees. It's important to find out what works for you mentally and physically.
Nutrition Across Your Cycle
Sometimes it can be good to look at nutritional intake as part of a bigger picture, so let's imagine that you experience increased hunger and/or cravings towards the end of your cycle and just before menstruation. You may look to manipulate your calories across the space of 28 days rather than just daily or weekly. Lets assume you need to consume 1800 calories a day to lose weight gradually, so: 28 x 1800 = 50,400. This means you have 50,400 calories to play with over a 28 day cycle and could break it down like this:
Days 1-13 - 1750 Calories a day. Energy is naturally high during this phase so you aren't dependent on food for energy, besides your cravings are low and you find it easy to stick to a calorie goal that's a slightly over your usual deficit.
Days 14-22 - 1800 Calories a day. The number you need to hit your fat loss Calorie goal. Your body is changing hormonally and you may be a little bit more hungry and can afford to eat a bit more by increasing your Calories slightly.
Days 23-28 - 1900 Calories. You want chocolate and you want it now! Whatever your cravings are, you now have another 100 calories to play with. If you plan on eating a whole cake that's not going to make a huge difference, but, sensibly increasing calories here allows you succumb to your cravings a little more and stay within your goal for the day.
With this Calorie strategy not only have you been able to give your body more of what it wants over a 28 day cycle, you've also ensured that your Calorie intake is conducive to fat fat loss.
Add in your training adaptations with this Calorie strategy and you're more likely to stay on track during the (potential) ups and downs of your monthly cycle.
If you have a plan and stick to it, even if you feel like world is crumbling around you, you know what to do to help you reach your goals, and knowing that will definitely help to improve your mood, self-esteem and confidence at all times.
If you're a female that does experience fluctuating moods or motivation throughout your monthly cycle, try to implement some of the things discussed above and see if that helps you deal with your cycle better, in both a physical and mental capacity, I'm sure you'll experience greater results with your training and nutrition!