how to exercise on your period

How To Exercise With Your Cycle

Dr. Jolene BrightenPublished: Last Reviewed: Cycle Self Care™, Exercise, Menstrual Cycle Leave a Comment

You may have noticed there are times in your cycle where your motivation and physical stamina are lacking when it comes to your fitness routine. Despite your trainer telling you can do one more or the Peloton instructor is saying “push” you may just find there are times where you lack the motivation. This isn’t because you’re just lazy. Instead, the secret lies in your cycle and in this article we’re going to discuss the science of how to exercise with your cycle.

As it turns out, most research in fitness is done on men and then just applied to women. That means the fitness routine you failed might not be because of your will power, but because it was developed for a non-cyclical creature and then just deemed good enough for you.

You’re not a failure—you’re a uniquely cyclical creature.

Many women notice a difference in the quality of their workouts during their menstrual cycle due to fluctuating hormone levels. 

And the secret to exercise success is syncing your cycles to your fitness routine.

Period Syncing Workouts

To sync your cycle to your self care and fitness routine, you first need to understand some basics. While the period is the most noticeable part of the cycle for most women, it isn’t the only thing we want synced up with our workouts.

Cycle Phases and Your Workout

During a woman’s cycle, the hormone flow follows this general pattern:

Day 1-14 (Follicular Phase)

This is the first day of your period through ovulation. During this time, estrogen levels rise as the body prepares for ovulation. 

About days 1-7 (could be less) your uterine lining is being shed (aka your period). Just prior to your period your estrogen and progesterone levels were at the lowest level in your cycle. By day 3 estrogen is rising again and testosterone isn’t far behind.

For the purposes of this article we’ll be discussing the working out while on your period separately, but know that it is part of the follicular phase. Watch this video to learn more about the phases of your menstrual cycle.

Ovulation

Ovulation happens roughly mid-cycle and is a day long event. To trigger ovulation, estrogen levels peak. Following ovulation your progesterone levels begin to rise. The day after ovulation is the onset of the luteal phase.

Prior to ovulation your estrogen and testosterone rise. Estrogen peaks to trigger ovulation. Energy, stamina, and mental endurance can all increase during this time thanks to these hormones.

Day 15-28 (Luteal Phase)

This is the phase after you’ve ovulated. Your body produces more estrogen to trigger ovulation, which then comes down, but doesn’t drop as you move into your luteal phase. 

During this phase progesterone levels rise and are at their highest. Once the body recognizes pregnancy hasn’t been achieved your estrogen and progesterone levels decline to trigger your period.

It’s important to note that this is just a general framework for discussing the menstrual cycle. Not every woman ovulates on day 14 and not every woman has a 28 day cycle. Be sure to adjust based on your unique cycle. 

Depending on where you are in your cycle, you have different advantages and disadvantages at the gym and on the field.

Let’s dig into how to exercise with your cycle and leverage your hormones to maximize your athletic potential.

menstrual cycle phases

How to Exercise with Your Cycle

Your hormonal fluctuations throughout the month can bolster your workout in many ways. Instead of getting frustrated by periodic shifts in ability, you can plan your workouts to give you an advantage. 

Exercise During Your Period (Early Follicular Phase)

While you’re on your period, you may find a gentle walk, stretching, and easy movement is best for reducing discomfort and matching your energy levels. It’s normal to have lower energy levels the first day of your period and to feel less active if you’re struggling with cramps. However tempting it may be to just hit the alarm and stay in bed, I would encourage you to get up and move.

Exercise can help alleviate cramps, improve energy, balance your moods and give you an overall sense of wellbeing. It may not feel like it when just contemplating exercise but once you get moving your symptoms should improve. Read this article if you need help with cramps.

So does this mean you’re just automatically weaker and have to dial back your athletic routine because you’re on your period? Nope. Far from it.

You may find that even early in the follicular phase you’re able to lift more weight, tolerate high intensity interval training, and push yourself a little more. 

The bottom line (and continuous theme of this article) is to listen to your body and honor how you feel. In fact, how you feel is a more important indicator than any doctor or other health expert telling you how it “should” be. 

Exercise During the Late Follicular Phase (When Your Period Ends to Ovulation)

The increased estrogen and testosterone during this phase of your cycle can make it easier to build muscle. This is when cardio and strength training routines can feel their best. 

Yes, even while on your period your estrogen levels are rising. So you may find that come day 3 of your period that your energy is up and your exercise stamina begins to follow.

Exercise During Ovulation

This is a one day event, but the days surrounding it can leave you feeling even more energized. Around the end of week two to the beginning of week three, which for most women is ovulation time, you may find that you can withstand higher levels of exertion than during other times of the month. 

Exercise During the Luteal Phase

Some women will almost immediately notice shifts in their exercise tolerance and performance following ovulation. For others, the week before their period, may be when they experience a marked decline exercise tolerance, along with having trouble thermoregulating. Our bodies can retain more water and have more difficulty cooling down in this phase, which can significantly hinder your workout. Staying hydrated with an attention to electrolytes prior to your activity can be helpful, as well as wearing breathable clothing and exercising in a cool environment.

Use that information to your advantage and take that time to incorporate more recovery time in your schedule. Leveraging some pilates and yoga as you near your period can help support your body’s needs.

If you’re feeling more hungry prior to your period then know this is completely normal. Your body is slightly less insulin sensitive and your need for calories, specifically carbohydrates, is much higher during this phase. You can choose to listen to your body’s needs and eat in a way that you feel is best or focus on increasing your calories by 5-10%. Take the approach that serves you best. You can use this meal plan to help guide you in plant based carbohydrates that support your hormones.

