How To Work With Your Hormones So They Positively Impact Your Performance
As ambitious, motivated women we strive to be focused, productive and energised on a daily basis. Yet it seems women’s bodies may not be designed to work that way; in fact, overriding natural cycles could lead to exhaustion.
My name’s Ally Frost and I’m a research assistant for Elevate Talent, the organisation founded by my mother Jacqueline Frost. We pride ourselves on supporting mid-level female executives to advance their careers and create a sustainable and enjoyable work-life balance. I have an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Sciences from Newcastle University and have just recently completed a master’s in Regenerative Medicine at Queen Mary University of London.
I’m passionate about research and recently discovered through a chat with a PhD student that there’s a really good reason why some days women feel like they are underperforming – both at work and at the gym. She shared with me that the fluctuations of women’s hormonal cycles can not only affect your mental state, but physically affect your muscles and, hence, performance levels. Men’s bodies are designed to be productive on a 24-hour testosterone cycle, but women operate, on average, over a 28-day cycle that consists of four distinct phases.
Ever had days when you feel like you’re wading through treacle? If you start to track your “off” days and the days when you are “in the zone”, you’ll probably notice a pattern – and you’ve got your hormones to thank for that!
In this blog, we’re going to explore the four stages of your 28-day cycle, how that may impact you at a professional level, and what you might want to consider when you are at the gym. A word of note here: everyone is different. This information is based on the scientific average of hormonal fluctuations; you may experience none of these or you may recognise them all. Having this knowledge will mean you can apply what is relevant, as well as better understand what your female colleagues may be experiencing.
Why bother tracking your cycle?
I’m sure you’ve all seen, heard or been exposed to a joke about “women’s troubles” at some point in your life. The truth is that while on some days our hormones might cause a dip in our productivity or cognitive function, they also give us the natural ability to turbocharge our life and productivity by synchronising our calendar to our cycle.
By being aware of our cycle and the potential impact it may have on our performance – both mental and physical – the idea is we can put ourselves in a better place to achieve our goals. When we are not aware of these potential fluctuations, then there is a much greater likelihood of feeling frustrated at work or wondering why your workout is feeling so much harder than last week.
By understanding this better, it will give you a better chance to be hitting your personal bests in the office and the gym!
What are the four phases of a woman’s cycle?
Let’s look at each of the four phases in turn:
– 1- Menstruation
Female hormonal cycles begin from menstruation at day one. All hormone levels are low during this three-to-seven-day phase. Your oestrogen levels will steadily increase towards the end of your period. Some women say they feel more tired or introspective at this time, so if this resonates with you, remember to focus on self-care and carve out some “me time” where possible. During this time, don’t be too hard on yourself. Contrary to many of the period care adverts you may have seen on TV over the years with women zooming around on roller skates, this can be a good time for a gentler fitness regime.
-2- The follicular phase
The follicular phase actually spans from day one of your period to ovulation around day 13. Right after your period, oestrogen levels spike, boosting your energy, your mood and your cognitive skills. All your other hormone levels will be low, meaning the single spike of oestrogen will have a direct benefit to your physical performance (see Effect of Estrogen on Musculoskeletal Performance and Injury Risk (nih.gov) for more information).
This means it could be a great time to brainstorm and get clear on your action steps for the rest of the month.
Ovulation begins when the luteinising hormone (LH) level spikes, followed closely by the follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) spike. This is the shortest phase, lasting only three to four days. At the beginning of this phase, oestrogen levels remain high alongside the spike in LH, maintaining the benefits oestrogen will give.
However, oestrogen levels will dramatically fall towards the end of ovulation, as will LH and FSH levels (following their spike), so feeling a bit less energetic going into the luteal phase is probable.
-4- The luteal phase
The luteal phase typically lasts 12 to 16 days. Towards the beginning of this phase, progesterone levels gradually rise for the first time in your cycle. All other hormonal levels are low. However, oestrogen levels start to gradually rise again a few days into this phase. As progesterone and oestrogen levels are both high, this tends to mask any previous benefits oestrogen has given your body.
This is said to be the ideal time for completion or to tie up loose ends on any projects. Towards the end of the luteal phase when all hormone levels are dropping again, you may also start to experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS), so it’s important to be kind to yourself. Some women say that they feel a bit more isolated or as though “they’re the only one doing all the work” during this transition phase back to the start of the cycle.
The British Journal of Sports Medicine tells us that PMS encompasses, “clinically significant somatic and psychological manifestations during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, leading to substantial distress and impairment in functional capacity.” And, according to the National Association for Premenstrual Syndromes, approximately one in three women suffer mild or severe PMS symptoms each menstrual cycle.
How does your 28-day cycle affect exercise?
Ultimately if you want to exercise at your best, choose strength training in the first half of your cycle. During the follicular phase, the increased levels of oestrogen assist in increasing muscle mass and your recovery time is quicker. As you approach the luteal phase, you’re more prone to injury due to muscle stiffness (see Female hormones: do they influence muscle and tendon protein metabolism? – PubMed (nih.gov) for more information).
Due to the increase in both oestrogen and progesterone, you may not feel your strongest and may struggle to hit personal bests (PBs) or carry out any high-intensity workouts you were handling well the week before! By the end of the luteal phase, you’ll be experiencing a drop in blood plasma which means less oxygen is reaching your muscles (ouch!). Any exercise that involves high levels of endurance (cardio) is likely to slip. Linking back to the start of the cycle, PMS symptoms which transition into menstrual symptoms can make exercise feel difficult. This feeling is heightened by the four different hormones which are about to restart their oscillations!
Do you have a personal trainer? Have they ever asked you about the rhythm of your 28-day cycle? I’ll be surprised if they have – and don’t you think it’d be useful to know how to optimise training and performance while decreasing the chance of injury? We need more gender-specific research! However, you will be thrilled to know that Dr Stacy Sims, PhD, a global expert on female athlete physiology, has been working alongside Nike to help raise awareness and create an app. If you’re passionate about synching fitness and your cycle, you can read more about it here.
In a nutshell
Dr Stacy Sims once said, “Women are not small men”, which sums up this whole blog perfectly. If we’re not small men, why would we try to work or workout like them? We are different, and it’s time to play to our strengths.
Specialised training programmes have only recently been implemented in high-level sports (and I hope this blog has shown you why these are necessary). However, this does not need to stop at women’s sports; understanding your own cycle can assist in many aspects of your daily life.
Even though you’ll likely find commonality between what I’m sharing here and your own cycle, it’s also really useful to tailor your life to your own findings – otherwise you may have shifted from striving to work in a professional model designed for men (productive all the time), to working in another pre-defined structure. Learn to ebb and flow with your own natural cycle and any quirks that might come with it.
I’m sure you have plenty of insights to share on this topic, so hop onto LinkedIn and let’s keep the conversation going (imagine how much more powerful your teenage daughters will be if they grow up with this knowledge!).