With countless media platforms and increasingly accessible means of socialization, we live in an age that’s truly encouraging individuals to take advantage of their first amendment right to spark discourse on highly stigmatized topics. Yet, one such subject that continues to remain fairly hush-hush is menstruation. As women, many of us have experienced the awkward conversational pauses and influx of rash comments that seem to accompany our periods. Living under heightened scrutiny and routinely compared to their male counterparts, it’s no surprise that professional female athletes have a tendency to leave the topic of menstruation out of the conversation when discussing training and competing. As easy as it might be to “just ignore” them, periods are a healthy, natural, and essential process that needs to be normalized. Olympic bronze medalist Fu Yuanhui laid the foundation for a female revolution when, after her beautiful backstroke finish at the 2016 games, she explained to a reporter that being on her period may have adversely impacted her performance. Far from a simple excuse, Yuanhui was shedding light on the truth. Our strength, endurance, and hormonal balances are all prone to marked changes during that time of month. If an Olympic swimmer obliterated much of her competition while on her period, what does that mean for the rest of us? Well, every woman experiences acute differences in her hormonal levels during menstruation and responses to these are experienced on a spectrum. Some women are capable of adhering to their resistance training protocols while others need to simplify their movements, opting for upward dog and a heating pad. No matter what your menstrual experience entails, we’re here to help you navigate the waters (no pun intended) of Mother Nature’s monthly gift.
Is it your period, or could it be PMS?
We’re familiar with what it means to be on our periods, but what’s far less understood is how to differentiate a typical cycle from one marked by premenstrual syndrome or PMS. During the time of a woman’s period, it’s normal to experience cramping, bloating, breast tenderness, and mood changes. PMS, however, is a condition characterized by additional psychological and physiological symptoms. PMS begins after ovulation and ends at the start of the period. It’s often accompanied by irritability, depression, fatigue, acne, and appetite changes in addition to the normal period symptoms already mentioned. And while the term PMS is thrown around fairly causally, true cases only affect some 20 to 30 percent of women. For those who do receive a diagnosis, the symptomatology tends to be severe. If you think you may be experiencing PMS, make an appointment with a trusted healthcare provider so you can explore your options for managing the discomfort and read on for additional tips on caring for yourself throughout your cycle.
Should you exercise?
It’s okay to cut yourself a break if you’re feeling completely zonked. Remember that taking a stroll or slipping into a warm bath with essential oil–infused Epsom salts is also self-care. Taking a rest day (or two) is completely warranted if your headache and cramps have you hiding under the covers of your cozy bed. These rest days are especially important during the second half of your cycle (days 15 to 28), which is formally known as the luteal phase. During this time, your body is gearing up for another round of menstruation. An increase in progesterone (which can actually have a depressive effect on the brain!) and decrease in performance means that a staycation with an endless supply of peppermint tea could be exactly what you’re needing. However, that being said, exercising during your period does offer a range of benefits. Getting your body moving can actually help alleviate many characteristic and frustrating symptoms of menstruation. Sweating can actually decrease bothersome water retention and bloating while shuttling some much-desired endorphins throughout your tired body. Maintaining a consistent exercise routine also helps lessen the cramping and can decrease the flow of your period. Lauren Streicher, a gynecologist and associate clinical professor at Northwestern University, shared that there’s no reason to ditch the gym entirely. If our bodies are up for it, we can safely do the same forms of exercise during our periods that we do every other day and can look to Yuanhui for a little inspiration.
Let’s get you moving.
While it may seem counterintuitive to hit the weights, training during the first half of your cycle (days 1 to 13) and taking full advantage of your body’s follicular phase (which starts on the first day of your period and ends whenever you ovulate) can have major perks. Our periods mark the first day of our cycles, so keep in mind that, yes, we’re about to get you thinking about heading to the gym during your monthly flow. In fact, a Swedish study found that strength-training during this timeframe yields greater power, strength, and muscle gain when compared to strength-training during any other phase of our cycles, which means lifting and pressing during your period and the time immediately following it can be pivotal in helping you reach your fitness goals. It may also be the best time to knock out a few high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions (and try our at-home HIIT videos!) Hormones are low during a woman’s period, which enables our muscles to access carbohydrate stores more easily. Utilizing similar bioenergetic mechanisms as those seen in strength training, the change in hormones helps make quick fuel more accessible for metabolic breakdown—which in turn ramps up the intensity of short workouts. The lowered hormones during this time also help decrease the body’s natural temperature. As a result, this extends the time it takes to reach heat exhaustion and complete fatigue. Not only can we bust out an impressive cardio session—we might even be able to maintain that high level of intensity for a longer period of time. Day one of your cycle might be the perfect time to take the plunge and drop in to your local boxing studio or CrossFit. Go on, show them what you’ve got.
Know when to go slow and easy.
As you make it through ovulation and return to the second half of your menstrual cycle, you may notice yourself getting thrown back into a bit of a funk. Naturally, your energy will wane with the decrease in estrogen. Reward yourself for a killer two weeks, and gradually transition into a slightly less intense workout regimen. Attempting a new squat PR may not be in the books. Instead, use the boost in stamina this week and gear up for some endurance workouts. Now is the time to lace up your shoes and hit the asphalt for a nice long run along the boardwalk. If you’re aching to hop back onto the Reformer, pilates is another great choice. During the final week of your cycle, you may once again crave the comfort of your warm bed. But, if you can tap into the reserves and push through the exasperation, your body will thank you for the sweat sesh. Opt for gentle exercises that still get your heart rate revving. Think power vinyasa and heated ashtanga. Pairing that movement with some mindful time on the mat is the ideal prescription. Despite the discomfort and dread you might experience, remember to show your body loving-kindness for staying on top of these natural processes and maintaining your womanly wellness. Our periods should be treated with respect, considering they’re a built-in mechanism for cleansing and beginning anew. If we’re willing to celebrate the moon, why not celebrate our ovaries while we’re at it?
How to harmonize our diets and flows.
During Mother Nature’s visit, we may find ourselves experiencing a plethora of cravings that threaten to throw us out of our healthy groove. As we know, wellness requires a blend of exercise and nutrition. Let’s talk about how to stay on top of the latter when that pint of ice cream is screaming your name. As your hormones fluctuate throughout the month, your training protocol isn’t alone in experiencing the effects. Your dietary needs shift as well! Here are a few pieces of advice to help you continue to nourish your body and counteract the period pangs… During the week of menstruation, reach for healthy fats and an abundance of root vegetables. According to Alisa Vitti, holistic health coach and author of WomanCode, this is the best time for a boost in fatty acids. These will help buffer the changes in hormones and stabilize your mood. Salmon, avocado, raw almonds, and chia seeds are all wonderful add-ins. Many nuts and seeds are high in vitamin E, which can help prevent those debilitating menstrual migraines. Incorporating root veggies gives your body a boost of vitamin A, which, according to Vitti, can help the liver process fluctuating estrogen levels. Sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, and beets are all potent players here. If you’re interested in learning more about syncing your diet with your menstrual cycle, consider investing some time in educating yourself about balancing female hormones naturally. As we set the intention to continue honoring our bodies with compassionate exercise, we must do the same with our diets. Keep in mind that this is not about restriction. Instead, these changes are centered on sustainability and optimizing your body’s unique month-long process. If you need a piece of dark chocolate, go ahead. Just pair it with some cinnamon-dusted squash instead of finishing the entire bar. For most of us, periods are unavoidable. Take these tips and start to listen closely to your body. Trust that your cycles are for your benefit—cramps included.