No one told me, in all my years of running, that my training schedule needed to differ from a man’s. I used to pride myself on choosing a tough training plan and completing every workout, in order, every day. I thought that the days I felt low were just days I needed to push through. I had male coaches tell me to scale back when I felt burnt out, then to keep building up once I could, but I never understood what caused the burn out in the first place.
The times I felt unable to finish a workout, or more tired than usual, I blamed on my diet. I kept looking back to what exact nutrients I was consuming and at what time. I was sure there must have been something in there that I wasn’t doing right.
It wasn’t until I discovered Menstrual Cycle Awareness that a huge lightbulb went off for me. I’m not supposed to train like a man! Menstrual Cycle Awareness (MCA) is the recognition and education of our natural hormonal cycles as women. We have hormone receptors in every cell in our bodies, including our muscles and tissues. Since, as women, it is in our nature to have hormone cycles throughout the month, it completely makes sense that our fitness and athletic abilities cycle too. Let me tell you what I’ve learned about how our cycles affect not just our moods, but our energy levels, determination, strength, and motivation.
Women have four naturally occurring cycles when we are of the ages to be experiencing a menstrual cycle. This will differ if you are on a hormonal contraceptive, pregnant, or in menopause, but it’s possible to still chart your monthly patterns to notice your own unique changes. I like to refer to these cycles as seasons because they have a lot of similar qualities.
First, Winter. Winter is the easiest to describe because it relates to our menstruation or the time when we’re actually bleeding. During this time our hormone levels are low! That is why a lot of us experience fatigue, exhaustion, and even depression. There is not something wrong with us, our bodies are working really hard during this time. We’re burning more calories just because our bodies are working on shedding and rebuilding our uterine lining. This is the time to rest. So if we can help it, now is the time to build in very easy exercise, lots of sleep, and complete rest days.
Next up, Spring. Spring is held within the follicular phase, and happens as soon as we’re done menstruating. It is characterized by a lighter energy, more creativity, and a higher tendency towards socialization. This is because the hormone estrogen is rapidly increasing each day at this point in the cycle. This estrogen increase leads to a boost in serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine which leaves us feeling more energetic and creative. With this boost, it’s a good time to switch up your workouts- think interesting hill sprints, intervals, and that whacky cross training that your friend asked you to do.
Then we move into Summer. Summer is represented by ovulation. This happens approximately two weeks before your next period. During ovulation, the hormones of estrogen and progesterone are both high. This means lots of energy! Now is the time for races, big workouts, long runs, and strength training.
Lastly, we have Autumn. Just like the feeling of autumn in nature, this is the time when our hormones start to dip and we start to lose our spunky energy and turn inwards. This phase is held in the luteal phase of our cycles and can be characterized by PMS if we’ve pushed ourselves too hard. The beginning of this phase can be great for slow strength building exercises. Progesterone starts high, which is known for calming the mind and body and increasing appetite (which we need for the week to come!). During the end of this phase, it is time to start planning the next week of rest. How can we nourish our bodies during this week so they will be ready to go in the spring?
This may be brand new information to a lot of you, so take it slow. Maybe it’s hard to start thinking of how to change your routine or how to formulate this into the way you’ve been running before. Take it one step at a time. Start by downloading a period tracking app on your phone or tracking your cycle in a journal to figure out when you menstruate and when you ovulate. Try implementing one exercise (or rest day) at a time for each phase and see if you feel a difference. If nothing else, I hope this information allows you to give yourself and other female runners some compassion and honor for our ever-changing energy, strength, and determination.