If you’re someone who menstruates, you’ve likely heard different and possibly contradictory ideas about how and when you should exercise during your menstrual cycle.
While much of the advice focuses on whether or not you should exercise during your period, emerging research shows that hormonal fluctuations throughout the whole menstrual cycle can have a range of effects on energy levels and exercise performance — with particular forms of exercise that may be better suited to your energy levels and hormones at each stage of your cycle.
When scheduling your workouts, it’s worth taking into account where you are in your cycle and how this might affect your training. The average menstrual cycle lasts for 28 days and then repeats, and there are four main phases to your cycle. While the length of each phase can vary from person to person, this guide can help you choose different styles of training for every phase of your menstrual cycle — and could actually help boost your performance.
It’s that time of the month — the menstrual phase. This is when you’re menstruating, or when you’re actually on your period. But what actually is happening in your body during your period, and how can you best support your body while menstruating?
During the menstrual phase, your uterus is shedding the lining it has built up throughout the month. This will typically be days 1 to 7 of your cycle. At the very beginning of your period, your progesterone and oestrogen levels will be at their lowest, which along with the loss of blood may cause you to feel depleted of energy. As your period goes on, these hormone levels will gradually increase.
If you experience feeling fatigue during the early days of your period, you may not necessarily feel like doing much intense exercise. However, if you feel physically able, there is no medical reason to not exercise during the menstrual phase of your period.
You have likely heard mixed messages about how you should exercise, or if you should exercise at all while menstruating.
According to a 2016 study by Tokoha University in Japan, published in The Journal of Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation, strenuous exercise (above 75 percent of anaerobic capacity) during the menstrual phase has the potential to create an inflammatory reaction in sedentary women. This study had a small sample size, so more research is needed to investigate the link between exercise, the menstrual cycle and inflammation.
You may have also heard that exercise can help to ease dysmenorrhea — also known as period pain. There is some evidence to suggest that ongoing exercise — that is, not just during the menstrual phase but on an ongoing basis — could be able to help decrease period pain.
A 2016 study from Kongyang University in Korea, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that following a yoga class for just 60 minutes once per week, for 12 weeks helped reduce menstrual cramps and distress in a group of undergraduate nursing students. This study had a small sample size, so more research is needed to determine the full extent of the benefits of exercise for people who experience dysmenorrhea.
So how should you exercise during the menstrual phase? Ultimately it is up to you, and your energy levels during your period. But if you do choose to exercise during your period, it may be a good idea to reduce the intensity of your workouts due to the likelihood of decreased energy. Here are some suggestions for exercise you could do during the menstrual phase.
If a full, rigorous workout doesn’t sound right for you during your period, then doing some relaxing yoga poses can be a great way to release tension and stress, and calm down your mind and body. Asanas such as child’s pose, reclined spinal twist, and cat-cow are all poses that can help to relieve tension in your lower back and pelvis.
Walking is an incredibly beneficial form of exercise. During the menstrual phase it’s likely a good idea to reduce the intensity of your cardio by going for a long walk, or maybe a slower-paced jog. Walking is a great recovery workout idea you can easily do to keep fit while on your period.
You can continue to do strength training during the menstrual phase of your period, but at this stage it might be wise to reduce the weights of your workout. Due to increased fatigue, the menstrual phase is not the time to push yourself too hard — so try sticking to where you’re currently at or even taking it a little easier than usual.
Your period is over — and you’re in the follicular phase of your menstrual cycle. Let’s take a look at how you can best exercise during this phase of the month.
The follicular phase actually begins on the first day of your period, and continues until the beginning of ovulation. This is typically days 1 to 11 of your menstrual cycle. During the follicular phase, your body creates a hormone known as follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This hormone signals to the ovaries to create eggs for the ovulation phase, each of which is housed inside a “follicle”. After menstruation is over your oestrogen levels get a big boost as your body prepares to release an egg — which is usually associated with increased energy.
During the follicular phase is a good time to make use of your increased energy to challenge yourself, as well as trying new things in your exercise routine.
Whether you already practice HIIT as part of your regular workout routine or it’s entirely new for you, HIIT workouts are a great way to exercise with increased energy levels. HIIT is quick, fun, and has the physical benefits of increasing your VO2max, as well as continuing to burn energy up to 48-72 hours after the workout is done.
Another great way to let out your energy and try something new? Use your extra energy to build up overall full-body strength and endurance with boxing.
During your follicular phase when energy is high, you may like to try pushing yourself a little more with strength training. This could mean challenging yourself with heavier weights or trying push-ups on your toes instead of on your knees. If you’re new to strength training, you can start with some bodyweight exercises to build up your confidence.
