Prior to winning this year’s World Cup, the U.S. women’s national soccer team used multiple strategies to ensure the team was in tip-top shape come game day. But it was coach Dawn Scott’s first-time use of period tracking to optimize player performance that made this year’s training notable.
The team’s historic win raised the question: Is it time for all women to put their periods to work and use those fluctuating hormones to their advantage? The answer, according to OB-GYN Carrie Sopata, MD, is yes.
Understanding the physiological changes happening in your body — and how those fluctuations affect your mood, sleep, eating habits and more — empowers you to alter your behaviors and habits. The goal: to maximize your potential week to week.
Keep in mind that women are all unique, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to tracking your period. “Hormone levels fluctuate during the different phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle,” Sopata says. “How this impacts the body varies from person to person depending on how sensitive they are to these changes.”
Want to reap the benefits of period tracking? Understanding what happens during each stage of your cycle. And know how your body responds to the hormonal changes that occur.
Period Tracking: Know Your Menstrual Cycle Phases
Sopata explains that there are four phases of the menstrual cycle, and the first day of your period is the start of the menstrual calendar.
Phase 1: Menstrual
The phase most women are very familiar with, the menstrual phase, is when the period begins. If there is no pregnancy to support, estrogen and progesterone hormone levels drop. The body sheds the lining of the uterus through the vagina. This typically lasts between 3 to 7 days.
The menstrual phase typically causes the most noticeable side effects, including:
- Mood changes
- Tender breasts
- Food cravings
Phase 2: Follicular
Overlapping with the menstrual phase, this is the phase of egg recruitment. During this phase, the ovaries produce up to 20 small sacks, or follicles, each containing an egg. The healthiest egg matures in the ovary and signals a boost in estrogen, which thickens the lining of the uterus. Eggs that don’t mature get reabsorbed into the ovary.
This phase lasts around two weeks.
This phase is considered baseline for most women, according to Sopata, so symptoms are minimal until ovulation.
Phase 3: Ovulation
Ovulation is the midway point in your menstrual cycle, typically occurring around day 14 in a 28-day cycle. This is when rising estrogen levels trigger the ovaries to release the mature egg, which travels down the fallopian tube toward the uterus where it can be fertilized by sperm. If it’s not fertilized, the egg dissolves.
The surge in hormones may cause symptoms that make it obvious that it’s ovulation time. But other women may have no idea they’re ovulating. Some of the signs of ovulation include:
- Increased energy
- Heightened sex drive
- Mild and brief abdominal pain
- Change/increase in cervical mucus
- Breast tenderness
Phase 4: Luteal AKA PMS
After ovulation, the follicle where the egg was contained forms into the corpus luteum. This mass of cells that forms in the ovary produces the hormone progesterone, which keeps the uterus thick and suitable for egg implantation. If the egg is not fertilized and does not implant, then the egg dissolves, the corpus luteum shrinks and hormone levels decrease. This initiates the menstrual phase.
The luteal phase may be called the pre-menstrual phase. With it comes all of those PMS symptoms many women struggle with month to month, including:
- Low energy levels
- Decrease in libido
- Trouble sleeping
- Weight gain
Keep a Record of Your Menstrual Cycle Symptoms
Now that you know what’s happening during your cycle and the signs to look out for, you can keep tabs on how these phases impact you. “Not every woman will experience the same symptoms,” says Sopata. “And some women will have different symptoms from one month to the next. Or symptoms may change over time as a woman gets older.”
Sopata advises keeping a journal or using an app to track your period and the symptoms you experience throughout your cycle for at least 3 to 5 months. Record where you are in your cycle and how you’re feeling physically and emotionally. This will give you a clear understanding of how your body responds to hormonal shifts.
One important thing to note: If you’re taking hormonal contraceptives like the Pill, you don’t ovulate. That means you won’t experience the hormonal fluctuations associated with the menstrual cycle. “Birth Control pills that contain estrogen and progesterone generally result in a more continuous range of hormones for the first three weeks of the cycle,” she says. “With the fourth week, there is no hormone in the placebo pill, so your hormone levels drop and this triggers a period. For performance purposes, I would still recommend tracking symptoms to see if there is any correlation with how you’re feeling on the hormone pills versus the placebo pills.”
Some women may feel better the week they’re taking the placebo, while others may feel better on the hormone pills, Sopata adds. The latter can consider taking hormones continuously — skipping the placebo pills and skipping their periods. It’s perfectly safe to skip, according to Sopata, but some women may experience breakthrough bleeding. Be sure to talk to your doctor before making any changes to the recommended dosage.
Use Hormonal Shifts to Your Advantage
With a roadmap in hand showing you which days you’re more likely to experience the side effects of your menstrual cycle, you can be more mindful as you make plans throughout the month. For example, you might:
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- Get ahead on an important project if you know you’re entering the luteal phase when your energy levels tank.
- Plan a date night with your significant other during ovulation when your sex drive is at its peak. (Just be sure to use contraception as needed.)
- Suggest scheduling your girls’ trip to the beach when you’re not experiencing PMS bloat.
- Speaking of bloat, hydration is key to combat that symptom of the luteal phase, so drink plenty of water.
- Register for that 5K if it falls during your follicular or ovulation phase, which are typically the best for peak physical performance.
- Resist buying your kids the ice cream/cereal/snacks you secretly love right before your period, when you’re most likely to give in to temptation.
- Focus on good sleep hygiene during the luteal phase to help overcome fatigue.
These are just a few suggestions. Once you know how to track your period, you can determine how best to respond to your body’s natural changes.