Interview by Sarah Brenner
Our hormonal cycle is important. Periods are important. For strength athletes, it is especially helpful to understand our hormones and how they can affect our training and strength gains. We sent over a list of questions to Veronica McNelis, a personal trainer, powerlifter, and advocate for women’s health to help us better understand how our cycles affect our training.
Tell the Nation a little bit about yourself:
I’m a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner and a USA Powerlifting athlete and referee. I combined my two passions (women’s health and powerlifting) to create a business helping other women resolve their menstrual cycle issues and learn more about their cycles. I believe all women deserve to feel strong, powerful and confident in their bodies and the more knowledge women have about their bodies and hormones, the more empowered they can feel.
Sooooooo…. What exactly IS a period? (Just in case anyone forgot)
A period is the shedding of the endometrial lining (the innermost layer) of the uterus. A period is the grand finale in a series of hormonal events that take place over the course of the entire menstrual cycle. A period is actually made up of not only blood but also cervical fluid and parts of the endometrial lining.
Give me the quick and dirty on the different phases of the hormonal cycle:
Phase one of the menstrual cycle is the follicular phase. The follicular phase begins on day one of heavy bleeding (not spotting) and lasts until ovulation. The follicular phase can be anywhere from 7 to 21 days, but averages around 14. The length of the follicular phase can be influenced by stress, illness and under-eating. During the follicular phase, six to eight follicles are stimulated to grow due to the release of follicle stimulating hormone. These follicles produce estrogen. As the follicles grow larger and produce increased quantities of estrogen, this rise in estrogen stimulates the release of luteinizing hormone, which triggers ovulation.
One dominant follicle will make it to ovulation, where the follicle ruptures and releases the egg inside. Ovulation is marked by an increase in all hormones. The swelling of the dominant follicle takes a few hours, while the final rupture takes only minutes.
After the follicle has ruptured and released the egg, the follicle transforms into the corpus luteum gland, a temporary endocrine gland. This endocrine gland produces estrogen and progesterone and has a lifespan of 10-16 days, which determines the length of the luteal phase. The luteal phase lasts from the end of ovulation, until the start of menstruation. Progesterone levels surge after the corpus luteum forms, and then gradually taper off until the end of the luteal phase. As the corpus luteum shrinks and progesterone levels drop, the shedding of the uterine lining is triggered.
How do the phases of the hormonal cycle affect training?
During the follicular phase of your cycle when hormone levels are overall lower, you can expect training to feel easier and your body to be better able to handle high volume and intense workouts. We can recover faster and easier during this phase and tend to have a higher pain tolerance. We are also more insulin sensitive so this can be a good time to increase carbohydrate intake.
At the time of ovulation our hormones are actually most favorable for hitting PR’s, but since estrogen levels are highest we are also more prone to injury due to joint laxity.
During our luteal phase, our hormone levels are higher and training tends to feel harder. We get out of breath easier, recovery is decreased and our bodies rely more on fat for fuel and we may have increased cravings and hunger due to a slight increase in energy expenditure. It’s normal to feel bloated during this time as estrogen and progesterone affect the hormones that regulate fluid in our body.
We can’t always adapt our training based on the phase of our cycle we are in, especially when we are prepping for an upcoming meet, but it can be helpful to understand what is happening within our body in regards to our hormone levels and how that may affect our training. It can take the mystery out of our cravings and things feeling heavy for “no reason”.
What should we do if we get our period on meet day?
Don’t stress too much! Most of us dread getting our period on meet day, but the reality is we are actually better off hormonally. The few days prior to our period when hormone levels drop off is actually the worst time to compete. Once we get our period, our body no longer has to worry about a potential pregnancy, and the energy systems used preparing for a pregnancy can be used towards competing instead.
However, this doesn’t make handling PMS any easier. If you know your period will fall on meet day and you tend to get bad cramps, migraines and/or GI issues, you can prepare by loading up on magnesium, and taking low dose aspirin the 5-7 days before your period begins. Cramping is caused by the release of hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins, which cause the uterine lining to contract and shed. High levels of prostaglandins can cause other muscles, like your bowels, to react in a similar manner. A higher level of prostaglandins can be caused by higher estrogen and lower progesterone. Magnesium calms the nervous system, reduces inflammation in the body, and aids in the production of progesterone. Aspirin suppresses the production of prostaglandins.
What different types of birth control are available, and how do they affect strength training?
There are two main types of hormonal birth control available: combined and progestin-only. The first type, combined, contains both estrogen and progestin (progestin is a pseudo hormone, designed to mimic the body’s natural hormone progesterone). The second type, progestin-only, is actually what it sounds like, and contains progestin only (no estrogen).
Hormonal birth control works by suppressing ovulation, thinning the lining of the uterus (the body can’t hold or nourish a pregnancy with a thin uterine lining) and impairing the production of cervical fluid (cervical fluid is needed to transport sperm to the egg). Hormonal birth control shuts down your body’s natural hormone production in order to do these things.
Examples of combined birth control include the pill, NuvaRing and contraceptive patch. Progestin-only forms of birth control include the progestin-only pill (sometimes also called the mini-pill), implants, injections and hormonal IUD’s.
Unfortunately, there isn’t tons of research and information in regards to the effect of hormonal birth control on strength training. However, one study has shown that women NOT on the pill experienced a 40-60% greater gain in muscle mass compared to women taking the pill. Other studies have shown the pill to cause delayed muscle recovery post training and decreased aerobic capacity. Another thing to keep in mind how the side effects of birth control, such as weight gain, depression, or blood clots, can impact training and energy levels.
What are some of your favorite resources for women to learn about the hormonal cycle and reproductive health?
Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler is my go-to book for reproductive health information. The book explains in detail, Fertility Awareness Method, a non-hormonal form of birth control, that will not only help to prevent or achieve pregnancy but help you to better understand your cycle.
Thank you to Veronica for taking the time to answer our questions. You can reach her on Instagram @veronicamcnelis and her website www.veronicamcnelis.com