If you're a female cyclist looking for maximum fitness from your time on the bike, you need to sync your training with your physiology alongside optimising your bike and set up, and here's how to do it.
You need to pay close attention to time in each training zone, your recovery, as well as nutrition and hydration strategies if you’re after maximum training gains.
These are all affected by which stage of the menstrual cycle you are in, and so tracking and training with your menstrual cycle—rather than ignoring your body’s hormonal changes—will be a key part of making the most of when you’re strongest.
To better understand what female-optimised training really looks like, Jasmijn Muller of BE THE EGG Cycle Coaching set me a training block taking into account the symptoms I tend to experience across my natural period cycle of 29 to 30 days—which should allow me to make the most out of each session and time in-the-saddle. I recently completed this one -menstrual-cycle-long training plan and shared my experiences in the vlog above.
Within the training plan, at the point in my menstrual cycle which Jasmijn said I could expect to be my strongest, I challenged myself to set the fastest time I could up my steepest local climb in West Sussex. The Cob Lane climb may only be 0.34km long but it has a mighty average gradient of 16.4%. Check out the vlog above to see how I got on…
“Your physiology, your hormones and your training are all aligned,” Jasmijn says. “Progressive overload followed by a short de-load on a standardised ‘3 weeks on, 1 week off’ pattern frequently applied to men does not permit women to take advantage of optimal training adaptations the way they can if they match their training intensity to their physiology and hormone levels.”
Jasmijn adds: “In theory, you may want to schedule a particular training session at a particular time of the month but in practice we don’t always have that luxury.
“It’s also about learning how to mitigate for some menstrual symptoms to have less pain, and adapt your training or nutrition so that you can still perform well, particularly on race days.”
As an elite rider, everything has to be taken into consideration to improve and boost your performance so that you have that winning edge.
To get the most out of the training block, I had the support of Ribble’s speedy aerodynamic Endurance SL R Disc bike, as used by the Drops Le Col UCI Continental team. This model is kitted out with the cleanly integrated Level 5 carbon bar/stem, along with an Ultegra Di2 groupset, and Mavic SLR 45 Pro Edition wheels wrapped in Continental GP5000 28mm tyres.
The Ribble-sponsored British team also recently announced its own intention to provide each of its riders with a deeper understanding of their personal physiology by partnering with the biomarker company Orreco.
Drops LeCol announced: “Led by Female Athlete lead Dr Georgie Bruinvels, they will educate our riders, staff and coaches about their menstrual cycles.
“The team will utilise Orreco’s Fitrwoman App and FitrCoach platform to track riders’ menstrual cycles and Orreco will provide the athletes and their coaches with detailed individualised reports, action plans and strategies to help manage nutrition, recovery and wellness around the menstrual cycle.
“The athlete programme helps world-class athletes train in sync with their menstrual cycle to sustain peak performance at the highest level.”
Understanding how your body works can help you make the most of your available training time to work towards any goal.
Let’s take a look at how your hormones change during each of the menstrual cycle phases and how that may affect training sessions, nutrition, recovery and mood.
“A natural cycle is effectively split into two halves, which Dr Stacey Sims refers to as a low hormone phase and a high hormone phase, with ovulation in the middle,” Jasmijn explains.
“The average length of the menstrual cycle is 28 days, but there are very few women who have exactly 28-day cycles, or who exactly ovulate on the 14th of the month.”
It’s important to be aware that if you’re using the pill, the withdrawal bleed isn’t the same as a natural menstrual cycle and your hormonal balance won’t be the same.
“It all starts with tracking because if you don’t track you don’t know what’s going on with your body,” Jasmijn says.
“If you know when ovulation happens then you know how long that first half of the cycle is, so you know how much time you’ve got to put in the more demanding and harder training sessions,” Jasmijn notes.
On average ovulation occurs on day 16 to 17, but it can be any day from day 11 to 27 of your menstrual cycle.
Ovulation test kits can be bought and Jasmijn explains how these work: “At the same time every day you dip a stick into urine you've collected, and it discolours if the luteinising hormone is present, which starts to rise just before ovulation.”
Progesterone is low and estradiol is low during the early follicular phase. This phase usually lasts around four to six days, but can go on for up to eight.
If you can mitigate your period symptoms, you can expect lots of gains in this phase.
Strength training and HIIT sessions during the menstrual phase may lead to greater muscular and fitness gains. “Oestrogen increases the anabolic response to strength training and can help to maintain or even enhance skeletal muscle function,” Jasmijn explains.
A recent study by Sung et al (2014) compared the effects of follicular versus luteal phase strength training and found that strength training during the follicular phase showed a higher gain in muscle strength, muscle diameter and type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibres.
Jasmijn’s recommendation is: “If your body permits you to go hard, indeed follow Dr Stacy Sims’ general advice and use this time of the month for moderate to high-intensity training on the bike and in the gym.
