Women: Celebrate Your Femininity and Put Your Hormones to Work for You!

By: Dr. Sue Kleiner


I have the great honor of working with women who strive to improve their health and performance in all aspects of their lives. Sometimes it’s in athletic competition, but just as often it is somewhere else in their lives, from having enough energy to take care of themselves, those around them, and still enjoy the parts of their days that are for fun and not obligation. We often blame our bodies and especially our unique feminine biology for an inability to be at our best. For eons women have been told that our biology works against us. That information is just plain wrong!

We now know that there is true method to our cycles that influences all our cells, and with a little knowledge we can gain the benefits of working with our bodies, instead of against them. Our bodies set us up for success if we just listen, understand, and respond.

Reproductive hormones are part of what makes us uniquely feminine. If you are genetically a female with 2 X chromosomes, then all of your cells are female, not just your reproductive cells. That means that all of your cells have grown up in a female world and respond in some way to your hormonal environment, which changes as you cycle through your menstrual month.

Period Primer

The monthly menstrual cycle lasts an average of 28 days but can range from 20 to 45 days and still be considered normal. A healthy cycle has two phases: the first half between the first day of the period and ovulation, called the follicular phase, and the second half between ovulation and the first day of the period (or pregnancy), called the luteal phase. Each phase is typically labeled as days 1-14 and days 15-28, but since this is nature it’s rarely exact, but it’s close.

Your reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone are mainly in charge of your changing phases, but luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone play important roles delineating the two phases. This is where your training begins to be more related  to the discussion. These hormones affect more than just your periods. If you are paying attention throughout the month, you may have noticed that you can’t explain why you have better or worse training days, or why your nutritional needs seem to change from week to week. Your reproductive hormones are at work on your body. Knowing how and when they are working can give you an advantage to the weekly focus of your diet and training regimens.

Estrogen and progesterone levels are lower during the follicular phase (days 1-14), allowing an increase in carbohydrate utilization. Carbohydrate should be more prominent in the diet, and during this time high-intensity, power. and speed training will be advantageous. During the luteal phase (days 15-28), estrogen and progesterone levels rise, which helps maintain muscle glycogen storage, preserve liver glycogen, and increase fatty acid oxidation. Dietary carbohydrate can decrease slightly during this phase, and to take advantage of better fat burning, your training focus should turn to moderate-intensity endurance.

Female athletes and trainers are better than males at burning fats most of the time, but this is particularly true during the luteal phase. During endurance exercise, females have more efficient access to stored triglyceride (fat) droplets within the muscle fibers, which can be transported quickly into the cell to the mitochondria, the cellular powerhouse, where energy metabolism and fat oxidation take place. Females are also better at recovery of these fat droplets from the diet back to the muscle cells after exercise. This explains the success that many female athletes have in ultra-endurance events. However, when females perform high-intensity training, their need for carbohydrate is equally as high as that of a male athlete, and they have just as much capacity to utilize and store carbohydrate as a male athlete.

So carbohydrate and fat recommendations for female athletes and those working to improve their fitness should be periodized to reflect not only their training, but also their monthly menstrual cycle. Therefore, women and menstruating girls should plan their diet and training with their monthly menstrual cycle in mind.

What exactly does periodize your diet mean?

Your need for carbohydrate in your diet is a direct reflection of your energy output. The harder your physical activity, the more carbohydrates your body demands. The more carbohydrate you make available to your body the more you can optimize your training, your training effects, and your energy burn.  

During the follicular phase, or the first half of your month, your body is primed to burn carbs and work at a high intensity. If carbohydrate isn’t available, you can’t train hard nor can you take advantage of the benefits that your hormones are offering to you. For an active woman training to enhance health and fitness, this is when you should have at least 45-50% of your total calorie intake as carbs. For an athletic woman training to improve challenging athletic performance, I recommend higher carbohydrate levels because you are probably training harder for longer: 55-60% of total energy from carbohydrate.

During the second half of your month, the luteal phase, you are primed to burn fat to fuel moderate intensity exercise for a longer duration. An active woman can decrease the carbohydrate content of your diet to 40% of your total calorie intake. An athletic woman can decrease carbohydrate to 50% of total energy intake.

Not really so complicated

I work hard to streamline diet changes for my clients and changing carbohydrate intake every 2 weeks is an important place to create an easy system. One very easy way is to always keep food plans the same, or almost the same, and add or subtract a carbohydrate sports nutrition supplement right around training to fuel the exercise where it is used right away and then used again for recovery right after training. The best product that can fuel your training the fastest but doesn’t bother your stomach at all is Vitargo®.  I recommend 1 ½ to 2 scoops for my female clients 30-45 minutes before exercise, and they are fully fueled for their high-intensity workouts that last 60-90 minutes. If you are an elite athlete training longer, re-fuel again at 45-60 minutes to stay at peak capacity to the end of your workout. There is no point in hitting exhaustion before your workout is over. That doesn’t create an optimal workout or a champion.

You can take another scoop or 2 for recovery with protein immediately after your workout, or if you can get right to food, you can have a carbohydrate-rich meal for recovery. It all depends on your energy need and ability to get to food promptly.

When you are in your luteal phase doing moderate endurance exercise, an active woman might find that you get in enough carb from food alone, or perhaps 1 scoop of Vitargo will give you the lift that you need, especially if you find that you don’t have time to eat a pre-workout snack. Elite athletes will definitely benefit from 1-1 ½ scoops pre-exercise sports drink if you are doing serious endurance training and you also have not had the opportunity to snack before training.

Work with your body

It’s actually pretty easy. Add and subtract Vitargo as needed around your training to periodize your diet with your menstrual cycle. If you think you can outsmart your hormones and still get the gains, or losses you are seeking, you won’t. If you underfuel your body your hormones will always work toward survival, and against your goals. If you feed your body what it needs, you will reach all your goals: health, fitness, losses, gains, and all!

Planning Peak Training with your Cycle

Days of your menstrual cycle Training strategy Diet strategy
Days 1-14 (day 1 of period-ovulation) High intensity power and speed. Focus on lifting and sprinting More carbohydrate for fueling training
Days 15-28 (ovulation – period) Moderate intensity endurance training Less carbohydrate for lower intensity training

I want women to love their hormones and periodize their diet and training with their periods! We can train hard, gain strength, power, agility, and speed and burn fat incredibly well when we make the most of our menstrual cycle and target our diet and training accordingly. Put your hormones to work for you! You’ll love how you feel and perform!

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