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Women in Sports: Dealing with Menstruation

Menstrual cycles directly affect athletic performance—here's how.

Women in Sports: Dealing with Menstruation

If you are a human who gets a period, you know how debilitating it can be to merely exist during your cycle. Your gym routine goes from high intensity to deep, long stretching (if anything at all) and the only thing that seems to keep your emotions regulated is couch rotting and an endless supply of questionably-flavored Oreos.

Yet, pro athletes are expected to deliver peak, optimal performance on any given date, regardless of where they’re at in their cycle. If your slated Olympic competition happens to fall on day two of your bleeding (the most unfathomably heavy for most) there’s no way out of doing what has to be done.

Truthfully, there aren’t a lot of studies done around the relationship between athletic performance and the menstrual cycle, perhaps because the male-dominated industry doesn’t see it as a conversation worth much input. Though the number of female athletes has considerably increased in recent decades, male athletic directors and coaches continue to overpopulate the sports scene. For those who confront the truth regularly, it’s an inescapable reality and a testament to the inequality for women in sports. 

A Recap of the Menstrual Cycle Phases

Your cycle is a complex process that involves several hormonal changes and consequential bodily adjustments. Here's a deeper look at the four phases and how they impact energy levels:

  1. Follicular Phase:

    • Duration: Approximately 10-14 days, starting from the first day of menstruation.
    • Hormonal Changes: During this phase, the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) stimulates the development of ovarian follicles, each containing an egg. Estrogen levels gradually rise, leading to the thickening of the uterine lining.
    • Body Changes: Many women experience an increase in energy levels during this phase. Rising estrogen levels can contribute to feelings of vitality and improved mood. Some women also notice increased libido.

  2. Ovulation:

    • Duration: Typically occurs around day 14 of a 28-day cycle, but it can vary.
    • Hormonal Changes: A surge in luteinizing hormone (LH) triggers the release of a mature egg from one of the ovaries. Estrogen levels peak just before ovulation.
    • Body Changes: Some women may experience a boost in energy and sexual desire around ovulation. This is often considered the most fertile time of the menstrual cycle.

  3. Luteal Phase:

    • Duration: Lasts about 10-14 days, from ovulation until the start of menstruation.
    • Hormonal Changes: After ovulation, the ruptured follicle transforms into a structure called the corpus luteum, which produces progesterone. Progesterone levels rise, along with estrogen, to prepare the uterus for potential pregnancy.
    • Body Changes: Energy levels may start to dip as progesterone increases. Some women may experience premenstrual symptoms (PMS) such as mood swings, bloating, breast tenderness, and fatigue during this phase. This can vary greatly among individuals.

  4. Menstruation:

    • Duration: Typically lasts around 3-7 days, though it can vary.
    • Hormonal Changes: If fertilization does not occur, hormone levels drop, leading to the shedding of the uterine lining (menstruation). Estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest.
    • Body Changes: Many women experience a decrease in energy levels during menstruation, accompanied by symptoms such as cramps, fatigue, and mood fluctuations. However, some women may feel more energetic and experience relief from premenstrual symptoms once menstruation begins.

Evidently, you’re a completely different woman with completely different abilities during each phase of your cycle; yet, athletes are not afforded the pleasure of resting or slowing down.

How Do Female Athletes Manage Periods?

After 2016 Olympic bronze medallist swimmer Fu Yuanhui participated in the 4x100 meter relay, she candidly stated that being on her period made her feel weak and tired. She wasn’t stating this as an excuse—she was stating it as an objective fact. Luckily, people’s discomfort with the confession opened a necessary conversation around the taboo and women and periods in the sports realm.

The truth is that many pro athletes, especially those competing in sports that emphasize leanness, usually suffer from amenorrhea, or the complete absence of a period. From gymnasts to swimmers to track stars, menstrual cycles can completely disappear, as their bodies aren’t getting the adequate amount of rest or fat needed to maintain a healthy cycle. It can be detrimental to their reproductive health, yet optimal for their physical performance.

Besides undernutrition or over-exercise, amenorrhea can also be caused by stress, which many pro athletes fall victim to due to the pressure of winning (and proving themselves capable as females). 

However, for athletes who manage to maintain a regular cycle beyond the stress and overexertion, there are several strategies to enlist that can help navigate training and competition:

Cycle Tracking

Many female athletes track their menstrual cycles to anticipate when their periods will occur. While they may not have much control over their schedule, this allows them to plan and move what they can while taking into account potential changes in energy levels and performance.

Nutrition and Hydration

Many female athletes adjust their diet to include foods rich in iron and healthy fats to support energy levels during menstruation.

Hygiene and Comfort

Proper hygiene is essential during menstruation, especially for athletes who engage in intense physical activity. Using high-quality menstrual products, including tampons, period panties, and menstrual cups, can help athletes stay comfortable during training and competition.

Pain Management

We all know how debilitating menstrual cramps can be. Tools like heat therapy, pain relievers, and gentle stretching exercises can help manage pain.

Taking Contraceptives

A common practice among women athletes is taking birth control pills. In fact, studies show that about half of athletes revealed that they were using hormonal contraceptives. Doing so helped them control the frequency of their cycle, its timing, and the intensity of menstrual bleeding.

Rest and Recovery

Recognizing the importance of rest and recovery during menstruation is crucial for female athletes. Listening to their bodies and allowing for adequate rest can help prevent burnout and support overall performance and well-being.
And most importantly, feeling safe enough to have open communication with coaches and teammates can help create a supportive environment for female athletes. Coaches sensitive to just how debilitating a period can and should adjust training plans to accommodate and support athletes during their waxing and waning energetic capacities.

Effects of Menstrual Cycle and Injury

Another component to this nuanced subject is women’s susceptibility to injury during their menstrual cycles. Some research shows that athletic performance doesn’t vary much throughout the menstrual cycle, while other studies prove female track-and-field athletes land jumps slightly differently during certain phases of their menstrual cycles. 

A study conducted by a Women’s Super League club found that over the course of three years, the 26 players they monitored were six times more likely to pick up a muscle injury in the days leading up to their period, compared to when they were on their period. Hormonal fluctuations throughout the phases of the menstrual cycle alter values like laxity, strength, body temperature, and neuromuscular control, among others, exposing athletes to a higher risk of injury.

What this ultimately proves, beyond the fact that performance capability is deeply intertwined with where a woman falls in her cycle, is that larger pools of research need to be conducted, as there is a tangible lack of scientific investment within female sports.

And lastly, the most powerful tool we have is conversation.

Four-time Olympic gold medallist Laura Trott shares that it's critical to openly talk about menstruation, as it will diminish the taboo of what should be seen as a very normal process of the female body. More common conversation about the subject will also help training and other self-efficacy programs in support of female athletes and encourage research into better athlete management strategies.

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