International Women’s Day – How to work with your body to achieve your fitness goals

8th March marks International Women’s Day each year. As you may well be aware, the majority of fitness plans and information are put together with men in mind, whether intentionally or not.

A review of physiological research by O’Halloran (2020) determined that just 8% of physiological studies exclusively featured female participants. In the field of sports science, this was deemed even more shocking, with 4% of studies focusing exclusively on female participants.

Men experience a consistent rise and fall in their hormone levels each day. This is more conducive to a set routine, including but not limited to, exercise, diet, sleep, productivity, ability to focus, and much more. Female hormone levels are, unfortunately, not quite as consistent or reliable. Levels ebb and flow every day across the course of our cycles, which of course can also vary in length month on month.

Because of this, women need to work with their bodies to achieve their fitness goals, rather than against them. We’ve laid out the basics below to help you understand your cycle, and what types of exercise might work best in each phase. 

Cycle Overview

Typically, the menstrual cycle can be broken down into two phases: the follicular phase and the luteal phase. They are separated by ovulation.

The follicular phase

The follicular phase runs from day 1 of your period until ovulation. This phase can be subdivided into two parts because of the changes in hormonal concentrations:

  1. The period phase

At the start of your cycle the endometrial lining sheds and leaves your body via your vagina – aka the period. At this point in the cycle levels of oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest.

  1. The follicular phase

Following the period oestrogen starts to increase until it reaches its peak just before ovulation (which occurs roughly at the mid-point in the cycle). Progesterone remains low.

The luteal phase

The luteal phase runs from ovulation through until the day before your next period arrives. Like the follicular phase can be sub-divided into two parts:

  1. The luteal phase

Immediately following ovulation oestrogen levels begin to temporarily fall before they rise to reach a secondary peak at roughly the mid-point of the second phase of the cycle. Additionally, at this time progesterone – which started to rise after ovulation – also reaches its peak.

2. The pre-menstrual phase

Following this, if pregnancy does not occur, both oestrogen and progesterone begin to decline and because your endometrium is no longer supported it begins to shed, and the cycle begins again.

Intensity levels

For reference:

Endurance exercise;

  • Low – you can still hold a conversation with ease
  • Moderate – sentences might be broken with intermittent, but manageable breathing
  • High – you won’t be able to carry a conversation.
  • You can also consider the use of heart rate monitoring if available.

Strength Training; classify based on volume

  • Moderate – more sets/reps with lighter weights
  • High – fewer sets/reps with heavier weights

Training & the menstrual cycle

The period phase


  • Oestrogen and progesterone are low
  • Symptoms: cramps, nausea, and low mood, attributed to not only low concentrations of oestrogen and progesterone but also to prostaglandins, which are hormone-like chemicals that help our uterus to contract to shed our endometrial lining
  • Low oestrogen and progesterone might impact the ability to recover post-training session

What this might mean for training:

If experiencing these symptoms, you may not feel up for a big training session or performance (i.e., reduced energy and motivation to train as a result), and this has been shown in some recent research which highlights that the prevalence of menstrual cycle symptoms, and their frequency, are linked to changing or missing training.

Recommended activities:

  • Those not experiencing any symptoms or changes in motivation can typically carry on with their normal training program (although consider that due to hormonal levels recovery might take longer so consider active recovery sessions/more rest days if needed).
  • For those that do tend to experience intense symptoms, consider moderate to low-intensity strength and endurance-based exercise with more days for rest and active recovery such as walking, yoga or mobility.

What this might look like:

  • Average phase length: 5 days
  • Number of sessions: 2 sessions

The follicular phase


  • Oestrogen is rising whilst progesterone is low
  • Oestrogen can have lots of different physiological effects on the body. For instance, it is known for its anabolic and muscle-building effects, its excitatory effects on neuromuscular signalling and is thought to have a protective function against muscle damage by reducing the likes of muscle soreness and swelling. Additionally, it is a feel-good hormone which can influence motivation to perform and train positively.
  • But oestrogen might also play a role in ligament laxity which could increase injury risk.

