There's been a lot of data coming out around how we should vary activity throughout our menstrual cycle, especially when it comes to athletes. I interviewed Jenni Hulburt of Wild Wellness, where we will talk specifically about how to sweat in sync with your cycle.
Georgie Kovacs: How did your journey lead you to helping women with optimizing their exercise to align with their cycle?
Jenni Hulburt: I love to talk about living and sweating in sync with nature because it's really what saved me so many times and has saved me. In my teen years, I struggled with an eating disorder for a long time, and it was when I began to live more in sync with nature, to eat nature's foods and really understand that that's where true nourishment comes from, that I was able to be more mindful around eating and just have a better relationship with that.
And then I went on to get my bachelor's degree in Exercise Science, my Master's in Sports Psychology. I then worked as a personal trainer to help people with their health and fitness goals. With the background that I had, it seems that I would know how to train myself without overtraining or being exhausted. However, it turns out that I didn't learn everything that I needed to in my education. It really came back to this principle that nature embodies, which is that it's not a sprint. It's a cycle that really helped me to identify what was going on and how to change it.
What I realized was in fitness, a lot of times, we get into this cycle of a linear pattern where we start at one point, and we want to build upon that. This is what I also did, but I wasn't paying attention to the fact that throughout the month, I had different changes in my body and different hormonal shifts in my cycle. Yet it actually influenced everything, including my training. So that was a missing piece.
Georgie Kovacs: How does diet culture play a role in the optimal fitness regimen?
Jenni Hulburt: We have these fears that if we don't do a certain thing that we might lose fitness, or that if we take time off from something that we will not make gains, or that we will lose what we have gained. There's an overall message in fitness culture that we need to go hard all the time, or that if you're not sore from a workout, or worn out afterwards that you didn't do enough. So it can get really confusing as to what's enough versus too much.
When you start with a blueprint like we're going to talk about and from there go on to use your own intuition and personal experiences and what you notice and your own cycle to make changes based on that.
Georgie Kovacs: Let’s start with the overall theme of sweating in sync with your cycle. How does that work?
Jenni Hulburt: Our menstrual cycle is a rhythm as are the seasons and moon phases. As a side note here, if you don't have a menstrual cycle, then you can actually use the moon phases as you are aligning this philosophy with your own cycles and rhythms. The moon phases have a different energy to them, calling for us to do different things in terms of how we feel physically and what we might benefit from most in our workouts.
Georgie Kovacs: Tell us more about the moon phases as some may think this is a hokey idea.
Jenni Hulburt As a woman, being on your moon has been a phrase or a way of thinking about it that has been referred to since ancient times. Our ancestors used to refer to women being on their moon because they would often bleed with the new moon and then ovulate on the full moon. And there would be women who did the opposite of that.
They would actually go out separate from the village and go off in their own groups and have that time together. Iit was based around the cycles of the moon before they had anything else to anchor to or think about that was where they anchored.
Interestingly, our menstrual cycle is around 29 days, which is the same number of cycle days as the moon, going from new moon to full moon and back to new moon again. Even as we talk about the different hormonal changes and each phase, you'll start to see how it makes so much sense that our body is aligned and divinely designed to work with this. If we just trust the ebbs and flows that we have, it really makes a lot of sense.
Georgie Kovacs: There are people who have different cycles, meaning a range of what's normal, and it is not necessarily 28 days. This can happen due to PCOS, being on the pill, and other factors.
So if someone were to even put parameters around how to define the phases, given there's a lot more complexity than that perfect 28 days that was being pitched incorrectly to women for a very long time. What should that baseline view be?
Jenni Hulburt: Agreed. We do not all have the same cycle and for many, it ranges each month. Mine would range from 29 to 34 days, and it can be different from month to month. Instead of focusing on the exact days, you tune into your physical and emotional energy. As we go through these phases, I'll kind of give you those physical and emotional vibes, but it's not so black and white.
Georgie Kovacs: What comprises the first phase of sweating in sync with your cycle?
Jenni Hulburt: I call the base phase, which aligns to the menstrual phase. That would be usually day 29 (the first day of bleeding) to day five of the cycle. A lot of times, however, we start to feel the energy of that just the day before the last day of the cycle. Day one would also correspond with the new moon, if you're following that, instead of your own menstrual cycle, and it has the energy of winter.
It's a call to go inward, rest and reset, and release things that we don't really need to be doing. It's not a great time to do high intensity intervals. Instead, it is a great time to do restorative yoga. Instead of going for a long run, maybe you go for a short walk.
