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How to Eat and Exercise to Hack Your Cycle

Ever noticed how some days you whizz through your workout, and others you end up throwing in the towel by the halfway point? Or some mornings your hunger is insatiable and others you struggle to finish brekkie? It could be the phases of the menstrual cycle at play. Here’s how to make the most of each phase to keep your health and fitness goals on track.

First, let’s take a look into the four phases of the menstrual cycle – check out this article for the full rundown.

  1. Phase one: The menstrual phase
  2. Phase two: The follicular phase
  3. Phase three: Ovulation
  4. Phase four: The luteal phase

Exercising for your menstrual phase:

With much of the existing exercise research has been tested on male subjects, most of the advice and education around ideal workout times and intensities are centred around male bodies – but the menstrual cycle plays amassive role in your energy levels, temperature and strength. This is why we’ve decided to focus on how you can take advantage of each phase of your cycle to tailor your exercise regimes to your body’s needs.When we’re in tune with the hormonal fluctuations that accompany each stage of the menstrual cycle, we can know when to intensify our exercise regime and when to tone it down for those phases when our bodies are less primed for rigorous workouts.

Menstrual phase:During your period, you’ll likely be feeling a little more fatigued – but that doesn’t mean you should take your runners off just yet! Some light exercise can support mood and reduce some of the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bloating
  • Mood issues
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

The endorphins released during exercise are the reason for the pain relief that can come with a walk or a jog – and it’s research-backed.

Menstrual phase duration: Starting on day 1 of your cycle, this phase usually lasts around 5-7 days, though there is variation depending on the individual.

Follicular phase: You’ll have lower hormone levels around this time, making it an ideal time to exercise more rigorously – it’s well-suited to those HIIT workouts and high-energy activities. Your body will also be cooler in temperature, making you less likely to get dehydrated from exercise. Plus, you’ll have a greater store of carbohydrates, which are essential for your energy levels, along with creating an ideal environment for muscle development – if you’re looking to build muscle, this is the time to focus on those body-building workouts.

It's worth noting you’ll have recently lost a fair amount of blood, so your iron store may be a little low – so be sure to dose up on iron-rich foods like spinach, eggs and legumes to support your exercise efforts.

Follicular phase duration: The follicular phase starts on the first day of your period – yep, it overlaps with phase one – and it lasts around 14 days.

Ovulation: During this phase, your body will experience a small rise in temperature – and while this won’t have a significant effect, it can affect your comfort and energy levels during exercise. So, put a pause on the hot yoga, overheated gyms and outdoor jogging when it’s humid. Your body will be more easily affected by the heat, and pushing yourself through it could lead to dehydration and fatigue, neither of which are conducive to good health. It’s the hormone known as progesterone which is responsible for this temperature increase, but that’s not all it does. It also increases your heart rate at rest, along with your breathing rate – sounds like a recipe for exhaustion! If that’s not reason enough to go easy on this exercise, keep in mind that this hormone also has a catabolic effect; this just means that it breaks down bodily tissues. If you’re a bodybuilder, this is definitely not the time to be hitting the weights – repetitive weight-lifting causes microscopic tears in the muscles, and the muscle gain that results is due to the regrowth of this tissue, but with progesterone running loose, this regrowth is reduced.

Ovulation duration: It lasts for around one day, and usually begins on day 14 of an average 28-day cycle; the starting date of course vary depending on the length of your own cycle, but it usually is around halfway through.

Luteal phase: If you’re in the fourth phase of your menstrual cycle, it’s best to stick to moderate activity, this is because progesterone – that hormone released during ovulation – is still making itself at home in your body – so don’t overdo it. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop moving, it’s actually a really good time to boost your circulation and get those feel-good endorphins that come with exercise. Go for the following moderate activities:

  • Gentle cardio exercises
  • Walks
  • Yoga or Pilates
  • Tai chi

Luteal phase duration: This phase tends to last around 11 to 17 days, and is typically around the 15th day of a typical cycle.

Eating for your cycle

Menstrual phase: Your hormones are at their lowest levels during this phase, so you’ll want to eat to support this fluctuation – go for minimally-processed foods like whole grains, whole fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds to keep your body energised. Fermented foods are also a must – these are easier for our bodies to digest and have more accessible nutrients, making them ideal for this phase when our body is already working hard. Go for the following:

  • Yoghurt, kefir
  • Sauerkraut, pickles
  • Natto, tempeh
  • Miso

Don’t forget to eat iron-rich foods like eggs, tofu, meat and legumes – these will be important in preparing for the loss of iron that this phase will cause. Eating healthy foods is essential for this phase as it will help balance hormones, which then reduces cravings in other phases, along with reducing period pain – this is why we recommend cutting out highly-processed and inflammatory foods which can exacerbate cravings and pain.

Follicular phase: This is the time where your body will need extra iron – after all, you’ve just lost a bit of blood in the previous phase. Go for tofu, legumes, leafy greens and eggs to replenish those iron stores. You’ll also want to focus on fighting inflammation during this phase, so opt for omega 3 fatty acids like those found in eggs, fish and walnuts. This phase is all about helping your body recover from a tiring menstrual phase, along with supporting the wave of energy you’ll be feeling – remember this is the time best suited for rigorous exercise. Take a look at a few of the other foods to load up on:

  • Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir
  • Dairy and eggs
  • Whole grains, nuts and seeds
  • Legumes
  • Fresh fruit and veggies

Ovulation: During this phase your hormone levels will rise – especially estrogen. Your body temperature will also be heating up, so this is the time to eat hydrating foods and make sure you’re getting enough water to keep your body cool. Too much estrogen can cause an imbalance in hormones, which comes with a number of symptoms like:

  • Breast tenderness
  • Skin issues like acne
  • Weight gain

If any of these sound familiar, you may want to eat foods that help get rid of excess estrogen – and considering the liver is responsible for this function, you’ll want to go for foods that support this organ. These include:

  • Leafy greens
  • Onions and garlic
  • Quinoa
  • Whole fruits like berries

Luteal Phase: If you’ve noticed a week or two in the month where you’re feeling particularly ravenous, it’s probably the luteal phase. This phase is the lead up to your period, so you might start to feel some pre-menstrual symptoms like excess hunger and cravings – and this is often your body telling you that you need more energy. This is because your metabolism can increase by up to 16% in the late luteal stage, meaning a few days before your period starts, and research shows you should up your caloric intake by up to 300 calories each day. So, if you’re in the lead up to your period – especially the few days before starting – now is the time to eat more healthy fats, protein and iron-rich foods to fuel your increased energy needs.

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