“If the inflammatory responses experienced during the last few days before your period linger and you are experiencing increased menstrual symptoms such as bad cramps, headaches, nausea etc you may want to take it a bit easier with more focus on recovery and stretching, especially for the first few days.”
Jasmjin adds: “But generally the anti-inflammatory properties of moderate exercise can help to ease menstrual symptoms.
For optimal strength development go for fewer reps, but with a heavier weight. On the bike, Jasmijn recommends focusing on threshold, anaerobic intervals, HIIT, speedwork at this time.
“Your metabolism is naturally slower during the first half of your cycle,” Jasmijn notes. “One more advantage of the advice to hit it a bit harder during this time of the month is that HIIT training and strength training will speed up your metabolism—this will help with weight management and muscle development/maintenance goals.”
To reduce your period pains to make the most of this time when your body can make significant training gains, Jasmijn recommends:
But Jasmijn suggests incorporating mitigation protocols a week prior to your bleeding beginning, and so more detailed techniques are explained later on in this guide in '~Week 4: Late Luteal Phase’. Click here to jump ahead to this section.
The late follicular phase is in-between the end of your bleeding and ovulation—you’re still in the low hormone phase. Progesterone is low (because it is only produced after ovulation), meanwhile oestradiol rises to its first peak.
This is the time of your cycle to pack in the hard workouts and build on the intensity to make some serious training adaptations.
“Athletes typically feel strongest in this phase, and with a rise in energy levels and mood, this can be a great time to set some PBs,” Jasmijn says.
“Rising levels of oestrogen have been found to contribute to increased muscle strength, vertical jump height and better recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage,” Jasmijn explains.
“The impact of oestrogen on muscle strength is not necessarily accomplished by increased muscle size through hypertrophy, but rather by affecting the intrinsic quality of skeletal muscle, enabling muscle fibres to generate greater force.”
Jasmijn says it’s an opportune time to up the weights in gym strength workouts, and work on your anaerobic capacity on the bike. Back to back hard days are a good way of packing in plenty of sessions in this first half of the cycle when you’re feeling at your best and when there are no factors restricting recovery.
“Rising levels of oestrogen (while progesterone is still low) has been found to results in improved quality of sleep, reduced time to fall asleep, and increased amount of REM sleep,” says Jasmjin.
Baseline intake of carbohydrates, protein and fluids is recommended by Jasmijn.
To help with muscle, tendon and ligament recovery Jasmijn recommends including some sources of collagen in your food (jelly or broth) and food that’s rich in vitamin C (broccoli or strawberries) towards the end of this phase as you get closer to ovulation.
Injuries such as ACL tears are more likely to occur when oestrogen reaches its peak just before ovulation so it's advisable to ensure you’re fully warmed up.
Jasmijn explains: “This is due to the effect of oestrogen, when unopposed by progesterone, on increasing connective tissue laxity, making the joints less stable and prone to injury during short, sharp movements and changes of direction.”
Cortical excitability increases in the late follicular phase. “As oestrogen, and with it serotonin, rises many women experience more optimistic feelings, less fatigue and feel mentally sharper,” Jasmijn says.
Alongside this studies have found cognitive performance to be slightly better during this phase and so this a good opportunity to practise and develop your riding skills.
Now is the time to begin the switch from higher intensities to steadier efforts, as well as giving your body more recovery time.
After ovulation, you enter now into the phase which Dr Stacy Sims calls the ‘high hormone phase’. Progesterone is elevated and it remains the dominant hormone while oestrogen levels are rising.
In a 28-day-cycle the mid luteal phase is around days ~18-23, in a 35-day cycle it’s roughly days 24-29.
Progesterone is catabolic, “it increases the breakdown of protein, particularly reducing the availability of amino acid leucine, and this may inhibit some of your ability to lean up”, explains Jasmijn.
“Luckily oestrogen is also medium-high during this phase and counters some of these catabolic effects with its anabolic effects.”
Basically, strength sessions aren’t completely useless in this phase, but as you’re unlikely to see as many gains as you would in the first half of your cycle, you may want to cut down on the number of sessions, as well as the weight and perceived exertion.
If you do choose to continue with some sessions, Jasmijn notes: “Taking 5-7g of BCAA (branch chain amino acids) with at least 2g of leucine before a strength workout can help counter some of progesterone's catabolic effects but is also thought to give better focus and lift brain fog.”
It’s best to switch the focus towards long endurance training rides at a steady pace during this phase.
Jasmijn explains: “Oestrogen increases an enzyme that results in a greater reliance on free fatty acids for fuel during exercise while sparing carbohydrates.
"It suppresses your liver’s production and release of glucose during exercise which may make it more difficult to hit higher-intensities during training in the second half of your cycle.”
