Lifestyle & Culture

Why National Sports Teams Are Tracking Their Athletes’ Periods

An increasing number of players are calling for more research on the connection between menstrual cycles and sporting injuries.

23.05.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash
Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

For all the detailed blood analyses and expensive heart-rate monitors in elite-level sport, major swathes of the sporting community face additional performance-related challenges that have traditionally gone unnoticed and untreated.

These include a heightened risk of career-limiting impact injuries, a sudden sluggishness and crushing pelvic pain, an unexpected ejection of bodily fluids and a claustrophobic tightening of the chest.

The issues remain hidden—even ‘taboo’—because they’re the result of menstrual cycles, female hormones, and general breast health. They’re everyday challenges faced by women, not men, meaning they’re woefully ignored by the current sports and research infrastructure.

Faced with a significant number of soft tissue injuries among female players in the run up to the London 2012 Olympics, Hockey Great Britain realised the need for a new approach. Drawing on research about changes to the body during the menstrual cycle, Strength and Conditioning Coach Dave Hamilton asked players to inform coaching staff about when their periods started and ended. This allowed preparations to be optimised, with repetitive twists and turns kept to a minimum at vulnerable points during the menstrual cycle to protect ankles and knees.

The GB team has carried on with the initiative, and players are now encouraged to enter data about their periods into a mobile application as part of their daily routines. The process is also undertaken by Manchester United Women and England Women’s football team.

The English Institute of Sport (EIS) says that although there are some studies showing that women are much more likely to incur serious knee injuries post-ovulation, the historical lack of research involving women in science and medicine has “let female athletes down”.

EIS has established the campaign SmartHER to become smarter about how factors such as the menstrual cycle can impact training and performance. Dr. Emma Ross, Head of Physiology at EIS, said the organisation wants to look at improving breast support in sport and “understanding the injury and illness risk in female athletes”.

“We think these are critical factors in allowing British female athletes to be healthy, happy and to deliver world class performance,” she added.

The organisation recently released its own research, finding that more than half of international athletes report painful period symptoms and premenstrual tension, and more than 30% of international athletes have infrequent or absent periods—a condition that can affect bone integrity in the long term.

In addition, 28% of athletes were found to suffer ‘stress incontinence’ (an inability to control urine whilst moving) during competition—a sign that the pelvic floor muscle is not as healthy as it should be.

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An openness on periods and menstrual cycles forms part of general movement for gender equality in sport, focusing on pay, status, and an ability to discuss and receive treatment for performance-affecting bodily functions.

Runner Eilish McColgan recently earned widespread support for a post on Instagram that detailed the impact her period had had on her sporting performance. She said that on the day of an important race, her period came on during the warm up—making her run “like a walrus” and forcing her to take a lot of painkillers to stop her stomach “from feeling like a horse was kicking me in the ovaries”.


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So I was tempted to just pretend last night didn’t happen and continue on that running is all rainbows and unicorns, but then I thought why do athletes avoid their bad days? Everyone loves to boast about the good days – but sometimes we just have shit days! ? – 5 days before the race, I picked up a shin injury from absolutely nowhere. Training had been good and then about an hour after I received a text from a UKA physio asking how things were – I got a sharp pain in my shin. (That’s voodoo doll sort of stuff..) – I was advised not to race but after 5 days of icing my leg like a lunatic – it started to ease a little. And Michael acted like some sort of magician with a tea spoon, massaging it the night before which reduced the pain too.?? I warmed up with my leg essentially gaffer-taped together by K tape & Walmart compression socks and felt it was manageable to race! – During my warm up, I then took my period.. Whichever God created ovaries is an arsehole. 99% of the time when I take my period on race day or a few days before racing/training – I run like dog shit. Feeling heavy, flat and like a walrus trying to run around in circles. ? I took a heap of painkillers to stop my stomach from feeling like a horse was kicking me in the ovaries and set off in the race hoping for a minor miracle to get me round 25 laps. – In all honesty, the shin held up pretty well, I commited to the race and followed the pacer, but my legs were getting heavier and heavier after just a mile. I think I made it to 5 laps to go before calling it a day. I called my mum, cried a little, walked to McDonald’s where they refused to serve us at the drive thru because we didn’t have a car, proceeded to walk to Safeway and bought a $8.99 Red Velvet cake for my tea before sitting up to 5am feeling sorry for myself and over thinking every day of my life for the last 28 years. I then woke up this morning, posted a picture on Instagram and proceeded to move the f&^$ on! So there you have it – an honest account of a professional athletes life when they have a bit of a shit day! This doesn’t even rank in the top 5 shitty days of 2019 so far.. so let’s take that as a positive. ???‍♀️ #realtalk

A post shared by Eilish McColgan (@eilishmccolgan) on

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