In 2017, I attended a Sports Symposium conference, here in Denver; this was the first time I had heard research showing different statistics in regards to female athletes and their menstrual cycles, and what is now known as “cycle syncing”. If the first time I heard about cycle syncing was within the last three years, I know it is not yet common knowledge. As a female, an athlete, and a health care provider I wanted to share what I have learned with the rest of my female athlete community. More knowledge around our cycles may help women, like myself, to train with our bodies instead of training against them. Therefore, improving recovery time, improving performance, and decreasing our risk of injury.
So let’s talk menstrual cycles!!
Defining Your Cycle:
In order to understand the premise of cycle syncing and how best to apply it we first need to understand our menstrual cycles. Most women, people for that matter, do not have all the facts about what happens during a reproductive cycle. For most women, we know our cycles as days when we have our period and then the days between our periods. However, there is a lot more taking place physiologically. The phases of our menstrual cycles are identified and outlined by changes in our hormone levels, primarily Estrogen and Progesterone. The other hormones at play are Luteinizing hormone and Follicle Stimulating hormone.
Most have been taught that an average cycle is 28 days, while average only accounts for a portion of the population that is still the model that is taught in textbooks and the model that we will reference here. Less commonly known, is that day 1 of that 28-day cycle is actually the first day of our period aka menstruation. Another important day within our cycle is ovulation, which typically occurs on day 14.
Now that we have some benchmarks within the 28 days, following along with the named phases gets a little easier. Most broadly, a cycle can be divided into two phases - the Follicular phase and the Luteal phase. To keep it simple, the Follicular phase includes menstruation (shedding your uterine lining) and ovulation (an egg being released from your ovaries), the Luteal phase starts after ovulation has occurred, and continues until you start your next period.
The Follicular phase can be broken down a bit more specifically into the Menstrual phase and the Ovulation phase as hinted at above. Let's go back to numerical days for a moment for clarity.
Day 1 = The first day of your period or the start of the Menstrual phase
Day 5 (on average) = the conclusion of the Menstrual phase
Day 14 = Ovulation
Day 15 - 28 = Luteal phase
*Day 1-14 = Follicular Phase
As I mentioned above, these phases are driven by hormone fluctuation. During the first phase of your cycle, menstruation, hormone levels are at their all-time low for the cycle, this includes both Estrogen and Progesterone. Following your period, but prior to ovulation, all hormone levels are on the rise. Ovulation is typically considered the peak of most of our hormone levels. Following ovulation, Estrogen drops off while Progesterone stays elevated until about midway through the Luteal phase. There is a lot of fluctuation in your hormone levels during the Luteal phase. As a sports medicine provider, the hormone I am most concerned with is Estrogen as higher Estrogen levels have been linked to an increase in the potential for injury.
How This Pairs with Training:
The big picture is that changes in our hormone levels also correspond to changes in our affect and our energy levels, I know we have all felt this before. Additionally, these hormone fluctuations can have an effect on performance markers such as VO2max and heart rate. These hormonal fluctuations can also inhibit your body’s ability to recover efficiently. If you start to track your cycle and understand these fluctuations, you may better be able to predict your energy levels and capacity for working out/recovery. This is the start to cycle syncing.
Sports scientists have spent time studying the effects of different styles of workouts during the different phases of menstrual cycles. As a result, there are different workouts that are recommended during different times within your cycle in order to leverage your efforts in the gym, while also protecting your body from injury. Matching optimal workouts with your menstrual phases is the basis of cycle syncing.
During your period, since your hormone levels are decreased, as is your energy, this is a time when more restorative movements are suggested. Maybe swap your run for a walk or prioritize yoga classes over HIIT classes. If weightlifting is your thing, this may not be a time to go for a maximal effort lift. Conversely, during the Ovulation phase and parts of the Luteal phase, your energy levels should be high, so these are great times during your cycle to make sure you break a sweat, go for a PR, or maybe get an extra day at the gym. As you approach the end of the Luteal phase, you may want to dial it back a bit as your hormone levels start to decrease prior to the start of your next cycle.
One thing to be cautious about is that, as I mentioned above, women are more prone to injury during times of elevated Estrogen levels. Be sure to practice good warm-up strategies before pushing it at the gym and of course, listen to your body. Just because the science says to go hard during ovulation and luteal phases, if that doesn’t feel right to your body, listen.
Where to Start:
Information overload, am I right? If that’s you it is ok. Just take a step back and focus on learning. When you feel like you have a good understanding, then you can start implementing. However, you cannot implement cycle synching if you do not yet have an understanding of your own cycle. After all, we are all unique. A fairly easy way to start to track your cycle is by using a tracking app. I personally use an app called “Life”, but there are a few good ones out there. The Apple Health app also has a portion for cycle tracking, if that works for you. Otherwise, a good old fashion calendar works well too.
Start by tracking your next period. The first day of your period should be marked as “Day 1”. Be sure to mark the end of your menstruation phase. The next milestone to come along is ovulation, typically this is around Day 14, but that can vary slightly. Signals that you are ovulating are slight increases in your body temperature or thickening of your vaginal discharge. If you are really intrigued or want to be very precise, there are also ovulation tracking kits available online or in the family planning section of most retailers. After ovulation you are into the Luteal phase, the only benchmark you need here is the day before your next period, since that makes the end of your cycle and therefore the total length of your own personal cycle.
Track this for a few months, just so you start you recognize where you are in your cycle. Also, this is a good way to see how regular your cycle is. As you start to track physical changes, you may also want to add in mood tracking as that can be indicative of hormone fluctuation. Once you feel familiar with your cycle and can identify which phases you are in, start modifying your workout plan accordingly. Once you have implemented changes to your workout routine, you are officially cycle-syncing. Continue to track how you feel during workouts and how well you recover, that way you know if cycle-syncing is appropriate for you!
Just as there are ways to train more appropriately with your cycle in mind, the same methodology can be applied to other areas of wellness, like diet or stress management. If you would like more information on how to fuel your body effectively throughout your cycle, check out this article.
One prominent leader in the world of women’s hormonal health and understanding the impact of your cycle is Alisa Vitti, check out her website here.
I know that this information doesn’t apply to my entire audience, but please share it with a woman in your life as it can help to optimize training and prevent injury!