As I said, though, it is not black and white. During some cycles, you may feel more energized than others. Alternatively, it might not be until day five that you feel like not doing very much. Maybe by day four, you feel like you're kind of ready to get back into it and your body's bursting with energy.
Maybe you're someone who doesn't do all of those things. Maybe you like walking, running, yoga, or hiking. This doesn't have to mean that you do different exercises in each of these phases. It just is how you adjust the intensity and the duration, and maybe even the type of workout that you do. In other words, you can apply it based on what you like.
Georgie Kovacs: What comprises the second phase of sweating in sync with your cycle?
Jenni Hulburt: This is what I call the build or follicular phase, and it has the energy of spring. Physically and hormonally, during this phase, which is after your period, your hormone levels, estrogen and follicle stimulating hormone, begin to rise.
The estrogen potentially creates more resilience to cortisol. Cortisol is that hormone that gets released when we have a stress response, and exercise is a stress response by giving our body the ability to get up and go. That can be really helpful but at the same time, you don't want that cortisol to be sustained all the time. Being resilient to those levels of cortisol means that you may be able to do higher intensity or harder efforts during this phase and your pain threshold may be higher, too.
One other thing that you would notice in this phase, potentially physically and hormonally, is that your insulin sensitivity may be higher. This is because of the higher levels of estrogen as well. Carbohydrates may be used more efficiently in this phase, meaning that higher intensity cardio activities would be a good match, because that's what you mainly use when you're doing high intensity cardio. Examples include a HIIT class, if that's your thing, or higher intensity workouts that would involve maybe hill sprints or repeat intervals where you're doing a fast burst, and then a short rest, and then a fast burst again.
This is a good time to ease back into whatever it is you're doing, and not expend all your energy at once. It's good to ease into it and not overtrain or overdo, because then obviously, that can kind of set you up the wrong way for the rest of the cycle and maybe even cause you to have some difficulties in this phase.
Georgie Kovacs: Do you have recommendations for how to not overtrain?
Jenni Hulburt: That often comes from programming, where somewhere along the way, we gathered this more masculine messaging and linear type of culture and goal setting that we need to be progressing and always on. I would say that go back to these concepts we're talking about and think about the fact that nothing in nature blooms all year. I think that's some kind of quote, I've seen somewhere, but that just came to my mind.
Our bodies are the same. We're a reflection of that and there is a time in the cycle for everything. So it's finding what that is for you. If you do find that you're feeling overtrained, then there's a lot of ways that you can tweak that you can change the intensity. You can change the duration or frequency, and it depends on your plan and goals. Maybe even consider with your coach or your trainer, if you're working with someone that way, that they can notice how to shift these things. Bring this concept to them, because not everyone understands the fact that women have cyclical bodies, and that we may need different things in different parts of the cycle. So you can use that to educate other people, too.
Georgie Kovacs: Great advice. I remember when I got into running and ran a marathon. I became addicted and eventually realized running was not good for my body. Then I did the caloric calculations between food and exercise, realizing that working out is only one factor. Our diet plays a huge role. I’m now less intense yet feel and look better.
Jenni Hulburt: It makes a lot of sense because it's more than just an equation of calories in calories out, which is contrary to what I probably learned most in my exercise physiology education. There wasn't consideration of the fact that when you do exercise, you raise cortisol levels. And if your cortisol levels are too high, because you have other stressors in your life going on, and you're not managing it in the right way, or you just have chronic stress through, it could be outside stressors, it could even be the fact that your digestive system or something physically, you're dealing with a chronic issue that's stressing the body and causing inflammation. All of that can affect our hormones, it can affect our energy, it can affect the way that cortisol is regulated.
That all plays into our workouts. Even our metabolism and our body weight, and all of these things like adrenal fatigue, which is what I had experienced back then, was down regulating my thyroid, and I was experiencing unexplained weight gain. It was very confusing to me, because I didn't realize that at the time either.
So it's a very complex picture and something to look into all the factors like you said, instead of just thinking that it's a simple equation like, well, I'm exercising and eating good, why am I not losing weight? Or why am I not seeing the good results here that I wasn't feeling the right way, there may be some hormones to look into or some other things going on.
Georgie Kovacs: What comprises the third phase of sweating in sync with your cycle?
