PMS might as well stand for Physique Misery Syndrome. From firsthand experience, I can tell you that the appearance changes caused by your menstrual cycle can be significant. One morning I'll wake up and see clear ab definition, causing me to feel excited that my hard work in the gym and kitchen has been paying off. Then the next morning, I'll wake up only to find that my abs are as easy to find as a prim-and-proper tabloid shot of Britney Spears. I know when to expect it, so I can don't panic. And the problem vanishes after about a week, as quickly as it came. Still...
The symptoms of PMS vary by individual. They can range from feeling like a nuisance to turning your life upside down for a week. The classic PMS symptoms include water retention and bloating, irritability, strong cravings, appetite changes, fluctuations in pain tolerance, as well as differences in your energy level. Simply put, for the week or two before your period hits, the last thing on your mind is putting in a hard workout or eating healthfully. You want to eat chocolate, ice cream, and pizza while lying on the couch. If you're dedicated to the gym, PMS can leave you feeling psychologically devastated.
And don't think this just affects you mentally and appearance-wise, either. PMS can also limit your performance in the gym, making any effort you do put forth less than productive.
The good news? By learning what impact your menstrual cycle has on key factors influencing your workout performance and your body composition, you can minimize the negative effects.
Let's look at some of the key intersections between your cycle and your workouts:
Measuring Your Metabolic Rate
One of the most important factors that you must take into account if you're currently trying to melt off those last 10 pounds of body fat is your metabolic rate. That's a fancy term for how many calories you burn over 24 hour. It'll vary not only from person to person but also from day to day in the same person.
If you're highly stressed out, your metabolism may rev a bit. On the other hand, if you've been following a very-low-calorie diet for a couple of weeks now, you're likely finding that your metabolism has slowed down.
Your cycle also influences your metabolic rate. During the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle—the week or so before your period is set to begin—you'll burn up calories faster than at all other times throughout the month. Researchers measure increases in total energy expenditure of 2.5 to 11% during this time.
This may not seem like all that much, but if you're dieting, it'll make a difference.
However, most women also experience an increase in appetite during this period. They're hungrier and more prone to cravings. The net result is that they end up consuming more calories than they're expending through this increase in their metabolic rate. They're burning more, but there's more to burn.
So one important take-home message from this is that if you're currently dieting, and will continue dieting through your cycle, be extra careful about your adherence during the week before your period. You could easily undo your weight-loss efforts.
Beat The Bloat—Get On Track To A Leaner Stomach
Another of the biggest cycle-related complaints among fit women concerns bloating. It's not abnormal at all for women to take on 5 to 10 extra pounds of water during their cycle. As you can imagine, this can have an unsettling effect on the reflection in the mirror.
One morning, you may wake up impressed with the degree of definition your body is showing. The next morning, you might see what looks like a blanket of fat covering what used to be those defined muscles. That's not fat; it's just excess water retention caused by female hormones, mainly estrogen. If you're on birth control pills that have a high estrogen level, talk to your doctor about changing meds to an alternative with lower estrogen levels. In theory that should mean less bloating every month.
Other strategies you can employ to help lessen water retention:
- Avoid salty foods
- Drink more water than usual
- Sip some herbal tea
- Season your foods with oregano
Setting The Table For Success
Avoid starting on a fat-loss diet plan during the luteal phase, for the reasons mentioned above. Since you'll be at a higher risk of experiencing hunger during this time of the month—and that hunger will also likely lead to greater incidences of food cravings—beginning your diet during this phase raises the odds of backsliding. Instead, cycle your calories. Bring your calorie intake much lower during the two weeks immediately proceeding your period, when hunger levels are lower and cravings less frequent. Then increase your calorie intake back to a maintenance level during the week before and during your period.
This will help mitigate that natural increase in hunger coming your way. But it will also help reset your metabolism. So if your metabolism is slowing down at all due to the reduced calorie intake, you bring that rate back up again through this increased food intake. Once you move back to dieting after your period is over, you're burning body fat as fast as possible.
Additionally, since you'll already be dealing with increased bloating during the week before your period, staying strict with your diet may be tough anyway. If there's one time of the month you should be taking a break, well, this would be it. Since you're also burning up calories at a slightly elevated rate during this time, the extra calories will stand a lower chance of being deposited as body fat. That's yet another advantage of taking a short diet break during the early luteal period of your menstrual cycle.
Smart Structuring Of Your Workout Plan
As for your workouts, there are some additional considerations to take into account as they relate to your menstrual cycle.
- First, keep in mind that your body temperature will rise during the luteal phase of your cycle. So if you're performing intense workouts—which also raise body temp—you may become uncomfortable, and hence unable to sustain very high intensities.
- A second thing to bear in mind is that your tolerance for pain will be higher during the follicular phase of the cycle, after menstruation takes place. So it makes sense to place your harder workouts, the ones where you really plan to push yourself, during this time. You'll find that you have a higher level of tenacity. Time to push through and hit some new personal bests!
- Carrying excess water weight throughout the luteal phase will also affect workout performance, especially if the workout includes running. That added weight will make you feel like you're working harder than usual.
Keep Making Progress
So keep these factors in the back of your mind as you go about your workout and diet routine during your cycle. By more clearly understanding the changes taking place within your body, you can help reduce the chances of them affecting you negatively. Until you hit menopause, you can't change the fact that your period will arrive each and every month. But you can keep it from disturbing your workouts and body progress!
- Davidsen, L. et al. (2007). Impact of the Menstrual Cycle on Determinants of Energy Balance: A putative role in weight loss attempts. International Journal of Obesity. 31, 887-890.
- Price, D. et al. (1998). A meta-analytic review of pain perception across the menstrual cycle. Journal of the International Association for the Study Of Pain. Vol. 81, Issue 3. Pp. 225-235.
- X.A.K.J., De Jonge. (2003). Effects of the Menstrual Cycle on Exercise Performance. Sports Medicine. Vol. 33, No. 11.