What is cycle syncing? Learn how to align your exercise and workouts with the four phases of your menstrual cycle so you can improve your physical health, avoid injury, and honor your body's natural rhythms and cycles.
This guest post is by Sarah Petty, a non-diet integrative nutritionist and personal trainer who helps people with periods find body confidence and food freedom. Her Hormone Transformation program walks you through everything you need to know in order to balance your hormones naturally, without a side of diet culture.
Sarah specializes in working with womxn who are ready to quit dieting and start living, those who hate exercise and feel uncomfortable working out in the gym, and people with PCOS, endometriosis, and PMS. You can read more about the Hormone Transformation program here. You can also interact with her on Facebook and Instagram @sarahempowers.
Over to you, Sarah!
What is Cycle Syncing?
Cycle syncing is a hot topic these days, as periods become less taboo in the online space. Essentially, cycle syncing helps you live your life in a circular rhythm that is driven by your body’s natural hormonal shifts. The practice can be as simple as planning events when you know you’ll enjoy them more, or as complex as creating an entire lifestyle that depends on your current menstrual phase.
Traditional methods of cycle syncing include switching up your recipes, social engagements, and work/creative projects according to which phase or week you’re at in your cycle. While it may sound like a “woo” thing to do, it’s actually a scientifically driven concept! Research consistently shows that the female reproductive cycle has significant effects on energy, creativity, focus, blood flow, strength capacity, and recovery.
Understanding how your cycle works, and creating a workout plan that reflects it, can allow you to achieve greater gains in strength, muscle growth, and metabolic efficiency. It can also help you give yourself grace when max back squats or hill sprints sound like a terrible idea–it might be your body trying to protect you from injury during a vulnerable time in your cycle!
Aligning your cycle with your workout routine can keep you moving forward in your fitness journey with fewer injuries and greater enjoyment. You’re more likely to stay consistent when you move pain-free and enjoy what you do!
In order to sync your exercise with your cycle, you need to know three things: What cycle phases are, the best types of exercise for each phase, and how to integrate your plan to accommodate the best options for your body. Let’s dive in!
What are Your Cycle Phases Anyway?
Your menstrual cycle phases are general periods of time where your hormones tend to be in a predictable place. You can track your phases by paying attention to your symptoms and learning how they relate to the typical hormone fluctuations throughout your cycle. During your cycle, your hormones go on a journey of highs and lows that regulate your mood, your energy, and your ability to reproduce.
These shifts are somewhat predictable, because they are influenced by the changes in previous cycles. Having a good understanding of your body can be a huge asset–you can feel at ease knowing that your body is behaving normally, and you’ll know when something needs more attention.
Every person is different, and what’s considered “normal” is really just an accumulation of averages. So don’t feel like there’s something wrong with you if your cycle doesn’t align with the timeframes listed below.
Day 1 of the menstrual cycle starts on the first full day of period flow and lasts until your flow is (mostly) done. It’s common to gradually ease out of a period, so if this applies to you, consider your menstrual phase over whenever your cramps are gone and you don’t have any redness showing up on your hygiene products.
During this phase, your body is using a TON of energy to flush your endometrial lining (the part of your uterus where a fertilized egg can implant itself). If you have a heavy flow, lots of clots, or feel otherwise unwell, now is a good time to rest and refuel with iron-rich foods. You can also do gentle stretching or yoga (avoid inversions) to encourage healthy circulation without expending too much energy.
Hormonally, you’ve pushed a reset button and are as close to “neutral” as you’re going to get until menopause. Once your energy returns and cramps subside (typically around day 3-6), this is a perfect time to go for some slow, heavy resistance training and cardio like hiking, running, or swimming.
As soon as your menstrual phase ends, the follicular phase begins. It’s named this way because your ovarian follicles are maturing an egg (or two!) for fertilization. Follicular stimulating hormone rises gradually, and estrogen and luteinizing hormone will spike just before you ovulate, signaling the end of the follicular phase.
During the follicular phase, your body doesn’t need as much fuel. It prefers faster and more frequent movement, and recovers well from plyometric training. This phase is the perfect time to introduce or intensify HIIT, increase run length/speed, do agility drills and plyometric training, and lift weight for more reps.
You need less recovery time during this phase, so you may be able to incorporate two workouts a day or take fewer rest days than usual, if your body feels good. Adequate rest is still important during this phase, so be sure to prioritize sleep.
During ovulation, all your reproductive hormones except progesterone have spiked, which can make for an interesting 3-4 days. Some people feel mild cramping, dizziness, tender breasts, or vague pelvic pain, while others don’t notice a thing despite their hormones being quite functional.
