Updated: Dec 7, 2022
You might think you drew the short straw as a female runner.
Men's prostates don't grow then shed, forcing them to balk on training plans every few weeks. They just get to go hard all the time.
Meanwhile, you're on a second bag of chocolate-covered raisins, trying to imagine what the 8x800m workout would have looked like if you'd done it today.
Let's talk about every phase of your cycle, and why your speed/endurance/strength may actually benefit from menstruation. By the end of this, you'll pity men and their simple prostates.
Periodizing with your cycle
Take a look at any good training plan. You'll typically find one "down week" after three weeks of building.
I have you use this periodization in the Sub-2-hr Half Marathon training plan, and as a professional runner, it's how I train personally.
One week of x (base fitness)
One week of 1.2x (build week)
One week of 1.4x (build week) - this becomes my new 'x' for the next 4-week block
One week of 1.2x (down week)
What is 'x'?
The 'x' above is a little confusing. Is it intensity or volume? The answer is, yes.
For simplicity's sake: if you're a more casual runner who considers the sport more of a hobby than a career, (90% of people) then 'x' is just volume, meaning miles run. If you can run 20 miles in a week, that is your 'x'.
If you do consider running a career or you want to be highly competitive, then 'x' is volume + intensity during weeks 1 and 2, and just volume during weeks 3 and 4. If you're at already high mileage, these 1.2 and 1.4 multiples do not make sense - read the next note.
Why 1.2 and 1.4?
These 1.2 and 1.4 multiples are not exact formulas, but estimates that should be thought through given your base fitness and weekly mileage. A runner with a base, weekly mileage of 20 miles would benefit from these multiples, while a runner with a base mileage of 90 miles would overtrain real quick. As you get into higher mileage, consider using this menstrual/training cycle syncing principle, but talk to your coach about how best to increase mileage while avoiding burnout.
Shouldn't my biggest build week (1.4x) be during my period when I'm most capable?
A higher pain tolerance and greater energy will serve you well at high mileage, but will also serve you well at high intensity. During week three of your menstrual cycle, your pain tolerance and energy will be a bit lower, but you're still capable of really great, steady-state aerobic work.
Plus, if you lined everything up with your highest mileage during early follicular, you'd face your second-highest mileage AND high intensity during PMS week, and you'd also have a down week during the mid-follicular phase, when you're feeling super good - what a waste.
Let's pause. Can you think of anything else that follows a similar pattern in weeks and intensity?
This is the genius of your menstrual cycle. You're required to get the rest your body needs to build effectively every fourth week (more or less). And you're also gifted with an inordinate amount of energy and muscle-building ability just as often.
IT'S BRILLIANT! BY THE END OF THE FOURTH (DOWN) WEEK, YOU'RE A NEW WOMAN READY TO CRUSH SKULLS AND TAKE NAMES - PERFECT FOR A NEW ROUND OF HIGH-INTENSITY BUILDING.
I'M YELLING BECAUSE I ONLY MADE THIS CONNECTION RECENTLY AND WE ALL NEED TO START CAPITALIZING!!
When you sync your training cycle up with your menstrual cycle, magic happens. It's perfectly suited to your ability in the moment, whether that moment has you eating local track records for breakfast, or skipping a run to watch Gilmore Girls.
The best part? It's like you don't get an option! PMS hits some of us harder, but that week before a period isn't great athletically for any of us. Use that forced recovery week wisely.
Maximize Training At Every Point In the Cycle
Here's how to maximize your training in each of the four phases according to Dr. Stacy Sims. I'll elaborate on her suggestions with my own, specifically for running.
For our purposes here, we'll divide the above graph into four categories. You'll of course have to adjust based on the actual day-length of your cycle.
Early follicular - first blood, and the following week (Build 1)
Mid follicular - second week up to ovulation (Build 2)
Early luteal - third week (Build 3)
Mid luteal - last week (Down Week)
Build 1 - Early Follicular
As you may already know from Mastering Menstruation - The Pattern of Female Performance, the week of your period - though filled with discomfort and cramping - is actually the most optimal time to really go for it.
You're primed and ready for high-intensity workouts, heavy lifting, fast paces, quick recovery, and despite what period marketing is like, you have a higher pain tolerance, and a lot of metabolic energy.
Plan for speed. Do your fast, turnover-focused workouts here, and save the longer tempo run for later in the month when you're more adapted to higher volume (Build 3) and have less explosive ability.
Lift heavy. Don't let this week pass you by without capitalizing on muscle gains. You have greater force output, recover more quickly, and your hormones allow you to build muscle more quickly this week. Use it all up.
Recovery & Nutrition
Carbs, baby. All this punchy, fast and explosive stuff will demand a lot of your muscles, and the glycogen stores powering them. How do you get more glycogen? Carbs, baby.
Opt for carbs that don't need a nutrition label (sweet potatoes, rice, quinoa, etc.) when you're not directly fueling for a workout. When you are fueling for a workout... like an hour before it, better to get quick-burning carbs in you. I like cereal and Honey Stinger waffles.
Get 25-30g of protein within 45 minutes of every workout or run.
Build 2 - Mid Follicular
In the metaphor of the four seasons corresponding with the four menstrual phases, this is your spring. You're feeling the perkiness of last week without pain or discomfort. Time, again, to capitalize.
