Increased research into the menstrual cycle and its role within sport

Written by Sport

In 2019, when the US womens national team won the FIFA World Cup, some of their success was attributed to the monitoring of the players’ menstrual cycles and scheduling training around it to optimise performance. However, in large parts of the world there is still a stigma around discussing the subject of periods when it comes the athletic performance.

That women would rather be silent about it and let it affect their performance than be open about it and help improve performance is still something to be worried about – not just in sports but also in the larger context of society. But that’s a topic for another day.

Menstrual cycles have been an issue for female athletes for a long time now. It has affected performance because of all the associated symptoms that come with it. For example, British long distance runner Eilish McColgan attributed a hamstring injury she suffered in 2018 partly to her periods.

Those involved in coaching female athletes are now increasingly aware of this and have become conscious of the fact that instead of letting the hormonal imbalances that come with periods affect their training and performance, they can instead use them to tailor training schedules and optimise performance. The development of fitness apps that can take into account the menstrual cycles of athletes also helps push the drive towards optimising performance at all times of the year.

FitBit, one of the most popular apps around the world launched a “female health tracking” feature last year and it enables women to log in their menstrual cycles and the symptoms that they experience during these periods.

“By having all your health and fitness information in one place and looking at your cycle trends and data over time, you can better understand the connections between your activity, sleep and cycle symptoms”

Jennifer Mellor, engineering manager at Fitbit.

One of the more advanced apps with regard to this is FitrWoman. Dr.Georgie Bruinvels, an elite runner and research scientist co-founded the app which uses insights from elite athletes and makes them available to others. Users of the app can track their periods, report symptoms, log training activity, and access nutrition and physiology support during each phase of their cycle. Drawing on the experience of top athletes including those from US Soccer, US Swimming and a number of Red Bull athletes, FitrWoman has made it a completely user-based scientific process that tailors training regimens to individual needs and conditions.

“The menstrual cycle has long been viewed as a barrier to training and performance. But if you flip it on its head, there is real potential to utilise hormone fluctuations to be more specific and precise about the training you do rather than just not training.”

Dr Richard Burden, physiology technical lead at the English Institute of Sport (EIS)

Coaches also feel the difference when athletes can open up about the problems they face during menstruation and it gives these coaches a complete picture of the athlete. Jamie Main, head coach at Derbyshire-based Derventio Excel Performance Swim Squad says that using FitrWoman helped training in a big way:

“Straight away, it normalised the conversations between myself and the athletes. It broke the false taboo on the subject. We could be proactive in adapting high intensity sessions when it didn’t fit their cycle. There’s also points in a cycle where there’s higher chances of injury – increased awareness of this allowed us to build in more recovery work and progressive warm ups.”

It also allows for increasing the intensity of training when the athlete is physically capable of it.

A lot of research so far in sports medicine have come from male subjects – with them being seen as an acceptable proxy for female subjects who are more physiologically variable and are seen as risky subjects due to any unforeseen adverse effect possibly affecting their ability to bear children. There is a definite, clear need to gain a better understanding of female physiology and to define the effects of the cyclical variations in hormones, both positive and negative, on athletic performance.

Last modified: 10th March 2020

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