Want to get more out of your workouts? Your menstrual cycle may hold the key. Hormone expert Alissa Vitti shares how cycle syncing exercise can benefit you.
There’s a lot of confusing information out there surrounding working out and your period. Should you? Shouldn’t you? Does it really matter? For some people, the thought of working out while on your period is, literally, a joke. For others, exercise can help ease uncomfortable symptoms like cramps or bloating. Or maybe you don’t think twice about hitting the gym or live-streaming your favorite class while on your period. No matter what symptoms you experience during your cycle, you can benefit from cycle syncing exercise in your routine.
Below, Alisa Vitti (who is the pioneer behind cycle syncing and trademarked the term Cycle Syncing Method) and author of WomanCode and In The Flo shares what you need to know about cycle syncing your workouts and how to do it for best results.
What is cycle syncing?
The idea behind cycle syncing is by “syncing” certain activities, nutrition, supplements, or workouts to align with the phases of your cycle, you can optimize your hormones and feel better throughout the month. Some people use cycle syncing as a tool to guide everything from what they eat to how they work and more.
Although there is not a ton of solid research on how cycle syncing works yet, there is some preliminary research and enough anecdotal evidence behind the practice to warrant trying it to see how you feel. The principles of cycle syncing largely rely on how your hormones work. After all, when it comes to how you feel throughout the month, hormones run the show.
“It turns out that having an infradian rhythm, also known as our monthly cycle, causes changes in our metabolism, brain, stress and other systems,” says Vitti. “Simply stated, we’re not the same throughout the 4 phases of our menstrual cycle. We have different calorie, fitness, and nutrient needs depending on which phase we are in,” she says.
Because your hormones change throughout your cycle, there are certain ways you can adapt to your cycle and hormone pattern instead of working against your hormones. Again there are tons of ways you can do this, but when it comes to exercise specifically, cycle syncing can help you feel more in tune with your body and workouts and may even help you get better results.
Menstrual cycle phases
Before diving into how to cycle sync your workouts, let’s do a refresher on each menstrual cycle phase and what’s happening in your body during each stage of a 28-day cycle.
“Hormones are the body’s most sensitive signals and control so much more than we think. During your menstrual cycle, your body is undergoing hormonal shifts characterized by four distinct phases: menstrual, follicular, ovulatory, and luteal,” says Dr. Suman Tewari, OB-GYN who helped develop fitness concept P.volve‘s new cycle-focused training program, Phase & Function.
Phase 1: Follicular (the 7 to 10 days after your period)
In the follicular phase of your cycle, your estrogen hormone rises which is when the lining of your uterus grows (and this lining is what’s shed during your period bleed). “During this phase, all hormones start out low and estrogen rises to a peak before ovulation. This change in hormones has you feeling more alert and energized,” says Antonietta Vicario, VP of Talent and Training at P.volve who worked alongside Tewari to develop P.volve’s Phase & Function program.
Phase 2: Ovulatory (around day 14, or in the middle of your cycle)
The ovulation phase is when your body prepares to release an egg, which happens when luteinizing hormone (LH) triggers the ovaries to release an egg. “There’s a rise in hormones here and energy levels rise too,” says Vicario. This phase usually lasts 24 hours.
Phase 3: Luteal (the 10 to 14 days between ovulation and your period)
The phase when you’re most likely to experience PMS is during the luteal phase, which is the phase that leads up to your period. “Hormones begin to dip during this phase as you near menstruation,” says Vicario. As hormones estrogen and progesterone drop, some women can experience premenstrual symptoms like fatigue, headache, and cramps (although other symptoms outside this list can happen too.)
Phase 4: Menstrual (the 3 to 7 days of your period)
The menstrual phase, or the phase of your cycle that begins when your period starts, is the final stage of your cycle. “Progesterone and estrogen are at the lowest levels during this phase, taking energy down with them,” says Vicario.
Your menstrual cycle and exercise
So how can you use these hormonal shifts throughout your cycle to your benefit? One of the main goals of cycle syncing is to match your energy levels to your workouts, which is largely dictated by your hormones.
“The most important thing when it comes to workouts and your cycle is that you do the proper intensity of workout to match the phase you’re in,” says Vitti. “This will greatly help in balancing your hormones and preventing any future hormonal and health conditions, and this is due to keeping cortisol, insulin, and progesterone levels balanced,” she says.
During your luteal phase or menstrual phase, when your hormones drop, you may feel drained more easily. During your ovulation phase, when your hormones are rising and you tend to have more energy, you may be able to hit a higher level of intensity in your workouts. These changes can dictate how you feel when you exercise, but also how you perform.
The best exercises to do in each phase of your cycle
Follicular Phase: Cardio and HIIT
“In the first half of a woman’s cycle (follicular and ovulatory), due to lower resting cortisol levels, it is best to do cardio and HIIT workouts,” says Vitti. “This will result in lean muscle gain and using stored fat as fuel,” she says. Since your hormones may help you feel more alert and energized during this phase, Dr. Tewari suggests taking advantage and doing more intense workouts that rev your heart rate as your body and hormones are prime to handle this type of exercise.
Ovulatory Phase: Higher intensity workouts
(HIIT, weightlifting, circuit training, boot camps)
As your hormones rise with ovulation, you’ll feel more energized and likely more up for higher intensity workouts and cardio. During ovulation, you can continue HIIT, weightlifting, or sweaty, intense bootcamp style workouts since you’re hormones are primed to help you power through these high-energy workouts.
Luteal Phase: Slower paced, strength building focused workouts
(Pilates, yoga, strength training)
Vitti recommends avoiding higher intensity cardio workouts in the luteal phase since some studies have shown that the muscles respond better to this type of training in the earlier phases of the cycle. “Studies show if you keep doing the cardio/HIIT intensity level of workouts after ovulation, in the second half of your cycle, you will actually turn on fat storage and turn on muscle wasting,” she says. This is why she recommends focusing on slower-paced strength workouts during this time that aren’t cardio-intense.
Menstrual Phase: Low impact, easy workouts
(Walking and stretching)
The menstrual phase is the time to slow down your workouts and move in a way that isn’t too taxing on your body and hormones. (And maybe you’ve intuitively been doing this, kudos!) You may be feeling extra drained while on your period anyways, so this is your excuse to take it easy and listen to your body. Walking, stretching, and other gentle forms of movement are all fair game.
Can exercise help with PMS?
Besides targeting inflammation and boosting circulation, Vitti says that cycle syncing your workouts can help reduce PMS since it helps to support and balance your hormones. According to Vitti, hormone imbalances contribute to PMS, so anything that you do to balance them (including exercising strategically with your hormone patterns) can help alleviate PMS symptoms. You can also support healthy hormone balance and eases PMS symptoms like cramps, mood swings, and irritability with HUM’s Moody Bird.
When it comes to your menstrual cycle and exercise, the most important rule is to listen to your body above all else. If you do feel up for exercise during your period or when you have PMS, there are strategic types of exercise that may help ease symptoms, according to the experts.
Even though we don’t have a ton of research on the topic yet, it doesn’t hurt to try changing up your workouts with your cycle to see how you feel.
A quick note about hormonal birth control: According to Vitti, since most forms of hormonal birth control (like the pill) stop your body from ovulation, you won’t experience a true cycle with all of the hormone changes that are outlined above, so cycle syncing may not have the same impact.
If you are currently on birth control and are experiencing symptoms, you can try cycle syncing to see if it helps and of course talk to your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms that are disrupting your life.