What this might mean for training:

Now could be a good time to shift the focus to strength training.. Some evidence suggests that follicular phase-based resistance training (i.e., strength training more in the follicular phase than any other phase) is better than regular or luteal phase-based training for developing strength and muscle mass. There is also evidence to suggest that our ability to recover from performance or training is improved at this point in our cycle. 

Recommended activities:

  • Strength training (3 sessions per week, progressive overload working towards high intensity, low volume training)
  • Moderate-intensity endurance exercise
  • The risk of injury might be increased in the days before ovulation. Although this is not a reason to not train at this point it might help reduce any potential increased risk by focusing on good technique, and a proper warm-up before any activity in this phase (particularly before high impact, change of direction-based activities).

What this might look like:

  • Average phase length: 9 days
  • Number of sessions: 6 sessions

The luteal phase


  • Both oestrogen and progesterone are high
  • Progesterone is thought to inhibit the effects of oestrogen, as well as having its own physiological effects such as promoting good mood, reducing anxiety as well as improving sleep
  • Progesterone is known to influence your body temperature (which rises by approximately 0.3 C [0.5 F] at this point of the cycle)
  • Progesterone can affect metabolism (some research highlights that we might be better able to use fats as fuel in this part of our cycle compared to any other point).

What this might mean for training:

Because our body is better able to use fats as fuel in this part of our cycle compared to at any other point, this might be beneficial for the likes of endurance training, such as long, steady-state runs or cycles when saving carbohydrate stores (i.e., glycogen), and instead using fat, can prevent “hitting the wall” so we can potentially keep going for longer without fatiguing. However, increased body temperature could mean that some women might feel hotter during training which can make them stop, slow down or perceive exercise to be harder at this point in their cycle. Additionally, recovery might take longer as the beneficial effects of oestrogen are offset by progesterone.

Recommended activities:

  • Longer, lower-intensity circuit-based strength training with increased volume
  • Longer, steady-state endurance exercise at a moderate pace

What this might look like:

  • Average phase length: 10 days
  • Number of sessions: 5 sessions


The pre-menstrual phase


  • Both oestrogen and progesterone are declining
  • This rapid decline in hormones can cause a lot of the different premenstrual symptoms we experience at this point in our cycle, such as headaches, bloating, breast tenderness, anxiety, and irritability

What this might mean for training:

Just like during our period these symptoms might reduce motivation to perform and willingness to train, as well as make our perception of effort during exercise greater.

Recommended activities:

  • Low to moderate-intensity strength training (high reps, low weight)
  • Low to moderate-intensity endurance work

What this might look like:

  • Average phase length: 4 days
  • Number of sessions: 2 sessions

With all exercise, it’s important to note how you’re feeling at the end of each session, and even compare to previous sessions. Understandably, if you’re set on one kind of exercise and complementary movement (e.g. you primarily focus on running, but also strength train to supplement your running and prevent injury), you may be reluctant to switch up your entire fitness routine.

However, it’s still important to be aware of how your physiology can impact your exercise performance and progress, and potentially even plan around it. Using running as an example again – you may find that you’re speedier and feel less exerted in the luteal phase compared to the period phase, so it may be helpful (if feasible) to plan accordingly.

Even if you can’t move things around too much, at least you have valid, physiological reasoning as to why exercise may feel so much harder on some days compared to others, and take that in your stride, rather than beating yourself up for it!

If you need a little added support with your nutrition, we’re on hand! Order today and start smashing your goals with personalised nutrition! Get £50 off a 5-day trial with code: BLOG50. Start your trial here!

Fresh Fitness Food provides personalised meal plans delivered straight to your door. We ensure not only that you have the nutrients you need to support your goals, but also that you have the time usually spent shopping, cooking and washing up, to engage in your favourite festive activities. To discuss which nutrition plan is right for you, book a call with our in-house nutrition team here.

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Meghan Foulsham

Published by Meghan Foulsham

Meghan's fascination with metabolism and the effect of diet on the body covered in her BSc Biochemistry, paired with being a passionate mental health advocate, led her to a Master's degree in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition. Using this, Meghan works with clients to help them reach their goals in the most sustainable way, without sacrificing or risking their mental health.

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