The ovulation phase of your cycle is just after the follicular phase, typically for 3 to 5 days between the follicular and luteal phase — days 12 to 19 of your cycle. During this phase, you’ll still have high levels of oestrogen from the increase during the follicular phase, while also having increased levels of luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone. LH is what triggers the body to start ovulating.
Ovulation, like the follicular phase, will most likely be a high-energy time. If that’s the case, you can capitalise on this by performing high-energy workouts.
For the most part, you can continue to perform high-intensity exercises that you were doing during the follicular phase. You might also like to try running, or switch up the style of cardio you do — if you’ve been doing Tabata-style HIIT, why not mix it up and try circuit training instead?
The last phase of your menstrual cycle — before menstruation — is the luteal phase. This typically lasts 14 days, between days 20-28. During the first part of the luteal phase, you’ll likely still have energy from ovulation, which will begin to decline the closer you get to menstruation.
The luteal phase is characterised by a peak in progesterone levels — which can make some people feel drowsy. One 2003 review of the research by the University of Sydney in Australia, published in Sports Medicine, suggested that for women undertaking prolonged endurance training, the mid-luteal cycle phase is associated with increased cardiovascular strain and decreased time to exhaustion in hot conditions, most likely due to an increase in body temperature at this part of the cycle. This is a consideration for women undertaking endurance training or planning races, particularly in hot, humid conditions.
An increase in core body temperature during the luteal phase resulting in impaired running economy (performance) was also observed by a small 2020 study, published in Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness by St Mary’s University in the UK. This does not mean that you shouldn’t run or do exercise during the luteal phase, but that it may be more difficult than usual, or during other phases of your cycle.
During the luteal phase, you can absolutely continue with your workouts as usual, but you may experience some more difficulty with completing them with the same intensity. Here are some exercises you might like to try during the luteal phase of your menstrual cycle.
A 2019 study by the KM Patel Institute of Physiotherapy and Ananya Physiotherapy and Nutrition Centre in India, published in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion, studied 72 participants throughout a month, comparing the benefits of aerobic exercise to yoga for relieving premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms. Those who did yoga were found to have more significant reductions in PMS symptoms compared to those who did aerobic exercise, although aerobic exercise was still found to be effective in reducing PMS symptoms.
During the luteal phase when you are about to get your period and energy levels may be lower, this is a great time to practice yoga or Pilates — both of which gently increase overall strength while also releasing muscle tension. If you’re new to yoga, you can start with this guide to yoga for beginners.
In the same 2019 study, aerobic exercise was also found to be beneficial for relieving PMS symptoms when performed three times a week for 12 weeks. During the luteal phase, you may like to try low-intensity cardio training: this could be going for a long walk, a few laps of swimming in the ocean or pool or going for a bike ride.
A small 2017 observational study by Saarland University in Germany, published in PLoS One, found that during the mid-luteal cycle phase, there was a reduction in maximal endurance performance for sub-elite female soccer players. Although more research is needed to validate these findings, it is possible the findings indicate that pushing yourself to your absolute maximum cardio effort for a sustained period of time might not be possible during this phase — so try opting for low-intensity aerobic exercise instead.
To know which phase of your cycle you are in, it’s important to track your period. You can do this the old-fashioned way by using a calendar and mapping out when you have your period and your symptoms or use a period tracking app.
Tracking your cycle can allow you to become more familiar with how your unique cycle works, and how the different phases of your cycle influence your energy levels, mood, and exercise performance.
This will really depend on how you are feeling throughout the different stages of your cycle, and the type of training that you prefer to do.
A 2003 literature review by the University of Sydney, Australia, published in Sports Medicine, found that VO2max — which stands for maximal oxygen consumption and is an indicator of aerobic endurance and fitness — is not affected by the menstrual cycle. This may indicate that optimal performance can be achieved for low-intensity steady-state exercise, strength training and even high-intensity exercise of short duration at any stage of the menstrual cycle.
While there is scientific evidence to show that your hormones can affect your exercise performance during different menstrual phases, this doesn’t mean that there is a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to exercising.
You might find that you have lots of energy during your period or even in the mid-luteal phase. If that’s the case, you don’t need to adjust your training around your cycle.
Tracking your period is a great way to stay on top of your health and understand your hormonal fluctuations, but it doesn’t need to be the ultimate determinant of what exercise you do. Do what feels right for you, and remember that any kind of exercise — even if it’s just a stretching session — and practising healthy habits are great for your health in the long run.