Anyone who’s ever had a period knows that the accompanying mood swings, fatigue, and cramps can be rough. Of course, everyone is different, and your mileage may vary, but if you do suffer from severe symptoms, it can be hard to drag yourself off the couch for literally any reason – including your workout.
However, it’s well-known that exercise can actually improve those annoying cramps you get during your period. But if you’re sitting there thinking, “HIIT class? No thanks!” hear me out: The key to both feeling a little better and optimising your workout may simply be paying attention to your cycle—and making a few strategic tweaks to the way you exercise during certain weeks.
Bio 101: what’s happening during your cycle
Every month, your body starts prepping for the baby it thinks you’re going to have by developing a new uterine lining for the fertilised egg to hang out in. In the end, if you’re not pregnant, your body has to get rid of that lining.
Day one of your cycle begins with your period, when your hormones “abruptly drop” and your body starts secreting prostaglandins, a substance that makes your uterus contract, Heather Bartos, an ob-gyn based in Texas, explains. At this point, your “estrogen and progesterone levels are next to nothing,” and your uterus is busy sloughing off its lining, she adds. Common symptoms at this point include fatigue, cramps, headaches, bloating, and for some, a general feeling of malaise.
Next is the follicular phase. According to Healthline, there’s some overlap between this phase and your period, because it actually starts on the first day of your period and ends when you ovulate—which is the next phase.
Ovulation varies from person to person, but if you have a 28-day cycle, ovulation generally takes place around day 14.
Lastly, we’ve got the luteal phase. This takes place after ovulation (it ends the first day of your period and can be anywhere from 10 to 17 days). You can thank your body’s rise in progesterone for any bloating, breast tenderness, or constipation you feel that week, according to Dr. Bartos.
Should you adjust your workouts?
Why does all this matter? Because being aware of how you feel throughout your cycle can tune you in to when you’re feeling your best and might want to go a little harder on your normal sweat sesh—or conversely, when you might want to swap your normal CrossFit for a more gentle yoga class (or even whether you want to skip your workout entirely).
The best workouts for every stage of your cycle
The week of your period
Thanks to your low levels of hormones, you may feel sapped of energy those first couple of days of your period, but medical experts agree that there’s no reason to skip your workout; in fact, most encourage it, because of the aforementioned benefits. Still, you may want to focus on maintaining your normal routine, not going HAM. Cramps so bad you just can’t focus? Try yoga or Pilates, which can mitigate symptoms, suggests Dr. Tanuj Palvia, M.D., a spine and sports medicine specialist at Brooklyn-based wellness center Physio Logic.
The follicular phase
This is the time to amp up your workout: Because your hormone levels, including testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone, are climbing back up, you’ll probably feel great—energetic, horny, super focused and clear-eyed, and ready to get shit done. This is the perfect time to hit the heavy weights, CrossFit, high-intensity interval training, or simply go an extra couple of miles in your normal running or cycling routine.
“I have a lot of friends who do ballet, and they always say that the best time for them to be en-pointe, when they had the best balance, is the first two weeks of their cycle,” Dr. Bartos says.
A small 2016 study from Umea University, in Sweden supports that assertion: Researchers divided 59 women into two groups. The first did resistance training five days a week during the first two weeks of their cycle; the second group underwent the same workout but in the last two weeks of their cycle. The results? The first group could jump higher and saw larger muscle mass gains than the second one. A 2014 study found similar results.
The week or two before your period
Dr. Palvia says he often recommends to patients who suffer from severe PMS that they “back off anything strenuous” they’re doing during the luteal phase: “You might have a loss of energy, a mood decline, increased fatigue, and an increased appetite.” Your body temperature also rises during that time, he adds, because it’s prepping for another period.
Of course, a low-key workout may look one way for you and another for your roommate. Dr. Palvia works with a lot of athletes for whom running five or 16km a day may still be doable even when they don’t feel at their best. “Everyone is different,” he says. “You know what your normal intensity levels are.”
If you’re someone who works out pretty intensely every day but start to feel like a towel that’s been wrung out too many times by the time the week before your period starts (just me?), yoga may be a good option. Even the more demanding yoga practices, such as Ashtanga or Bikram, emphasise turning inward and focusing on your mind and body, meaning you’ll not only work up a good sweat, but probably end the class feeling a little more relaxed and rejuvenated than when you came in.
If you’re new to exercise or don’t work out every day, you might benefit from a brisk walk or a more gentle, restorative yoga class. And if you want to take a complete break from your workout because you’re feeling a little off-balance, cranky, bloated, or tired? Go for it.
What if you’re on birth control?
Great question! The answer is complicated. Non-hormonal forms of BC shouldn’t impact your cycle in the long run. However, birth control of any kind can throw your body a little out of whack for the first few months as you adjust—it’s not uncommon for women who switch from the pill to the copper Paragard to experience heavy bleeding for the first three to six months, for example, and that could certainly have an impact on whether you want to work out and what kinds of workouts you feel like doing.
Hormonal birth control is a little trickier. Anecdotally, some people have reported that they have a harder time gaining muscle on the pill, and a 2009 study made headlines when it suggested that oral contraceptives can, in fact, impair muscle gains in women. However, it was criticised for its small sample size, and ABC pointed out at the time that the study showed no impact on workout performance. So, for example, while it’s possible you may not gain as much muscle mass during your follicular phase as someone who’s not on hormonal birth control, there’s just not enough research to say definitively one way or the other whether birth control impacts your workout.
On the flip side, because the pill prevents ovulation, it also stops your hormones from dipping so dramatically, which is why many people take the pill to combat severe PMS. Not experiencing PMS may make it easier for you to push through your workout than for someone who’s not on BC.
The bottom line
Ultimately, it comes down to knowing yourself, something that both Dr. Bartos and Dr. Palvia stress. You know your body best! If you’re just not feeling your workout at any point, or you’re worried about injuring yourself, don’t be afraid to give yourself a break. As Dr. Bartos says, “Don’t push past what your body needs.”