And this next one also has an energy that's similar to the last one. So I call this the peak phase, and it has the energy of summer. So it's very outward and high energy. And it's actually when we ovulate. So estrogen, follicle stimulating hormone, they all peak during this ovulation phase. And peak hormone levels correspond with peak energy usually, so it's a good time to take advantage of that, if that's how you're feeling, challenging yourself, maybe going for a PR racing, if that's your thing, or just doing workouts that even involve other people or with a group, because you'll be more inclined to be with other people during this phase, as opposed to some of the other ones where you might feel like doing something more alone. So this could look like longer hikes or runs, longer walks, maybe more intense strength training workouts, maybe higher intensity yoga, trying to give a variety here, depending on what it is that you're doing. But basically, this is the time where you might really feel like going for it more. And if you don't, then remember, everyone's different. It's not like every day during this part of the cycle that I personally feel like going out and doing the hardest thing ever. There's obviously days for rest, even within this phase of the cycle. It's just that overall, you have capacity to recover quicker, and maybe do more than you normally are than they would in other parts of the cycle. Awesome.
Georgie Kovacs: What comprises the fourth and final phase of sweating in sync with your cycle?
Jenni Hulburt: I call this last one the recovery phase, which is the luteal phase and premenstrual. It has the energy of autumn, so you're winding down. Hormonally and physically after ovulation, estrogen levels dip and progesterone levels take the stage and rise. When we have higher progesterone, we often feel more sluggish and a little less interested in being around other people. This is a good time to give yourself permission to ease back to lighter movements and just doing what feels good to your body.
It really is important to let this be more of a recovery and allow yourself to slow down because a lot of the premenstrual symptoms that women experience can be attributed to the fact that we're not honoring this phase of the cycle. Of course, there's a lot of other reasons that that could be as well. I'm not saying that's the only reason premenstrual issues occur, but this is one thing to consider. I certainly noticed it shifted my experience with the things that I would often have premenstrually when I've started to work with my cycle in this way.
So in terms of specifics with exercise, you might find that you can do moderate intensity a lot better and maybe even continue to go for a longer amount of time. Instead of intense, short sprints, maybe you go for a more moderate length of time. Also, focus on areas that you've been ignoring throughout the cycle. I always like to remind people that there's always things that maybe are nagging - injuries or areas that we know we need to work on. Maybe we have some hip issue, or we have an ankle that we tweaked and weren't necessarily taking care of in the right way or that we have some low back pain that we know we want to work on. This is a good time to just focus on those things that maybe it's not about the intensity so much as it is about the focus that you have on a particular issue and kind of honing inward again and releasing the need to go harder just because you think that that's what you should be doing all the time.
Georgie Kovacs: What does a month in Jenni Hulburt’s life look like?
Jenni Hulburt: I do different things, depending on the seasons of nature. From a practical standpoint, in the warmer months, I enjoy biking, swimming and kayaking more than I do when it's very cold. In the winter, I cross country ski when I can. I shifted from 100% running to a more varied workout.
These days, I run, intermix it with a strength training day or do a run and then something else that we would probably normally consider like cross training. If it is seasonal, then maybe it's a run and then a bike, but I just definitely do more strength training even than I did when I was running, which I think is so helpful and so much more balanced for me. I feel better that way.
I also incorporate more yoga, and just easier efforts in those times of the cycle when I need to. Whereas before, I would feel that pressure. I was that person who thought that training harder got better results. And I was sort of always needing to push it to feel accomplished. There was a lot of connection there for a long time and just reframing that reorganizing that into something that works for me looks a lot more like varying what I do and using my intuition.
Georgie Kovacs: What tools do you leverage to better listen to your intuition?
Jenni Hulburt: At the beginning of the week, in my journal, I keep a plan and intention of what I'd like to do. I'll jot it down on each day what I think it might look like, but I'll first ask myself, what phase of my cycle am I in this upcoming week? Is it all going to be the peak phase or am I going to be peak slash recovery towards the end of the week, because that's going to help me to know not to expect that I'm going to do hill sprints a few days before my period starts, for example.
Keeping a journal has been a key practice - noting how I'm feeling and tracking what I do. And also setting the intention because if I end up doing that, fine, but it's there for me as just an intention and create a menu. That's what I give in my programs as a workout menu to people because I think we need to get away from seeing something on a piece of paper and thinking that's what we have to do.
Georgie Kovacs: What is your greatest hope for women's health?
Jenni Hulburt: Honestly, it's what we were just talking about. My hope is that all women would understand their own bodies, and know that they have the choice over what they do, and how they do it. What they choose whether that be for a workout, or whether it be for treatments, or whether it be for what they eat, or anything that they choose just that that health sovereignty, that personal ownership of your choices, and not only understanding that it's yours, but also really appreciating that it's yours. My hope is that women would know that they are the final choice on what happens with their body, how they live in their own body, and just really embrace that sovereignty.
Georgie Kovacs: Well, thank you. What a way to end this was an incredible discussion.