Tracking your cycle and incorporating different workouts into your routine helps you get the most out of your workout. Plus, it will add variety in your exercise regimen.

Best Exercises for Each Phase of Your Cycle

Tailoring your exercise to your cycle is more than just period syncing, but rather, syncing your entire cycle to include the different phases. We’re going to cover exercise during ovulation, working out while on your period, and how each phase has its own activities based on the hormone changes happening. 

Best Exercises During The Follicular Phase

After your period’s over, hormone levels begin to increase. Higher levels of estrogen and testosterone during this time make for ideal weight training. Some of the exercises you may want to try during this phase include anything that involves resistance training:

  • Running
  • HIIT
  • Cycling
  • Weight training
  • Bodyweight conditioning 

Best Exercises While Ovulating

You experience hormone peaks when ovulating. You may find that you’re feeling super energetic during this time, which is incredible for working out. Anything that makes you burn a few extra calories and sweat a little more during this time is ideal. Exercise to incorporate during the ovulatory phase are:

  • High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
  • Cycling
  • Running
  • Weight lifting
  • Swimming

Best Exercises During The Luteal Phase

After you’ve ovulated, you may feel a bit sluggish, especially after the increased energy from the days prior. During the first days of your luteal phase, your progesterone is rising, and estrogen levels dip and come back up again. Then both taper off just before your period starts. These fluctuations mean you'll have better energy levels at the beginning of this time, and towards the end, you may feel a little tired and less inclined to exercise. Again, listen to your body and do what feels right to you. At the beginning of the luteal phase, you may find you want to continue with your HIIT, running, dance, or spin class. But if you find that your endurance dips and you’re less inclined to push through like you did a week or two before.

 Towards the end, I’d suggest:

  • Low impact cardio
  • Walking or hiking
  • Yoga
  • Swimming
  • Pilates

You can of course continue any form of exercise you prefer through any time of your cycle and modify it to match your energy and hormones in that phase.

Can You Exercise On Your Period?

Yes, it is not only safe to exercise on your period, but it can also help with some of the symptoms that can accompany the first few days of your period.

While many women shy away from working out while on their period, it’s not necessarily a time to avoid exercise altogether. Sure, if you’re doubled over with cramps, exercising may not sound ideal, but some gentle movement may be just the thing to help alleviate some of your symptoms

If you’re feeling super tired, the best thing to do is listen to your body. Don’t try to overdo it with a strenuous workout. 

Some of the exercises I recommend to my patients during this time of the month include:

  • Walking
  • Yoga 
  • Pilates
  • Stretching

Breakdown of the best exercises to do, when, according to your menstrual cycle.

Follicular PhaseLuteal Phase
PeriodLate FollicularOvulationLate Luteal
WalkingCycling, runningHigh-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)Low impact cardio
YogaWeight trainingWeight trainingWalking, hiking
PilatesBodyweight ConditioningRunningYoga

Can Exercise Affect My Period?

So, we’ve talked about how our menstrual cycle affects our athletic performance, but what about the other way around?

Can exercise affect our menstrual cycle?

The short answer is yes.

Normal, regular exercise impacts our hormones in positive ways. Healthy levels of moderate cardio and resistance training can do wonders for our health.

But sometimes, excessive exercise or workouts at a very elite level lead to changes in our menstruation, especially when coupled with undereating. Some women even lose their periods altogether, a phenomenon known as amenorrhea

This threshold is different for each individual. Some women are prone to experience cycle changes with exercise and diet routines that don’t affect other women. It’s a delicate balance, and you have to find what works for you.

Can Exercise Cause Irregular Periods?

When we are putting our bodies through extreme stress levels, it can determine that now is just not the best time for getting pregnant. 

So it shuts down ovulation, which leads to an irregular cycle. 

If you start exercising intensely and don’t consume enough calories to compensate for the increase, your body views that as stress. This can result in irregular periods, or loss of your period altogether. Some women may experience lighter, shorter flows than normal after embarking on a new exercise routine. 

If you’ve noticed a difference in your period since changing your fitness regimen, you may need to have your hormone levels checked

Why Do Athletes Lose Their Period?

Athletes lose their period due to severe strenuous exercise and poor fueling that result in a significant hormone imbalance.  Even recreational athletes can lose their period or experience irregularities in their cycle. 

It doesn’t happen to just Olympians or professional ballerinas. 

Amenorrhea can manifest due to any combination of over-exercise, under-eating, weight loss, or stress. Many elite athletes and more casual exercisers experience all of these things in some form, and it’s the perfect storm that results in the loss of the period.

If you lose your period after beginning a new fitness routine or training regimen, meet with a licensed health care provider to have a thorough workup of your health. 

Exercise with Your Cycle

Exercising with your cycle doesn’t have to be a complicated endeavor. You intuitively already have the cues from your body—it’s a matter of respecting it’s signals and not unfairly trying to hold yourself to the same standards as your non-cyclical counterparts. Through leveraging these strategies you can make your hormones work for you to take your fitness goals to the next level.  

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About The Author

Dr. Jolene Brighten

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Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, is one of the leading experts in women’s medicine and is a pioneer in her exploration of the far-reaching impact of hormonal birth control and the little known side effects that impact health in a large way. In her best selling book, Beyond the Pill, she shares her clinical protocols aimed at supporting women struggling with symptoms of hormone imbalance, including Post-Birth Control Pill Syndrome and birth control related side effects. A trained nutritional biochemist and Naturopathic Physician, Dr. Brighten is the founder and Clinic Director at Rubus Health, an integrative women’s medicine clinic. She is a member of the MindBodyGreen Collective and has been featured in prominent media outlets such as Forbes, Cosmopolitan, ABC news, and the New York Post. Read more about me here.