Note from GGS: This is the first in a series from Jonathon Mummert about the menstrual cycle and how it affects your training—a topic on which we get a lot of questions.
The menstrual cycle has been blamed for everything from uncontrollable chocolate cravings to shoplifting. PMS has even been used successfully by lawyers to seek lesser penalties or even aquittals in murder cases1. It has been well understood for some time that the hormonal shifts a woman experiences throughout her menstrual cycle can have a major impact on memory, sex-drive, hunger, energy levels, and mood...just to name a few.
If the menstrual cycle can have such an impact on every day life, it would only make sense that it will also effect your training, at least to some extent.
The luteal phase is the culprit for most of the extremes you might experience in your cycle.
It is during the mid and late luteal phases that many women will notice an increase in appetite as well as mood swings, and a lack of motivation for working out. This is the time when progesterone reaches its peak and then progesterone and estradiol both drastically drop right before menstruation begins. The rapid change in hormones is believed to be the main culprit in increased hunger and sudden changes in mood. The rise in progesterone is also believed to be the reason for the increased calories burned and the rise in core temperature 5-8 days before menstruation2.
The first thing to keep in mind is that with an increase in core temperature comes the potential for over heating sooner. Although a study on endurance rowers3 showed no effect on performance during the luteal phase, it is important to note that another study found the time to fatigue was reduced when training in hot, humid conditions4.
The endurance rowers did not test for the effect of heat but did show the luteal phase to have no significantly negative effect on training. The increase in core temperature should not have a negative effect on your training unless you are out in the extreme heat and humidity. Not only will you experience an increase in core temperatures, but you will also experience an increase in calories burned. This will be anywhere from 90-280 extra calories per day and some have even used this as a way to cut out a few more calories to help with fat loss.
While this might work for some, it is a good idea to keep in mind that the cravings you might experience during this time can become overwhelming and could result in binge eating. Those who suffer from depression or PMS should also note that your cravings might actually be more intense5 and you may be better off purposefully adding a small meal or snack to these days to avoid excessive caloric intake.
The most important thing is to remember your dietary goals and set a plan in place that will help you stick to them.
Cravings and mood swings are a common side-effect of the falling progesterone and estradiol in the later part of the luteal phase. Much of this could be from a combination of hormone fluctuations accompanied by changes in blood sugar which might spur appetite and cause sudden changes in mood. To help with these changes and to offset the caloric expenditure, it might be a good idea to eat an extra serving of fruit or two during this time to help with maintaining blood sugar levels and avoid sudden drops in the middle of a meeting with your boss.
Magnesium has also been suggested to help with controlling cravings for chocolate. One study showed that women who consumed magnesium before going to bed noticed a decline in their cravings for chocolate throughout the day. Magnesium is the second most common deficiency in the first world6 so there is a pretty good chance that you might be needing a little more in your diet. Only supplement if you are not able to reach the recommended daily values with diet alone. A great source for magnesium, as well as iron, is spinach.
Oh yeah, and don't be too afraid to enjoy some chocolate (dark, preferably) every now and then. Just make sure your cravings don't lead to an all-out binge.
Vitamin D should also be considered if you are having a difficult time with mood swings and a lack of motivation. Vitamin D is an essential vitamin and can either be obtained through diet or exposure to the sun. If you work a lot indoors and do not regularly drink milk, then you are probably not getting enough throughout the day.
“Vitamin D is an essential vitamin known as the sunlight vitamin, due to the synthesis that occurs in the skin from the sun's radiation. It provides benefits for bone structure support, mood state, and much more.”7
It is very important that you at least meet the daily recommendations for Vitamin D and this could also help your overall mood as well as controlling sudden shifts.
During the luteal phase a woman will experience an increase and then sudden fall in progesterone and estradiol and this is believed to cause a rise in core temperature (resulting in more calories being burned), cravings, sudden mood fluctuations, and loss of motivation. A carefully thought out diet during this time can help alleviate some of the effects experienced during this phase by insuring your body has what it needs to function at its best.
Also, it is important to remember that you should consult with your doctor or registered dietician before starting any type of new supplement routine. This article is written to help you better understand the potential effects of the luteal phase on you and your training while making suggestions as to how to potentially alleviate or get rid of some of the less desired effects.
Remember, the only thing better than training hard is training smart!
As I said earlier, I have concentrated mainly on the effects of the luteal phase in this article. Stay tuned because I will follow this up with a few suggestions on how you can optimize your training routine by training more efficiently around your cycle.
Whether you are lucky enough to experience little to no noticeable changes during your menstrual cycle or you experience almost crippling effects, I will provide a few suggestions that might just help you to take your training to the next level.
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