When it comes to training women, hormones matter. It does for guys as well but in very different and more long-term ways. Today we are going to focus on what women can do to optimize their health and fitness during a naturally changing hormone environment.
Hormones affect every aspect of how we feel, how we perform, how we love, how we move, our anger, our happiness and virtually all things good and bad. They permeate every part of our being making otherwise good days bad and bad days survivable. The average consumer is being educated by more and more articles, documentaries and commercials on everything from depression and fatigue to weight gain and sleep. The pharmaceutical industry has seen to it that we understand that hormonal imbalance can affect us negatively and that they have a drug to address the problem. But if we know that these chemicals have such a strong affect on us why don’t we modify and adapt our lives around them like we do with every other stressor we encounter in our daily environment? We need to learn how to make hormones work for us.
For men, negative hormonal changes are more long-term and chronic. For women they are more acute and cyclical and most importantly purposeful. That being said negative hormonal imbalances even natural and purposeful ones can result in weight gain, disruptive health patterns such as inflammatory pain or fatigue, slow metabolism or lack of motivation making everything in our daily lives more difficult let alone trying to exercise regularly.
We know that hormones can make our health better or worse, our ability to function at a high level more or less likely and our ability to perform physical tasks either harder or easier. So why don’t we understand that the natural changes in hormonal cycles specifically in women necessitates different patterns of how we should approach nutrition and exercise?
Unlike men, women go through a natural hormonal cycle every 28 days that changes their physical chemistry and as such must be adapted to no differently than how we adapt to other environmental variables on a daily basis. This means that nutritional needs and physical movement should ebb and flow to best match the chemical changes than are normal and necessary for good health in females.
Lets take a look at a typical cycle and discuss changes in how women may eat and move to best accommodate and take advantage of maintaining optimal health on an ongoing basis.
Assessments, screens, testing and baselines are best to perform during this phase. This is a good time to keep an eye on your weight, test your body composition or see just how much strength or endurance you are capable of. Lift harder, heavier and faster. Punch and kick more. Do a double session. This is a good time to train your sprints.
In short this is your best phase to make your greatest physical gains. Your most recent menstrual period has ended and for many, just not feeling pain, bloating or discomfort is equivalent to feeling good. But the reality is that the female body is at its most prime and balanced during this phase and can process and adapt to stressors better than any other time.
This is a time when your energy levels should be at their best and your strength and endurance is able to make its greatest gains. These are the days in which you should be pushing the hardest and enjoying your new personal best performances. To feed this high energy phase the body is adapting rapidly and is at its most insulin sensitive phase making you most capable of handling higher intakes of carbohydrates (sugars). That doesn’t mean you can eat cake and cookies and not worry about weight gain, it means that this is the best time to eat your fruits, vegetables, starches and grains. Barring digestive enzyme issues or allergies, your body should utilize glucose for muscle energy better than at any other time during your cycle and your muscles should be primed to make gains.
Although this phase only lasts a few days it remains a strong part of your health cycle and in some cases may be when you feel most good about yourself making healthy eating and physical activity easier and more fun. In fact sometimes you may get overzealous during this period and attempt some physical feats that push the edge increasing the risk for injury. So make the most of this time period but don’t go past intelligent limits.
Nutritionally the body is working a bit of overtime during ovulation and metabolism can be a bit higher than normal so this is a good time to feed your workouts with 100-200 more calories per day.
Get ready because things are about to change for most women. For many this is the onset of Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS). The term strikes fear in the eyes of many as this term has been associated with the worst changes of the cycle that can effect weight, digestion, water retention, physical pain, inflammation, hot flashes, mood, fatigue… At this point we need to separate out those that have severe PMS from those who barely notice the changes. That being said, don’t assume this doesn’t affect you as all women are going through hormonal changes that will likely dictate some changes to your nutritional and physical movement patterns no matter what your personal feeling are during this phase. The manifestation of chemical changes can be very low grade and almost subliminal but if you look hard they are probably apparent.
This is a good time to avoid taking assessments, perform movement screens or try to make new personal records during this time. Pro tip: On the other hand if you are so inclined to stack the deck, taking assessments at this time will almost insure they improve if you schedule your next one during the Follicular Phase. Otherwise, stop weighing yourself daily, and don’t panic over a few pounds as the body will fluctuate more extremely during this phase.
During this phase the body is not able to handle stress and adapt to it as well as it can during the early phases of the menstrual cycle. This makes it more important to keep nutritional intake at a high quality level and physical activity as lower intensities. Additionally your perception of your physical body, confidence and overall brain chemicals will not be at their most optimal either. Give yourself some dispensation knowing the world hasn’t changed overnight, only your chemistry and it will return to normal levels again. Until then there are a few things you can do to lessen the negative affects and optimize this phase of your cycle.
Nutritionally this is a good time to increase proteins, healthy fats and decrease carbohydrates (sugars) realizing that you may experience some cravings for less healthy foods. If you focus on healthier foods on most days then you can give in to some cravings during this phase when you are really feeling the need and not feel guilty about a few small indulgences. Reduce sodium intake, increase hydration.
From a workout perspective, you should be reducing the weights, practicing more technique and experimenting with mind-body programs such as Yoga or Tai Chi. If you are a kick-boxing fan, think more shadowboxing and less heavy bag work. Crossfitters should be practicing more technique and active recovery workouts. If there is a day where you are feeling particularly good then push it a bit but try to stay at 85% or less of your typical upper limits and most days you should be at 65% or less. This is a good time to de-load.
Well the time has arrived and you likely survived relatively unscathed but don’t think the chemical soup is over yet. That being said, it is returning to normal and on its way to your best stages again. Unfortunately for many women who may have seen a slight uptick in their metabolism, you may see it start to decrease and return to normal. The good news is that the cravings also begin to subside making energy reduction a bit easier. If your caloric intake has risen 100-200 calories then mid-period is a good time to start reducing intake back to normal again. You will find your discipline, will-power and confidence returning to its most optimal point again making this process easier.
This is a good point to start planning your next big push stage that will take you further along your path to achieving your health and fitness goals. For some reason potentially related to a lack of information and training in the health and fitness industry, very few coaches and clients make changes around a women’s natural cycle unlike other lifecycle patterns that we learn to work around. This might be due to reluctance to share this information with your coach but I have found that the right coach is a personal confidant and a health professional in every sense of the word and is there to help you achieve optimal health. If you want results then start adapting to your personal environment just like you adpat to your surroundings each and every day and not only will you enjoy your path to health and fitness better but you should achieve better results as well.