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Periods – what do we know and are we comfortable talking about them?

‘Not a chance would I speak to my coach about my period…you just have to get on with it’

Following this passing comment from a female athlete, it initiated thoughts about how we support female athletes if we don’t talk about and consider the menstrual cycle in relation to sports performance. There is increasing opportunity for females to compete in sport

with a 50% split at the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics; yet, currently it is not intuitive to talk about the menstrual cycle ‒it rarely forms part of performance conversations. We don’t openly talk about it and females can be secretive about menstruating or ‘being on their period’ as demonstrated in the honest conversation released by Jazmin Sawyers.

The menstrual cycle is a physiological cycle in which hormones fluctuate and cause very different symptoms between individuals, but despite potentially impacting a number of physiological and psychological constructs, an open environment is yet to be established in which the menstrual cycle is considered alongside other physiological determinants within sports performance. This lack of consideration may be attributed to a variety of factors, not least the athlete’s individual experiences of their menstrual cycle and their comfort in having conversations on this topic with members of their support network. Therefore, this created two purposes of our current study: firstly, to speak to elite female athletes to gain an understanding of experiences of their menstrual cycle, with a specific focus upon the impact it has on training and competition performance, and secondly to understand the openness of conversation relating to the menstrual cycle with coaching and support staff.

As a research assistant for the Welsh institute of performance science working with Sport Wales Institute and Lattice, I have started speaking to female athletes about their menstrual cycle. The athletes are all elite from varying sports (weightlifting, athletics, cycling, gymnastics, climbing). Questions are guided around symptoms experienced, the athletes’ perceived impact on training and competition alongside identifying if athletes have ever received information about the menstrual cycle in relation to sports performance and comfort of having conversations about this topic with myself, peers, coaches and support staff. We are hoping this information will start to inform sports science practitioners and coaches to guide future support for female athletes pertaining to their menstrual cycle. To date, conversations have highlighted the disparity in symptoms, physically, mentally and emotionally, that are experienced by females. The impact on training has so far been insightful, ranging from no impact, to physically unable to train, psychologically feeling less motivated, more anxious/agitated along with decreased coordination. Subtleties between sports revealed different impact at competition; for weightlifting the menstrual cycle had an impact on making weight (increasing stress for some of the female athletes), wearing a leotard in gymnastics or being halfway up a mountain climbing and managing bleeding in this environment. Previous experiences have underpinned openness to conversation and wanting to avoid any awkward conversation they have previously encountered in the future. Out of all female athletes I have spoken to so far, none have previously received information on how the menstrual cycle could impact training and competition. It appears females ‘just manage’ and talk to peers to discuss similarities or differences and how each other cope in sport.

By starting and continuing to have conversations with female athletes, we can learn, increasing our knowledge and communication to incorporate it into the performance plan alongside any other biological function or component of performance that is normally discussed. This topic should not be seen or spoken as a ‘taboo’ and neither should assumptions from males regarding training and performance be applied to females. It is important to look objectively, understand that hormones are cycling, and how to help rather than stop or do nothing. Long term we are aiming to help female athletes understand their menstrual cycle, identify symptoms experienced and find solutions to ensure performance is optimum during any stage of the cycle.

An individualised approach, led by female athletes.

This blog was written by Dr Natalie Brown, who is a research assistant with Welsh Institute of Performance Science working in collaboration with Sport Wales. She completed her PhD in elite athlete preparations and recovery, specifically looking at ischaemic preconditioning following working with Welsh and British swimming as a performance scientist. Within her current role, she is working on ‘the female athlete’ both from a performance and health perspective – supporting conversations about the menstrual cycle is one of the projects that Natalie is leading.

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