Also as oestrogen inhibits glycogen accessibility and progesterone prevents the body from storing glycogen, Jasmijn stresses that you need to add carbohydrates during exercise during this phase to perform optimally.
Post-workout, whey protein is important. Dr Stacy Sims’ recommendations are for ~25-30g of protein within 30 minutes post-exercise, and that it should contain at least 3g of leucine.
Jasmijn recommends taking whey power with leucine-rich foods, such as 250g serving of Greek yoghurt which contains 2.5g of leucine.
During workouts in the heat, it’s important to drink a little more and add a bit more salt to pre- and post-workout meals, to boost your blood plasma volume, which for a fifth of women is 8% lower compared to the early follicular phase.
Jasmijn explains: “When you have high progesterone, you also have a reduction in aldosterone [the hormone which helps with the retention of sodium, and with it water] because the hormones are competing for the same receptor site. Your body may kick out more sodium (saltier sweat) which drops the blood plasma volume.
“This drop in the watery part of your blood results in a lower cardiac output, so that means there is less blood available to go to the working muscles that are getting hotter with exercise.
“So all in all, you end up with an increased core temperature, a downward shift in your ability to off-load that heat (through sweating), plus an increased amount of heat being generated by your muscles whilst there is less blood available to remove that heat …. This all contributes to a shorter time to fatigue.”
When progesterone is high it may feel like it takes longer to recover.
As well as consuming more leucine-rich protein, Jasmjin recommends adjusting the gap between your workouts: “That could be done by doing workout A today in the morning and workout B tomorrow in the evening. Or, if that is not enough, including more rest days or proper active recovery days during the mid-luteal phase.”
Due to an increase in your core temperature, you may also find your sleep quality is worse. Sleep is an incredibly important part of the recovery process and so Jasmijn suggests trying a cool shower, having a cool drink before bed and sleeping in a cool room, as well as keeping your diet ‘sleep friendly’(avoiding a heavy carb meal shortly before bed).
Now is the opportune time for a deload week, with a shift in focus towards lower intensities and developing your skills, technique, flexibility and core stability.
“About nine days after ovulation, the corpus luteum dies off and both oestrogen and progesterone levels fall. This encourages the follicle-stimulating hormone to slowly rise again and start recruiting follicles for the next menstrual cycle,” says Jasmijn.
This drop in oestrogen and progesterone in the days leading up to your period can cause various physical and mental PMS (premenstrual syndrome) symptoms that can in turn affect your performance, Jasmijn explains.
While there may be little measured objective difference in performance across the menstrual cycle, perceived performance is relatively worse during the late luteal and early follicular phases, and so yoga, pilates and lighter endurance sessions are recommended for this phase.
“Some abdominal work gets blood flow to the parts that hurt and this can help to give some relief,” Jasmijn says. “Yoga poses such as child’s pose is a lovely one for your lower back and the yoga pose where you put the soles of your feet together while bending forward, gives more blood flow to the abdominal areas.”
There are higher energy demands on your body during this phase, and there’s a good chance you’ll already have noticed this, yes that’s why you may get cravings.
This is due to your resting metabolic rate being elevated by an estimated 100-300 kcal, as well as changes in insulin sensitivity, explains Jasmijn.
Don’t ignore your increased appetite, you should listen to your body. It is recommended that you slightly increase your energy intake and Jasmijn suggests a diet of healthy fats, regular and increased intakes of protein and less starchy carbohydrates.
“Your body switches to being more fat-dominant as a fuel source during this phase, and this switch in macronutrients ratio will also help to increase your calorie intake," she says
Increasing your intake of carbohydrates during exercise is also recommended, but Jasmijn adds that there’s no evidence that increasing above 60g has any further benefits.
It’s important to eat more protein, rich in essential amino acids such as leucine and tryptophan. Jasmijn explains that this helps reduce some of that protein catabolism as well as helps to boost levels of serotonin in the brain, reducing the severity of PMS.
Dr Stacy Sims recommends that protein should make up 30 to 35% of your diet, and 25 to 30 grams should be consumed post-exercise.
Even though the training focus has changed for this phase, having PMS can be incredibly unpleasant and so there are some mitigation techniques you can adopt to reduce the inflammation.
While this can help your performance, and enable you to race if an event does fall at this time of the month, Jasmijn stresses: “You may also need to be kind to yourself and accept that you will perform as well as your body will permit you at this time”.
“When oestradiol levels drop during the late luteal phase, you lose that natural antidepressant and mood-enhancing effect serotonin has, leading to mood instability and may experience some of those typical PMS symptoms such as irritability, depression, anger as well as sleep disturbance,” Jasmijn explains.
“With progesterone levels also decreasing during the late luteal phase, it can be a bit of a double whammy on your mood since GABA function [an amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in the brain] also decreases.”