How to Exercise in Each Phase of Your Menstrual Cycle

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If you have a period, it’s likely you’ve experienced some of the negative side effects. Symptoms like cramps, fatigue, and emotional distress can interrupt your life and make one week (give or take a few days) of the month feel particularly daunting.

Although we typically refer to the period as the days that we’re shedding blood, the menstrual cycle actually refers to the entire process that takes place over 28-29 days, calculated from the first day of one period until the first day of the next. This time frame can vary from person to person, with the potential to be impacted by many methods of birth control.

There is no medical reason to avoid working out during menstruation or any other phase of your cycle, in fact exercise may be beneficial for easing some common symptoms like cramps. However, there are hormonal changes occurring within the body that may make it easier to do certain types of exercise within different stages of the month.

Emi Gutgold (she/hers), personal trainer (NASM CPT), Barry's instructor, and Pilates instructor (PMA NCPT) explains, “Since hormones by and large affect our sleep, appetite, stress, and energy as a whole, they can definitely have an influence on training.”

The four main phases that occur during the menstrual cycle are menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. Because of the varying hormone levels in each phase, it can be beneficial to adapt your exercise routine accordingly. Working out impacts your hormone balance, and additional intention to those workouts can help you lean into the phase your body is currently experiencing.

Exercise During Menstruation

Menstruation—when you have your period—is the phase of the menstrual cycle when you are actually shedding the lining of your uterus. This lasts approximately three days to one week. Although this is the phase of the cycle that is most often depicted negatively, studies have shown that exercising during menstruation can lead to less painful periods.

It can be difficult to follow an exercise routine during this phase because your progesterone and estrogen are at their lowest, which can result in feeling less energy and motivation. With stamina and endurance levels diminished during this phase, you may not feel up to fast-paced, cardio activities or workouts that rely on lifting heavy weights.

This doesn’t mean you can’t still make the most of your workout. Consider low intensity cardio, yoga, Pilates, sculpt with light weights, swimming, or a casual bike ride. Even walking for your period can be beneficial.

Exercise During the Follicular Phase

The follicular phase is actually concurrent with menstruation in the beginning, as it starts the same day as your period. However it continues past the bleeding stage, until ovulation. This phase includes the stimulation of multiple hormones, including follicle stimulating hormone, gonadotropin-releasing hormone, and luteinizing hormone.

Most importantly for physical activity, during the follicular phase your period concludes and hormones stimulate the ovary to produce follicles, which causes estrogen levels to rise and thus energy to increase with it.

“When you’re in the follicular phase of your cycle, you can amp up intensity,” Emi says. Thanks to the infusion of estrogen and energy, the follicular phase may be the best time for you to tackle high intensity exercise like HIIT, strength training with heavier weights, and cardio activities like running, dancing, and boxing.

Exercise During Ovulation

The ovulation phase is a brief window, approximately three to five days in the middle of your overall cycle. Ovulation is the release of a mature egg from the surface of the ovary, triggered by high levels of luteinizing hormone. The egg travels from the ovary along the fallopian tube toward the uterus, where if it is not fertilized within approximately 24 hours, it disintegrates.

Your energy and endurance levels during ovulation are likely to be close to those of the follicular phase as you’ll still be experiencing elevated levels of estrogen, and you can continue to participate in high intensity activities like kickboxing, running, and rowing.

If you experience painful bloating or ovulation during this phase, you should change your exercise routine accordingly.

Exercise During the Luteal Phase

The luteal phase is the longest stage of the menstrual cycle, lasting approximately two weeks. During this phase, the follicle that released the egg from your ovary transforms into a structure known as the corpus luteum which releases progesterone along with small amounts of estrogen to maintain the thickened lining of the uterus.

During the first half of this phase you may still feel close to the peak energy levels of the follicular phase, but this will start to decline in the latter half. The increased progesterone may actually cause some people to feel fatigued.

Emi recognizes this feeling: “Typically, it’s recommended that in the luteal phase, you should scale back training and focus on getting adequate recovery.”

Studies have suggested that the increase in body temperature during this phase can have an impact on exercise. An older study suggested that for people undertaking prolonged endurance training, the mid-luteal phase is associated with increased cardiovascular strain and a quicker time feeling exhaustion, especially in hot conditions; however this isn’t likely to impact average physical activity.

Similarly, a 2020 study showed that the increased body temperature in this phase impacts running performance.

Neither of these studies rule out cardio exercise or running during the luteal phase, but it may be more difficult than in the follicular or ovulation phases. Instead of pushing yourself too hard, it may be more comfortable—and more beneficial for your body—to instead follow a lower impact exercise routine like yoga or swimming.

General Tips

Emi advises, “At the end of the day, if you feel strong enough to get through a tough workout but you look at a cycle tracking app that tells you to be more gentle, don’t cop out. If cycle tracking is important to you, focus more on recovery than anything. You can work out all you want, but if you don’t get adequate recovery, your hard work will go to waste.”

Ultimately, tracking your cycle has the potential to help you be more in touch with your body, which can guide your workout decisions. You may find that your hormone levels cause you to feel more energetic than expected during one phase, or more lethargic than usual during another phase, and you can plan your exercise regimen accordingly. 

Emi’s overall advice in terms of exercising based on your menstrual cycle is this: “My general philosophy as a trainer is to simply listen to your body. Hormones do play a role in exercise but unless you’re training for something specific, you probably don’t need to factor in your cycle, unless you’d like to! For some of my clients, training smart around their menstrual cycles helps them feel more empowered about their wellness goals.”

Feeling in control may be one of the most beneficial proponents of this tactic, and if it fuels your overall fitness journey then it’s a worthwhile tool.

A Word From Verywell

Learning about your body is a helpful way to guide it toward activities and habits that support the stage you're experiencing. That being said, listening to your body is crucial during all four stages of your menstrual cycle. If a workout is causing you extreme pain or discomfort, stop.

If you experience irregular, extended, or very painful periods, you should speak to a healthcare provider, whether or not you think it’s due to your workout plan.

9 Sources
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