Introduction to Being a Female Athlete – Why Train Around Menstrual Cycle?

Natalie Snyder PT, DPT, [OCS], CSCS
Female Athlete Specialist

June 24th, 2021

Are you regular with your menstrual cycle?  Did you ever notice that some weeks feel AMAZING and you’re soaring new heights, breaking personal records, smoking your teammates and competitors during your ski training and races?  Then you have some weeks that feel TERRIBLE and you’re feeling extra tired, feeling that brain fog, just generally moodier than normal, then all of the sudden you’re lagging your training progression and other teammates?  These days suck, doesn’t it?  Well, will you be surprised if I told you it has to do with your menstrual cycle, particularly the week before you get your period?  It’s a thing.  We have to accept the fact that is a girl thing, and we need to talk about it!

As simple as I can put it for now without overloading you the information, it is remarkable how your monthly cycle, training schedule, hormonal levels, cognitive function, stress levels, physical performance, and nutrition all come together in one big spiderweb of a physiological network of influences.

Before I dive into the menstrual cycle details, I ask you first to shout out right now that you are a FEMALE athlete!  Not a smaller male athlete.  Females and Males are different because of the hormones and that have been present since birth.  We have that XX chromosome for a reason and men have the XY chromosome for a completely different reason.  Yet very few, if not one, coaches or medical providers teach the athletes to recognize this as having a significant impact on female athlete’s performance, body composition, strength gains, energy levels, and moods.  Then, educate the athlete on how to adjust their training schedule and plan around their monthly cycle to optimize their performance, gains, and rest.

There are stories out there from elite athletes who recognized that the week before they have their period, they’re exhausted and not able to push their training to top-performance levels. But they can outrun their competitors and break records during the first few days they get their period and for the next 2 weeks particularly.  Why’s that?  Female physiology!

During the first two to three weeks of their cycle, starting Day 1 as they get their period, the female athletes are more similar to the male athletes because of their low hormone levels.  When I say low-hormone levels, the Estrogen and Progesterone levels are at their lowest.  They both are the main drivers of physiological and hormonal fluctuations.  So we have more of the natural testosterone’s effects on physical performance and the low but appropriate balance of hormonal influences of one another to build muscular bulk, strength, and bone density.  Then we have the high-hormone levels in the last few days of the cycle before starting our next period, which influences our female craziness (or premenstrual dysfunction syndrome, PMS). 

The rise of Estrogen spares glycogen levels in our muscles, so we can’t use it optimally for high-intensity performance, but our fatty-acid metabolism is more efficient.  What does this mean?  It means that during this “PMS” week, lighten up your training intensity and load, focus on your aerobic work, do longer and lower-intensity endurance exercises and REST UP!  Sleep is vital.

The rise of Progesterone is increasing our body core temperature and we get hot easily.  It also speeds up the muscular breakdown even more during and after a workout or training session.  You may feel hot, extra tired, or sore for the next 24-48 hours.  It feels extra harder this time.

The typical menstrual cycle can range from 28 to 40 days, it’s not the same for everyone, just like your fingerprints.  The best advice I can give you right now is to START TRACKING your menstrual cycle and add three things that day to have a better idea of how to optimize your training, strength and power gains, and when to ease off training intensity.  Again, I cannot tell you what the daily or weekly training schedule should look like for you because your menstrual cycle could be 37 days and my menstrual cycle could be 30 days.  That’s a whole week difference. 

Start tracking:

1. Days of your cycle from the first day of your period to the next first day.

2. Performance, scale 1-5 (1 for a terrible practice/training day, 5 for an amazing performance).

3. Level of tiredness, scale 1-5 (1 for exhausted, 5 for energized).

4. Moodiness, scale 1-5 (1 for irritated, 3 for “meh”, 5 for happy).

Just an example… this is not a cookie cutter for all.

Adjust your training intensity by:

Week 1Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4567
Week 2Day 891011121314
Week 3Day 15161718192021
Week 4Day 22232425262728
Week 5Day 293031Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4

1. Days 1-21 of the cycle – high intensity! Push yourself, run harder, lift heavy, jump higher, strive for the best performance you can do.

2. Days 22-27 of the cycle, getting your period – decrease your intensity to moderate. Focus on skills, techniques, same intensity level but do fewer repetitions.

3. Days 28-31 of the cycle – low intensity. Focus on skills, mental concentration (this WILL feel harder during “PMS-week”, but that will make you mentally tougher), low-load but long duration exercises such as running, cardiovascular work, and REST UP!  Sleep.


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