I’m Dr. Sara Gagne, a Boston-based Sports Chiropractor with special interest in helping people overcome pain and achieve their full potential beyond injury. Throughout my training and clinical experience, I’ve noticed a lack of attention on the needs of women. I believe there is a huge gap in healthcare and education when it comes to women’s health. I’m here to provide some valuable information whether you are a woman who trains, or you care about women who train.
There is a gap in research when it comes to women’s health
Did you know that most exercise research is done on men? Most of the mainstream information you hear about diet and exercise has a male bias and hasn’t yet been proven in women. WOMEN aren’t men. We have an entirely different set of needs because of our reproductive system that requires A TON of extra energy.
There is information out there about the different needs that women have when it comes to exercise and diet but this information isn’t widely known. That’s why in this blog I will be discussing how to bio-hack the menstrual cycle to get the most out of your training and live your best life as a woman who trains!
The menstrual cycle can affect how you feel in your workouts!
(Quick disclaimer before we jump right in: I will be speaking in generalizations. Periods are very individual- meaning the days of your cycle may be slightly different from the ones outlined here. Also, if you are on hormonal birth control this information may not apply to you. Keep reading!)
To set the stage, I need to explain how injuries happen. In general, pain/injury occurs when you have too many stressors that overload your body’s tolerance for stress. The sum of all your current stressors is called “load” and your body’s tolerance for stress is called “capacity.” Contributors to “load” include poor sleep quality, emotional/mental stress, caloric deficit, high intensity workouts, and alcohol intake. If the sum of all your stressors, aka load, surpasses your capacity, it is possible you may become injured (See the Load Vs. Capacity matrix below). To stay feeling your best it is important to manage the total “load” on our system by getting great sleep, eating enough quality food, and managing emotional stress. It is also important to build up our “capacity”. This can done by making sure you get adequate recovery between workouts, resolving underlying injuries, and progressively making workouts harder to create new adaptations. By manipulating these two variables you are essentially bio-hacking to get the most out of your wellness routines! This is why working with a coach like Rachel and myself is amazing because we can help you in BOTH areas.
Now for period-havers there is more to consider. Hormonal fluctuations during the month create shifts in load and capacity. In the first half of the menstrual cycle, individuals have greater capacity and are more resilient against stressors. During the second half however, individuals enter an “inflammatory state” as the body prepares to either become pregnant or shed its uterine lining. This heightened level of inflammation is in and of itself a contributor to a person’s “load.” What this means is that external inputs to load could more easily surpass capacity therefore leading to pain. I will explain this more but before I do let’s get down some semantics.
As I said, there are two halves of the menstrual cycle. To be more specific, The first half (days 1 through day ~14-16) starts when you get your period and is called the follicular phase. The second half (~day 14-16 to the day before you get your period) is the luteal phase.
The follicular phase is a time when you might feel more energetic, stronger, and have a higher capacity for work outs. You might notice you can handle more. Your workouts may feel the best during this time and your recovery will be optimal. This is because you are generally more resilient to stress and you’re sleeping better. Because things are feeling great this may a good time to push yourself and go a little harder in the gym!
The luteal phase is roughly the two weeks before you start bleeding. During this time changes in the body are occurring, your sleep may become impaired making recovery harder to achieve. You might notice you have less energy and it’s difficult to push yourself in a hard workout. The changes during this phase make you more susceptible to pain and injury so it is super important to listen to your body and give yourself rest when needed. You may need to alter the intensity of your workouts as well.
Some people may notice a greater hormonal fluctuation that affects them more than others. If you associate with any of the luteal phase symptoms from the last paragraph – I feel you! And hopefully now you know why your workouts might feel worse the week or so before your periods. This isn’t something you should feel badly about! By using the information I’ve just laid out, you should feel empowered to bio-hack the system and take advantage of your training days when you can ramp up intensity. And conversely, feel good about lowering intensity when needed as well. You are simply using your body’s feedback to get the most out of your training. This will ensure you stay injury free and continue achieving your fitness goals.
Observations as a Performance Chiropractor
My own fitness and health journey has lead me down a path to learning everything I could about the female athlete. I’m still learning but this I know for sure: these concepts need to reach the masses. I don’t see the menstrual cycle as a limiting factor anymore. Instead, I see it as a powerful tool that can be used to set the tone for your workout program and goals and hopefully now you do too. Now, I use these concepts to help my patients manage their pain too! Sure, I can help my patients get out of pain but knowledge is power. By teaching my patients about their own physiology, they can learn how to interpret their bodies vital signs to prevent pain and frustration in the first place. As a result they can move forward, not backward, toward their goals.