How to Optimize Female Fitness through Phase Based Training

What is Phase Based Training and How Can it Optimize my fitness as a Woman

There are two main camps out there. 

Camp 1) Women should not train like men or lift weights because they will get bulky and look masculine. 

Camp 2) Women should be training the same as a male as the Camp 1 myth has been busted. 

Both Camps are opposite ends of the extreme and lean toward being emotionally driven more than they are scientifically driven. While I agree with Camp 2 that Camp 1’s theory is old outdated and simply not true, Camp 2’s statement is an overgeneralization creating missed opportunity to maximize the female athletes, strength, performance and physique development. 

WHY?

Because the changes in the female physiology during a full menstrual cycle influences everything from our ability to train, recover, build muscle and our nutritional needs all depending on where we are within that cycle. To better understand going forward let’s review what a textbook 28 day natural cycle looks like for explanation purpose (natural =not using any forms of birth control, and cycles can vary in length over or under 28 days)

Day 1-13 is termed the Follicular phase. Day 1 is considered the first day of bleeding during your period, and day 14 is at or right around Ovulation. I will cover this more in depth going forward but in general this is the time in which our physiology is best equipped to support and recover from more intense training. Think Heavier lifting, Intervals or HIIT. Nutritionally we can access and utilize carbohydrates better and overall have more energy.

Day 14-28 is termed the Luteal Phase. This phase starts with or right after Ovulation and ends with the first day of bleeding and or getting your period. This is the time where your physiological needs start to differ. Basically your ability to support and recover from higher intensities declines and is better suited for more endurance based or aerobic efforts .. Nutritionally, carbohydrate mobilization and storage (glycogen) is less efficient and we tend to feel more fatigued overall.

None of this is an obstacle to overcome but factors we can use to our advantage. We can use this information to program training that supports our hormonal ebb and flow and in turn those hormonal changes can support our efforts in the gym. This isn’t catering to weakness or limitations. Its co-creating and honoring the physiological intelligence that exists and is always working for us. 

Now sure you can white knuckle it, grind it out on those days your dragging (more likely to occur in your high hormone phase) and chalk it up to “how bad do you want it” and you know what? That will still elicit results. You can still achieve fat loss and muscle gain but is it optimal? It’s also true no matter the timing pushing yourself isn’t meant to be “easy” and some days will feel hard. I don’t want to subtract from the value of getting through hard days either for mental growth purposes, but there is a fine line where we can work smarter not harder. Could you be missing out on a healthier more supportive and sustainable approach? 

My non science common sense argument is this. The human body is the most intelligent complex system to ever exist. The more we work WITH that intelligence as opposed to applying brute force, the better off we are in all things.

Now am I saying you have to get super complicated and dial in every detail of your workouts to match your cycle perfectly? No, however it’s not all that difficult to start to align your training efforts with these changes. Who knows, you may find you feel better and achieve results faster. Either way, what I am saying, is that understanding these physiological changes can only Empower you to become more in touch with what your body may be trying to tell you and not rely purely on outside advice that gives zero consideration to any of it. As in “just execute the plan” and “trust the process…” This information can help you to know how to choose foods, workouts and recovery that will support YOU and your goals, and not your goals alone. 

So are ready to get your Nerd on? Yes! Cool,  No? that’s cool too just skip on down to the summary points!

Many women identify their menstrual cycle with having their period as if it’s an isolated event once a month. In truth the Period portion of your cycle is just one piece of a much larger process. It happens to get all the attention because it’s something we actually have to deal with and participate in unlike the rest of the orchestra of events at work within a healthy cycle. 

The Basics in a nutshell

Your menstrual cycle starts with the first day of your period usually lasting between 4-7 days on average. Menses aka bleeding is the endometrial lining being shed because implantation of a fertilized egg never took place. This endometrial lining is rebuilt each month in preparation to nourish and house a potential fertilized egg. Day 1-Ovulation (around day 13 or 14) is termed the Follicular Phase. This is when your body begins to prepare for pregnancy again. Throughout this phase Estrogen begins to steadily rise signaling the uterine wall to begin thickening again. FSH or Follicle stimulating hormone also begins to rise promoting follicles to mature in the ovaries to get ready for release of the egg into the fallopian tube. An Estrogen surge right before Ovulation triggers LH or Luteinizing Hormone to surge which is responsible the release of the mature egg to be fertilized. When an egg is released from the ovaries Ovulation is occurring typically on day 13 or 14. The egg starts its journey down the fallopian tube where it has the potential to be fertilized. Once Ovulation has begun a woman has transitioned into the Luteal Phase which occurs between onset of ovulation to menses (day 14-28) In this phase Estrogen comes down a little after the pre-ovulation surge but remains relatively higher than it does in the Follicular phase. The luteal phase also marks the rise in the Hormone Progesterone which increases after ovulation stimulating the uterine wall to continue thickening and prepare to receive and nourish a fertilized egg. If a fertilized egg is not received and implanted both Estrogen and Progesterone levels rapidly decline and the endometrium begins to break down to be shed as in the period. 

