Periods Still Taboo in Sports

Jackie McDermott, Sports Editor

People who get their periods know the drill. Strategically hide tampons inside pocket of gym bag. Don’t wear white shorts. Chalk poor performance up to a stomach ache if a coach asks, but later confess the real reason to teammates. Or, don’t mention it at all.

The menstrual cycle is often referred to as sports’ last taboo. Athletes compete while menstruating at some of the biggest competitions of their careers but shy away from any discussion of the impact their cycles have on athletic performance.

Anyone who hosts a monthly visitor can attest to the fatigue, cramping, bloating, weakness, mood swings, tearfulness and anger it can bring. While severity varies from person to person, for many menstruating athletes, symptoms create mental, emotional and physical well-being and make practicing and competing a challenge. Coaches, trainers and professional sports organizations are trained to help players tackle many challenges, but menstruation doesn’t seem to be one of them. Apprehension about discussing menstruation and an egregious lack of research investigating its effects on athletes has left the sports world without the resources or tools it needs to manage menstrual symptoms.

Lisbeth Wikström-Frisén, a doctoral student at Umeå University in Sweden, decided to expand the conversation with a study, published last week. Wikström-Frisén examined strength training in relation to the menstrual cycle. Her subjects, 59 female athletes, participated in high-intensity leg strength training. Half of the participants trained with high frequency — (five times per week) — during the first two weeks of the monthly cycle and eventually tapered off to once a week at the end of the cycle. The other half concentrated the frequency of training at the end of the cycle. While the athletes under the other condition also improved over the course of the training, Wikström-Frisén found that the group that front-loaded training and reduced lifting days closer to their periods saw better results. These women showed “significant increase in jump height, peak torque values in hamstrings, [and] increased lean body mass of the legs,” according to the abstract of the study.

Though this is only one study, it provides crucial information for athletes and coaches in planning a training schedule and maximizing athletic abilities. More beneficial discoveries like this are possible if other researchers could conquer the scientific and medical challenges posed and help break the silence around the topic.

Several high-profile female athletes have made important strides toward starting an important dialogue about sports and periods. This year in the Rio Summer Olympics, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui made waves when she doubled over on the pool deck after her leg of the 4×100-meter medley relay. When the commentator asked if she suffered from a stomach ache, Fu candidly said, “It’s because I just got my period yesterday, so I’m still a bit weak and really tired.”

Social media erupted in support of Fu. The hashtag related to her comments was searched half a million times on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo and the majority of users’ posts commended Fu bravery.

While Fu was courageous enough to speak out, many female athletes still shy away from voicing concerns or seeking treatment. A 2015 study that surveyed 1,862 women, 90 of whom were considered elite level athletes, found that 41.7 percent of women explained that their menstrual cycle impacted their performance. Only 22.3 percent, however, sought help for period problems.

Many menstruating people are uneducated about the medical options that can treat period side effects and unaware of the existence of some period-related conditions that require serious medical treatment. Endometriosis, for example, is a condition that some people may construe as extremely painful period cramps, but actually occurs when tissue grows outside of the uterus. Endometriosis can be treated with hormonal or surgical procedures, but only if the person seeks medical attention. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder is a period-related emotional condition with similarly life-altering side effects — including hopelessness, extreme sadness and anger in the week before the onset of menstruation — that can be treated with antidepressants. If encouraged by team leaders to seek medical attention for these problems, players wouldn’t have to play through emotional and physical pain.

In addition to encouraging medical treatment, coaches can also gear the workout schedule to players’ cycles, in line with Wikström-Frisén’s study. Head Coach of the British Olympic Field Hockey team Danny Kerry tailored his team’s workouts to their cycles, in the leadup to the London Olympics in 2012. He allowed women in the latter part of their cycles to lift lighter weights and modify which exercises they did. There is no reason why other coaches can’t adopt Kerry’s strategy of tailoring practice to players’ needs.

Sports’ governing bodies can also make athletes feel more comfortable by loosening some rules of the game. For instance, on the pro tour, tennis players are only allowed one bathroom break per set. For a player who is menstruating, waiting for their next bathroom break can mean worrying about having embarrassing leakage on a white tennis skirt broadcast on worldwide television.

While the goodwill motive of helping menstruating athletes should be incentive enough, sports health companies should also consider the profit motive of a totally unexplored period-management market. There are workout supplements for just about every goal  — fat burning, muscle building, increased energy — why not for period relief?

Athletes are slowly becoming more and more comfortable with publicly discussing their menstrual cycles as they relate to their athletic performance, chipping away at one of sports’ major taboos. It’s time for more sports’ governing bodies, researchers and coaches to join the conversation.