Emotions tend to be high, so if you feel reactive or overwhelmed, you can use movement to support balance. It’s also totally fine to take a day or two to rest and tune into your feelings. People tend to be more sociable during ovulation, so if you want to work out but are lacking motivation, take a group class or phone a friend to walk with you!
The surge of hormones during ovulation doesn’t last long, but can be useful for increasing volume during workouts. If you usually do 3 sets of 10 reps, now is a good time to try 4-5 sets, or increase the reps per set to 15. You may be more prone to injury due to increases in joint mobility, so it’s important to prioritize warmup up, cooling down, and recovery work such as foam rolling and massage.
The luteal phase lasts from the end of ovulation up until the first day of the next menstrual cycle. For many, this is the longest phase and can feel like it will never end. Progesterone spikes during the luteal phase, increasing your metabolic rate and potentially making you hungrier (especially for carbs and fat).
You may also have reduced production of serotonin and dopamine during this time, making exercise seem less exciting. If estrogen and progesterone are imbalanced during this phase, you’re more likely to experience bloating and negative emotions.
The luteal phase is a good time to prioritize low-impact resistance training, cardio, and recovery work such as yoga, stretching, walking, swimming, and jogging. Your resting heart rate is more likely to be elevated during this time, which means intense training will feel more difficult and you may need more rest days to recover.
Finally, your joints are more mobile the closer you get to your period, so risk of injury is increased. This is not the ideal time to test your 1 rep max.
How to Create a Customized Menstrual Cycle Workout Program
Your menstrual cycle is as unique as your body, even if it seems “textbook.” The best way to create a workout program that aligns with your cycle is to track your cycle for 1-2 months to learn where your phases tend to end and begin. On average, the phase lengths are as follows:
- Menstrual phase: 3-6 days
- Follicular phase: 8-12 days
- Ovulation phase: 2-3 days
- Luteal phase: 10-16 days
Yours might be quite different! A period tracker app that allows you to record your basal body temperature, cervical mucous, and cervix position is the most accurate way to track where you are at in your cycle. The Fertility Awareness Method offers education on this topic, and is an excellent way to get in touch with your body (even if getting pregnant is not important to you).
You can also track your energy, mood, and discharge symptoms in a journal or app, in order to get a general idea of where you are at in your cycle. This is less precise, but encourages checking in with your body throughout the day, thereby encouraging a healthier relationship with your body.
When you track your symptoms, also track how your body responds to different workouts. If you feel really good sprinting one day, note where you are at in your cycle. If you feel exhausted even thinking about movement, that’s an important signal. Write it down.
If you don’t currently have a movement practice, start thinking about what kinds of movement seem interesting, accessible, and fun for you. Identify what you’ve enjoyed in the past, and what you’d like to learn in the future. Take into account what’s realistic, given your unique health concerns, your environment, and the equipment or coaching available to you.
Once you’ve identified your typical cycle phases and your favorite forms of movement, you can begin to build your program. Make a list of types of movement you want to do, based on intensity.
For example, your high-intensity list could include HIIT, 3 rep max deadlifts, a tempo run, and swimming. Your medium-intensity list could include 3 sets of 12 reps in dumbbell workouts, a casual hike with hills, a hatha yoga class, or mowing the yard. Your low-intensity list could include a 30-minute walk, yin yoga, practicing planks, and a mobility class.
Then, create a calendar (digital, print, or some sort of creative 3-D option!) and circle the days where your schedule allows you to include movement. If there aren’t many, that’s ok! You can also squeeze 10-15 minutes in on busy days.
Next, mark the estimated day 1 of your next menstrual cycle. If your periods are irregular, average your typical cycle length and keep in mind that you’ll probably adjust it as you get closer to the actual day.
Finally, start plugging in types of movement from your preferred exercise list. The menstrual phase will probably be the most sparsely populated, with 1-4 workouts. The follicular phase should be the most densely populated, with 1-2 full rest days per week (feel free to include recovery work as often as you like).
The ovulation phase depends more on your preferences; some people think of it as a continuation of the follicular phase or the beginning of the luteal phase, and don’t change anything about their workout frequency/intensity. Do what feels good here, and take at least 1 rest day per week. For your luteal phase, include plenty of gentle movement and time for recovery. Most people feel good working out 3-4 times a week.
Keep in mind that your body will change over time, and this program should as well. Mental flexibility is key here. It’s normal for your cycle to become longer or shorter in response to stressful events or seasons, increases or decreases in movement, changes in nutrition, medications, and other health factors.
It will always be a learning process! That’s one of the cool things about your body–you can always be working towards learning what it needs, just like any other quality relationship.
Do you practice cyclical living? Let us know in the comments below!