To start we need to understand the 4 key hormones that are involved in the female cycle. Once we have an understanding of those we will take a look at the changes they elicit physiologically and how those changes affect our training, performance, recovery and nutritional needs. This also can help us in turn to understand how to support and work with our hormones not against them.

Key Hormones

Estrogen (E2)

Has many roles and is present in both males and females. It is higher in females and contributes to female characteristics like breast tissue. 

-Its role in the female cycle is to stimulate the uterine wall to thicken and prepare for pregnancy.

-Stimulates Bone growth and maintenance by promoting activity in osteoblasts (bone building cells)

-Anabolic in that it supports muscle mass maintenance and growth. Estrogen receptors are present in all musculoskeletal tissues including muscle (Barros and Gustafsson, 2011; Luo and Kim, 2016)

-When elevated in Luteal phase Estrogen alters carbohydrate metabolism making it harder to access and utilize glycogen stores (glycogen = a stored form of carbohydrate within the muscles and liver) Why might your body do this? Remember your body is always 10 steps ahead in this case preparing for potential survival factors for a potential pregnancy. By sparing those glycogen stores it is more prepared for a potential emergency during pregnancy

-In luteal phase elevated estrogen promotes free fatty acid availability and spares carbohydrate favoring endurance efforts that are more likely to be fueled by fats.

 -Hence when estrogen is higher in the luteal phase it can make it harder to access and use energy (glycogen) within the muscle to support intense training efforts that require more glucose as a fuel source. 

-These factors also highlight the importance of ingesting adequate and faster digesting carbohydrates pre and post workout to support training efforts and recovery that are strength based activities in the high hormone phase (luteal phase)

Progesterone

-At its lowest levels in the Follicular phase and highest in the Luteal phase. 

-Progesterone’s main job is to support the growth and enrichment of the uterine lining to create a nourishing environment for possible embryo implantation. This process requires additional energy and nutrients which can stimulate appetite. ( Hence those pre-period cravings)

-Progesterone rises in Luteal phase (week 2-4) or right after Ovulation and drops rapidly at the end of the luteal phase signaling the endometrium to shed its lining if an egg does not implant. This shedding of the uterine lining is what we call the period or menses. 

-Causes a slight increase in body temperature which can affect sleep and heat tolerance during exercise. 

-Catabolic in and of itself however the catabolic effects are countered to a degree by estrogen as they normally rise and fall together. Remember progesterone wants to free up nutritional resources to build up that uterine wall and thereby stimulates amino acid release (catabolism). Regardless when progesterone is higher in the luteal phase it can make muscle protein maintenance and definitely synthesis more challenging. Making it even more vital to have your post workout nutrition dialed in and high in protein. A protein source that contains a high Leucine content is best as this amino acid plays a particularly important role in muscle protein synthesis. A high quality whey protein isolate with a high leucine content is your best bet in terms of bioavailability, convenience and speed.

Luteinizing Hormone (LH)

Main job is to stimulate Ovulation- the release of a mature egg from the ovary. 

Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH)

Main job is to stimulate growth of eggs in the ovaries to prepare for release (Ovulation). It starts increasing during the Follicular phase and reaches its peak right before ovulation after which dropping back off. It also causes the rise of Estrogen during the Luteal phase. 

How to Train with your Cycle

Follicular Phase Day 1-13 or the first two weeks of your cycle. 

This where your estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest within the cycle. 

-This is also the time when all the energy systems are more available to support high intensity training efforts as they are not being directed more heavily toward preparing for pregnancy as in the luteal phase.

-Due to lower estrogen & progesterone levels you are better able access and store glycogen to support intense efforts

-Your core body temperature is lower allowing you to offload heat better and get into deep sleep easier. Sleep is important for recovery

-In conclusion this phase is more favorable for higher intensity efforts and recovery. Think Heavy resistance training, PR’s and HIIT.

Ovulation Day 13-16 depending on the length of your cycle but for typically occurs mid cycle. 

Women often feel their best during this time energy and mood wise. This is an optimal time to train hard and recover well. 

Luteal Phase Day 14-28

This is when your Hormones Estrogen and Progesterone are relatively higher in your cycle. This can account for decreasing energy availability for intense efforts as you get further into this phase. 

-Increased core body temp can equate to faster time to fatigue depending on the ambient temperature and bio-individuality. 