Speed + volume. You'll continue feeling punchy and explosive. Now add some distance. If last week you were on reps of 400m, do 800's this week, or mile repeats. Get some mileage under those boots, and do it fast.
Keep lifting heavy and explosively. You're still set to recover quickly.
Recovery & Nutrition
Same as last week + more sleep. Estrogen will begin to raise near the end of this week, which will lower your body temperature, and make sleep a little easier and a lot deeper. Don't stay up until midnight just because you feel good. Snatch that sleep up like it's a stimulus check - it'll put recovery gains in your bank without any work on your part.
You'll still need plenty of carbs to keep your body well fed and high performing. Follow the same general strategy as last week, including the protein piece, but listen to your body. If she needs more, she needs more. Don't calorie count to make sure the Mean Girls won't make fun of you. You'll have plenty of laughing to do yourself when you're leaving them in the dust.
Build 3 - Early Luteal
Enter estrogen and progesterone. These are not villains, but they will make your workouts a little tougher. Estrogen decreases anabolism (muscle building) while progesterone increases catabolism (muscle breakdown). That's a rough combo for anyone trying to build fitness.
You'll notice more edge to your moods, less willingness to face stress, your body will handle stress less effectively, you'll be a bit hungrier, and you'll feel less punchy. This is a great week to focus on volume.
Volume. Flip the bird to those shorter, fast-paced workouts you were doing the last two weeks. This week is about adding miles to your base. Use as much speed as you can access, but pace it out over longer stuff like tempo runs and fartleks.
Don't pine for the explosiveness of yesterweek, just be where your feet are: take advantage of the fitness you've built while operating within the constraints your body has forged for you. You know you're still fast, the punchy speed is just in hibernation.
Lift a bit lighter, and add more reps. Continue striving for explosiveness, but don't shred your gym pass when it's not there.
Recovery & Nutrition
Protein, protein, sleep, carbs, protein. Your muscles are in a state of break down and stay down (👆🏼 catabolism, 👇🏼 anabolism), but you can offset both those things with more sleep, the right fuel before and during workouts, and extra doses of protein.
Building a uterine lining takes a lot of energy, so as much as I've said it already, you'll need even slightly more carbs to get the energy you need to power your runs and workouts. DO NOT dip into a low-energy state, or your muscles will break down even faster. Again, opt for carbs your grandmother ate whenever you don't need fast-burning glucose.
Get 30g of protein before and after runs and workouts, and make sure that protein has a significant amount of leucine. High leucine foods: chicken, beef, pork, fish (tuna), tofu, canned beans, milk, cheese, squash seeds, and eggs.
Get 10 hours of sleep. Minimum 8. I'll drive to your house and beat you up if it's 6 or less.
Down week - mid Luteal
Down week, not break week. Your goal is to maximize the training your body allows you to do, not to ice your Asics all week. PMS will come, and she'll be annoying about it. But don't let bloating and cramping keep you from collecting heavily on three weeks of work you just put in.
Technique + mental strength. Don't get me wrong, you'll still be doing some mileage. After all, this will still be about 1.2x the volume you were doing during last month's uterine shedding. But instead of high-intensity, fast-paced workouts, we'll instead work on form, functional mobility, and mental strength.
As you begin your third run this week with cramps and bloating, your goal should not be to push as hard as you can go without throwing up, it should be to access the right head space in spite of physical discomfort. Nobody's expecting PB workouts here (though you can have those), just focus on making each step of each run as flawless as you know how. Focus on good form on every run.
Lifting should be quite light this week - a good deal of body weight stuff - and you should focus on the finer muscles that make up your running gait: glutes, quads, core, hip flexors, groin, hamstrings, shoulders and back.
Recovery & Nutrition
Active recovery & 5-10% more food. When you're not working out or eating, you're actively recovering from the last three weeks, and in prudent preparation for next week's resurgence. Roll out (Vyper is the best roller). Stretch. Get a massage. Use Firefly's. Put your legs above your heart and take a nap.
A drop-off in estrogen and progesterone will mean good things for your muscle-building capacity, but you'll still require a good deal of protein and carbs to facilitate it. In addition, your body will ask for around 100-200 extra calories per day while still maniacally building a uterine lining that won't be used. Those calories are great, and don't be embarrassed if some of them are chocolate.
Sleep won't come as easily this week, but stay on the same schedule you've been on. Expose yourself to natural light as soon as you wake up and as much as you can throughout the day, and your natural melatonin will kick in.
What Real Progress Looks Like
Men have to train hard all the time, and I suppose they just guess when not to.
As women, our training plan is built into our ovaries. If we're willing to listen to what is happening with our body, and maximize our near-term strengths without wallowing in our inability to do what we did last week, the cycle of progression will continue circling up and up and up.
Take the monthly hit of a down week in stride, and your progress will feel less like hitting a brick wall every four weeks, and more like this:
Race in any phase:
As a side note, everything above relates to your ability to train, not to perform.
The body goes into another state when performance is on the line, and when you've fueled and hydrated properly. For more on that, read ROAR by Dr. Stacy Sims.
Here's Dr. Sims on the performing in every phase:
"...sometimes people think that because I recommend tailoring training according to a female’s hormonal fluctuations that I’m also implying that performance itself will vary during the cycle. That’s not necessarily the case. Women can perform their best at every point in the menstrual cycle, because performance is different from training...you can absolutely perform your best regardless of where you are in your menstrual cycle."