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15 May, 2024

Fasted training and hormones

Training fasted has long been celebrated for fat loss results, and for many it’s a convenient time saver in the morning: out of bed into your lycra and straight onto your mat or to the gym. Boom! But is this what’s really best for your body as a woman, and the best way to get results? What's more, modern research is concluding that fasted training can compromise insulin sensitivity and glucose regulation, making it less favourable for overall metabolic health (see studies below). We speak to trainer and women's health coach Talilla Henchoz about her journey with hormonal health and exercise; how she transformed her workouts and her health with one simple action.

I’m Talilla Henchoz, PT, online trainer and women’s health coach. Three things you should know about me before we start… Movement is my passion and I’m a major over-sharer. I’m a self-confessed endorphin junkie. Burpees and assault bikes are my idea of a good time.

But over the last 18 months I’ve been experiencing PMS symptoms that have wreaked havoc on my lifestyle and as a result had a major impact on my workouts, my job, my training schedule, self confidence and self-esteem. Cramps and fatigue that left me bed ridden for 4-5 days each month, heavy bleeding for half my menstrual cycle, brain fog and horrendous mood swings. I spent a (very expensive) year exploring all the possible medical reasons why: PCOS, endometriosis, congested pelvic syndrome and all tests, including explorative surgeries came back clear. I felt frustrated.

The lightbulb moment came last summer, sitting in yet another doctor appointment, this time with the epic Dr Federica Amati (nutritionist and women's health specialist) who took a look at my very healthy diet and active lifestyle, and questioned why I didn’t eat before working out.

My answer? 8 years ago I was a cardio queen. I pushed my body in gruelling HIIT classes 5-6 times a week, and squeezed in runs in between. My goal was purely aesthetic, being lean was everything - with zero consideration for health. Then in 2005 I discovered weights and the buzz of strength training and I’ve never looked back. Although my goal shifted (building lean muscles and hellooo to growing that booty) and as I started learning more my diet dramatically improved, but I didn’t move away from training fasted. Call it a safety blanket for a woman who has spent almost a decade healing a negative approach to nutrition to discover a balanced and conscious approach to eating.

The next day my routine changed. I started my day with half a banana and a tsp of peanut butter before driving to the gym to teach a HIIT class to 1,200 women tuning in live all around the world. I know it sounds like such a tiny action, but to my mind and my body it was huge. The mental shift after nearly 10 years was enormous - but I put all trust in Dr Amati and the payoff was instant. The class was epic - I felt mentally clearer and I could push physically harder, a new daily habit was formed. Now don’t get me wrong, not all days and workouts are as euphoric… a bad night's sleep or work stress definitely has a negative impact, but I can feel the difference that just a small snack makes on my energy and output.

Fast forward to my next period, and my symptoms have improved. I have a long way to go - and this is part of several actions that all now revolve around my menstrual cycle and adapting to each phase to allow my body energy and nutrients to do its thang. Part of this journey is the addition of hormone-supporting supplements, a pelvic physiotherapy programme to relax my overtight pelvic floor. It is these few subtle lifestyle tweaks that are giving me my life back.

I’ve shared this story with my clients and members a lot over the last 6 months (and over on my Instagram), and received countless DM’s from women who have tried adding in a pre-workout snack too: and the results have been insane. Periods starting again after years of amenorrhea, PMS symptoms reduced and for some ladies - gone, hitting fitness goals for the first time…. The list goes on.

We know that most workout programmes are designed for men. Not taking into consideration women’s hormones and physiology. This matters, because unlike men, each month a woman's energy, strength and mood fluctuates due to the change in hormones within her body. The male body follows a 24 hour cycle, while ours follows a 28 (to 35) day one. Men get a daily peak, ours (ovulation) lasts 1-2 days.

We’ve been taught for years to be consistent, train hard, train fasted and power through… but then we get deflated that our motivation, strength, self-confidence disappears for 7-10 days every month (hello luteal phase you sneaky minx).

Historically scientific studies have shown that training fasted will use a higher percentage of fat for energy. The truth is that training while fasted creates a state of low energy availability, we have to remember those tests and scientific studies were all done on men. The two key factors for hormonal health for women: are a consistent availability of energy (via carbohydrate) to power our hormone signalling, and regulation of stress levels (primarily cortisol). Now this doesn’t mean snacking every 30 minutes, eating every 4-6 hours is enough (filling up on whole foods when the belly rumbles begin: lean proteins, complex carbs and healthy fats that support hormone health and will naturally trigger our hunger and satiety responses). We know that exercise is (good) stress, we just need to mitigate it’s impact on our sex hormones (ultimately estrogen and progesterone) and one way to do this, is by not doing it fasted.

  1. Try a small snack 30 - 45 mins before your workout: my favourites are ½ a banana and a tsp of peanut butter, or a rice cake smothered in hummus. Try combining carbohydrates, with protein and a little fat.
  2. Test moving your workouts to different times of the day (try to give an hour after a bigger meal) to see how your energy and strength levels change.
  3. Remember to stay hydrated - our bodies are 70% water and its estimated we can loose up to half a litre overnight simply breathing and sweating.
  4. Track your periods, and if you’re not already, start cycle syncing those workouts.
  5. For optimal results from your workouts (whether you’re looking to build strength, improve fitness or reduce body fat) as women we need to lean into the different phases of our cycle: train hard when our oestrogen levels are high (strength + HIIT training) and energy is peaking and then focus on lower intensity when we are heading towards our menstruation and progesterone is the dominant hormone (pilates, yoga, barre).

The big take away is that regularly training fasted is a huge stressor for a womans body – and as a result may interrupt normal hormone function. Over time, this can lead to missing periods, as well as impacting your mental health (specifically your mood and self confidence) and as it did with me, the ability to train.

I encourage you to become confident with adapting your workouts, and dialling down the intensity at key points in your cycle. This is the secret to sustaining workout quantities, and quality, whilst supporting your hormones and health so that in your peak phase you can perform at your very best. This can feel alien as a concept, but it’s time to listen to your body.

Remember, EVERY woman is different. So experiment and see what works for your body and cycle.

Discover Club Five here.

References

1. the STRRIDE clinical trials found that aerobic exercise performed after fasting resulted in less improvement in markers of insulin sensitivity and glucose homeostasis compared to fed states​ (SpringerOpen)​.

2. A comprehensive review of the effects of fasting on metabolism highlighted that while fasting can increase fat oxidation, it also causes significant fluctuations in blood glucose levels, which can impair cognitive function and overall energy availability during exercise​ (DMP (Dove Medical Press))​.

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Our 10-Day Balance Plan was created to help you slow down via a full holistic health experience whilst, reconnect with your body and mind and prioritise your hormones for an optimal female health experience. Complete with a daily fresh meal plan to target gut health and balance blood sugar levels and a complimentary gift bag of premium products to compliment your wellbeing experience. Discover more here. For a shorter-term reset, discover our 3-Day Reset here to restore and rebuild your gut microbiome and kickstart your health journey to happier hormones.