-More physiological resources and nutrients overall are being directed to build tissue to prepare for a possible pregnancy

-Shifts in these hormones lead to symptoms associated with PMS, like fatigue, mood changes, cramping, bloat and a decrease in sleep quality.

-This is a time to begin to decrease intensity and focus more on aerobic activity, mobility and technique. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t weight train or push yourself but to be aware to adjust the intensity which can look like decreasing overall volume and or weight as well as incorporating more walking, light biking, hiking or yoga. This is not the best time for HIIT workouts as you get deeper into the Luteal phase. 

So what might a 4 week training split look like that flows with your cycle? 

Week 1- Day 1-7

While you are entering the low hormone phase that is favorable to higher intensity, you are also coming off of the Luteal phase and all the hormonal fluctuations that insinuate menstruation to occur. This means ease into it!

Day 1-3 Stick to what feels right for you activity wise being weight training or walking. The idea is to taper in the intensity. After day 3 of your period you are typically in a better place to start increasing intensity. Week one is about getting back to intensity.

Week 2- Day 8-14

This is your time to Hit it hard. Your body is primed to engage in more intense workouts. You will likely feel increased energy and strength during this time, making it optimal for heavy lifting, higher volumes and overall effort. If you are trying to reach a PR week two and spilling into week 3 is a great time for that. 

Week 3- Day 15-22

Because you experience ovulation at the beginning of this week you can still go pretty strong at the start of week 3. As the week evolves you want to think of tapering off intensity and start to focus more on technique, and schedule rest days. Its best to back off any HIIT at the tail end of week 3 and begin to enter a gentler approach all around.

Week 4-Day 22-28

 This is the week leading up to the start of your period and calls for more restorative activity. This a is good week to implement a De-load week if you are following a specific training block. It is still important to remain active as exercise in and of itself enhances mood, energy and overall health. That being said adding extra stress with high intensity workouts is not optimal here. You may feel your energy is more aligned with less taxing activity. This does not mean you will lose progress by doing so either. Ever hear of the phrase “slow is fast and fast is slow”. What may actually happen is that because you are supporting this natural process and not impressing added stress you continue to progress steadily.

Most importantly listen to your body! The real message here is that our bodies are always communicating with us.

I was the woman who trained for years without a second thought about my physiology as a female. If I felt like I was dragging or run down, I thought more discipline was the answer. I would apply the “how bad do you want it” mentality. I’d grind it out and feeling like I won because I stuck to the plan. Never once did I consider that my body was looking to be heard. That my training plan was out of alignment with my physiology and that I was actually working harder not smarter.

 Often we get caught up in achieving a goal, reaching a destination or following a protocol and in our pursuit dismiss that line of communication. Best of all we can reach those goals while simultaneously honoring the ebbs and flows of our physiology when we start to understand it better and honor its process with aligned activity. It’s ok to listen to your body and respect what it says even if it goes against “the plan”. Having a training plan is important. We all thrive with some structure for accountability. More so, if we want to make progress we need to have a plan we build from and on. You will get results by following a well-structured progressive plan. However even the best plans are just that, plans. They are not alive. They don’t have hormones that fluctuate, or experience unpredictable stressors. They do not ebb and flow. This is where you come in as a conscious bridge between the plan and your bio-feedback. The more you learn about how you feel throughout your cycle the better you can style your training to work with you. That way you can support the optimal attainment of your goals and they in turn can support optimal health for you. It’s a mutually respectful relationship where the two become synergistic as opposed to bumping in to each other. If nothing else, the take home message here is what your body is telling you to do is just as valid and important as what some coach or plan is telling you to do. Find a coach who takes your unique needs into consideration and is willing to build a program that supports YOU and your goals. 

What can you do today to start understanding your needs better throughout your cycle?

  • 1) Start tracking your cycle. Helpful available apps for this are Clue and Fitrwoman. There are probably more but these are ones I am familiar with.
  • 2) Track your energy with your training. Many things can effect energy when it comes to exercise but simply journaling your symptoms and energy levels will allow you to start to see trends. Fitrwoman has this feature built in and makes it very easy to record
  • 3) Learn! Get to know the basics of your cycle and become empowered through education. This will help you cut through the outer noise and get better at listening to your body and what makes sense for you. Here are some great resources for more information.

– https://drbrighten.com and her book Beyond the Pill

-Dr. Stacy Sims- check out her you tube video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5LYGzKUPlE

Also check out her book ROAR

-Lara Briden at https://www.larabriden.comand her books,Period Repair Manualand Hormone Repair Manual

Sources

The effect of the menstrual cycle on exercise metabolism: implications for exercise performance in eumenorrheic women

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20199120/

Metabolic effects of Progesterone

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7039319/