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Females in Fitness: What you should know across your cycle

Something that is not talked about enough with female athletes is how to work with your body and cycle rather than against it. The research on women in sports is way behind compared to men, however it is starting to get there. As a female athlete myself, I love hearing the increase in advocacy for female specific research, and love seeing more and more women wanting to learn about their bodies.

This post today is going to talk about a brief overview of the cycle with training and nutrition requirements.

The Cycle:

Women are typically shown a 28 day cycle as per the graph from Womens Health Network.

This is a neat overview, however it is important to note that the healthy range for a cycle length is 21-35 days with the healthy period length being 4-7 days. Anything outside that variation, or those experiencing 'skipped' periods should see a GP.

The cycle is broken into 2 phases; the follicular phase and the luteal phase.

The Follicular Phase:

  • Phase starts with your period and ends with ovulation.

  • The body is shedding the old lining and then prepares for ovulation.

The Luteal Phase:

  • Phase starts at ovulation and ends either on conception of pregnancy or if not pregnant when the period starts.

  • Body is adding new lining to prepare the egg for conception.

  • Mid-luteal phase, if not pregnant, the body prepares to shed the lining.


Pre-menstrual symptoms can occur in the week before the period starts.

You may experience in increase in core body temperature, cramping, increased hunger levels, fatigue, nausea, disrupted sleep, poor concentration and more.

Training across your period:

As much as I wanted to believe there is a right way to train across the period that will optimise the body function, the research just isn't there yet.

What it does seem to point to is that women are very individual in the way they experience symptoms across the cycle. There are some who are sensitive to PMS and need to reduce their training, and there are some who aren't. There are some who feel strong at certain times while others feel week.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach.

The key takeaway, monitor how you feel each day. If there is a day you feel strong, push a little more, if there is a day you want to rest, then rest or do something light.

Nutrition across your period:

Energy Expenditure:

There does seem to be a cyclical pattern of energy expenditure.

Studies report that in the week prior to your period (typically the PMS phase), energy expenditure increases. This may be a result of increased body temperature, but can also be due to the changing hormones. This increased calorie burn of the body can explain why you may feel hungrier and experience higher cravings.

Alternatively, it has been reported that in the early follicular phase (while on your period), energy expenditure dips slightly. You may find your appetite drops and your struggle to eat the same portions. This ultimately counteracts the increased intake from the week prior.

As much as you can, aim to increase your awareness of your bodies unique needs by practicing intuitive eating.

If there are days which you are hungrier and need extra food, make some room for it.

If there are days which you don't seem to have much of an appetite, don't force yourself to finish the plate.

Nutrient Requirements:

Menstruating women have a higher iron requirement than other population groups. Focus on iron rich foods such as red meats, iron-fortified cereals, whole-grains, nuts and legumes, and dark leafy vegetables.

Magnesium may be beneficial in reducing PMS symptoms. This can be found in nuts, seeds, leafy greens and dark chocolate.

A diet that is high quality and low-GI is going to feel best in the long run as it is high in supportive nutrients and can lower inflammation. Make sure you are eating your serves of fruit and veg, dairy and quality whole-grains.

Weight Fluctuations:

The menstrual cycle comes with cyclic fluctuations in body weight. There are going to be times where you feel you are holding onto water, and times where you feel leaner.

My best advice in managing the mental minefield when it comes to seeing these fluctuations is track your body weight in comparison to the phase of your cycle.

For example, if you choose to weigh yourself 2x a week, record it with your cycle. You will be able to see trends over time of when your weight will be up and when it will be down. Compare the same week and phase of your cycle to each other, not week 1 to week 2, as that won't be accurate.

The above is an example of my body weight while in a weight cut over 3 months. As you can see, there was very clear shifts in weight as that time went on, however the overall trend was downward. So I was able to see that across the cycles, each top weight was lower than the previous cycle and so was each lowest weight.

If I didn't consistently track my weight, I would have felt like I was all over the place.

So please, if you're competing in a weight category sport, track body weight consistently and learn your trends.

The Take-Aways:

Every woman is different from the next.

What works for her might not work for you.

Learn your trends, learn when you feel fatigued and when you feel strong, learn when you feel more hungry and when your appetite drops, and learn your body weight fluctuations.

This is going to create a really great foundation for any coaches you work with to have those discussions on when to push and when to dial back.

Speak with a health professional if something doesn't seem right, and see a sport dietitian or sports nutritionist to get a plan written up for your unique needs.


DOI: 10.14814/phy2.14353

Am J Clin Nutr 2016;104:15–20

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