Women’s sport is on the up in many regards. Still, at the mere mention of menstruation or periods, many people still get uncomfortable and awkward.
Historically, there has been a lack of research and study in relation to the effect of periods on high performance. Until relatively recently, sports scientists simply applied the research they had done with male athletes to female athletes.
Accordingly training practices for both men and women have largely been similar.
Recently, researchers from the University of the West of Scotland carried out a series of in-depth interviews with international-level rugby players, providing an insight into athletes’ experiences of the menstrual cycle.
More than two-thirds of those questioned admitted to seeing their performance levels dip, while several players revealed they felt uncomfortable speaking to male coaches or support staff about their menstrual cycles.
As new findings emerge, more and more of the results highlight how exercise and nutrition can be tailored to facilitate peak female athletic performance and reduce injury. Experts have discovered how the hormonal fluctuations during the cycle can affect things like biomechanics, laxity of ligaments and muscular firing patterns. For instance, it has been shown that, for anterior cruciate ligament injuries the first half of the cycle and particularly, the build-up to ovulation is the key risk window for females. That’s not to say don’t exercise, but instead be more proactive around warming up properly or recovering properly, at certain times. This includes diet, nutrition and recovery.
Now that we’ve discussed just how important understanding your menstrual cycle is, you would think this would be a major focus point for women’s sport?
This week, the BBC revealed the results from a confidential survey which was sent to 1,068 women in 39 different sports and received 537 responses.
One of the major standout statistics was that 60% of the athletes who responded said their period had affected their performance or caused them to miss training or competition. Related to the same subject, 40% of respondents said they did not feel comfortable discussing their period with coaches.
A number of survey respondents said they took the pill to regulate their periods, because competing while menstruating became too painful or inconvenient.
But the pill can bring its own challenges. One athlete said her bones were made denser by the pill, another struggled to lose weight, while some said the mental effect of extra hormones in their body was too much to cope with.
Weight and bloating can be affected by periods. Sports such as boxing, rowing and horseracing can be a particular challenge if an athlete is trying to make weight while on their period. A jockey revealed she would sit in a sauna if she had to race on her period, because the extra two or three pounds of weight she carried from bloating would make such a difference.
Scientifically speaking, the effect of a pill on an athlete’s performance is negligible – but that will never be a one-size-fits-all rule.
The most common pill usage is to take it for 21 days, and then have seven pill-free days. During those, the body will typically undergo a withdrawal bleed, which is a reaction to a sudden drop in hormones. Some women may retain fluid on the pill or find that the change in hormones impacts their appetite.
40% of survey respondents said they would not feel comfortable discussing their period with their coaches.
Unsurprisingly, the results showed that the majority of coaches are middle-aged men. Athletes were scared their period problems would be used against them in selection and they didn’t want to be seen as finding an excuse for underperforming.
One athlete recalled a male coach telling her to “man up and pull your tampon out” during a training session.
At Her Sport we are trying to promote the discussion of menstrual cycle and sport. Check out The Period Panel Series to find out what topics we’ve covered and join the discussion!