Sinéad Brophy calls them “heavy gravity days”. If you exercise at all, you’ll know the ones: when the 5kg weights feel like 20kg, a 2km jog feels like a marathon and you’re left feeling like you’ve taken 50 steps backwards. 

“I would have been lifting totally fine a few days before, where I’d be hitting certain amounts on the rower, on the ski”, she tells me. “And then I just couldn’t. I was wrecked, I was so tired and I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”

For many women, that’s training on or around your period, a time when many of us feel we have to either “go hard or go home”, as Brophy – a personal trainer and nutritionist – says, or struggle through our routines while managing cravings, pain and fatigue. 

Brophy is one of the trainers coaching women on how to train “with their bodies, not against them”, she says in a practice that is known as period coaching. Already well-documented in athletes like the US women’s soccer team – who used it in the run up to the World Cup, which they won – it’s an area garnering a lot of attention, but comparatively little research. 

What we do know is this: studies show that syncing your workout plan to your menstrual cycle can be extremely beneficial to your fitness, as well as your mental health. 

More than that? It can be a bona fide fitness hack: if you time your workouts well, you can exercise five times in one week and once in the remaining three of your cycle and still see the muscle growth you would if you exercised three times each week. 

Here’s how it works: a menstrual cycle can be broken down into two phases, the follicular phase – named for the follicles that produce oestrogen – and the luteal phase, which are then further broken into two more phases of seven days each. 

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Phase one begins with menstruation, and at this time Brophy says she would ask clients to see how they feel a few days in before ploughing ahead with exercise.

“Oestrogen is muscle building”, she says, adding that by the time you enter phase two you’re primed for building serious muscle thanks to the oestrogen in your system. As an extra bonus, oestrogen boosts recovery, so you can go harder in those HIIT sessions. 

Here’s where that five versus three times a week hack comes in. Studies have shown that if you train “five times a week during the follicular phase and only once a week in your luteal phase, you actually gain more muscle mass and strength than you would if you were training three times a week for the whole of your cycle”, Brophy says. 

Next comes ovulation, which leads to the production of progesterone, an important hormone for “mental health, thyroid health and it balances oestrogen”. Each cycle, women grow a gland called the corpus luteum that produces this all-important hormone. 

Even more impressive? During this time, women can be more “fat oxidative”, Brophy says, meaning the body burns more fat than cards and is “a little better suited to more aerobics-style training”. 

That shift in hormones can hit some people harder than others, Brophy notes. “Some people feel fine and they can keep training as before. Other people might feel a little bit fatigued and they might start noticing that they need more recovery.” 

Once women hit the fourth week, when they’re premenstrual, the body starts producing prostaglandins that can cause upset stomach and cramps. “Typically this is a great time for dropping down that intensity and focusing on recovery and focusing more on yoga, technique work”, Brophy says. 

Granted this is just a starting point, as cycles can range in length from 24 days to 36, Brophy says. “I would encourage all of my colleagues and anyone reading this article to start tracking your cycle”, she notes. “It’s really about understanding what happens for you in your cycle.”

It’s a journey Brophy herself has taken on, as she had to “unlearn” the less healthy fitness and diet myths than many of us have or still need to. For all the work done in body positivity, women’s fitness is still largely centred on restrictive eating and the implied guilt that comes with eating “bad” foods.

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And women are, understandably, tired of it. It’s the reason so many TikTok accounts of women eating normal amounts of food have gone viral – like @emmamatthewsxx, who posts videos detailing “what I eat in a day as a fat b**** who very controversially doesn’t give a s*** that she’s fat”. It’s partially behind the rise of intuitive eating, which focuses on listening to your body’s hunger cues and following them. 

“I grew up in the 90s, it was the whole “heroin chic” thing”, she says. “There is still this narrative of smaller is better, eat less.”

Brophy’s mission is to encourage “women to use their menstrual cycle as the fifth vital sign”, which is how the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists refer to it because of its ability to show how healthy a woman is. 

Within the more restrictive take on women’s fitness, Brophy feels there’s a slight normalisation of this vital sign being lost as women are pushed to get leaner, stronger and fitter. “It can be common amongst athletic women or women who exercise, but it’s not normal”, she says. Women can lose their periods for many reasons, but if it comes as a result of intense training, it may be “your body telling you something”, she adds. 

“That narrative that it’s almost a badge of honour, it’s normal to lose your menstrual cycle if you’re exercising, I think should be and is being addressed, which is brilliant.”

She encourages her clients to “try and bring in principles of intuitive eating and learning to listen to your hunger signals again, rather than trusting an app on your phone to tell you when to eat”. 

If it isn’t food women are encouraged to punish themselves with, it’s the “narrative of go hard or go home and that you have to flog yourself every single time of the day and every single training session”, Brophy says. 

“For your body to adapt and to get stronger, you put it under a little bit of stress, which is training. You need to then give your body sufficient time to recover from that stress and then you go again. If you aren’t giving your body enough time to recover, you’re actually going to be treading water or actually going backwards.”

“It’s not going to be the world if you don’t lift the heaviest that you’ve ever lifted for one week of the month or one section of your cycle!”

Listening to your body and tracking your menstrual cycle is hardly new, but there has been a disconnect between training as a woman and how fitness is marketed to women.

“I just wish I had known when I was younger”, Brophy says. “I would have suffered with eating disorders and that kind of stuff. So I’ve been through the other side of punishing yourself, seeing food and exercise and restrictive dieting as a way of punishing yourself.”

There’s a more insidious narrative that when you go off your diet you’re a failure, when in reality if you’re craving carbs around your period, it’s because your body needs it.

“Your resting metabolic rate goes up when you’re in phase four so you are hungrier. It’s not that you’ve lost control”, Brophy says. “We’re almost fed this idea that you can’t trust yourself around food where actually you can, your body will tell you what it need.”

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She’ll be passing her knowledge on this weekend at Saturday Strong, a day of online courses, talks and workshops in aid of Women’s Aid that Brophy has organised with her colleague Aoife MacNeill taking place this Saturday 27 February.

So far, the event has raised over €3,700 and with 10 women leading 11 events, ranging from mobility and pre-natal exercise to period coaching and food demos, the event will put women’s health front and centre, though many of the courses are about general health.

As she says herself, “I think it’s an incredibly powerful tool to give yourself permission to give your body what it needs”.

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