Adapted from ‘Why periods must no longer be a taboo subject in sport’ by Louise Lawless from The Irish Times. Publication available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/sport/why-periods-must-no-longer-be-a-taboo-subject-in-sport-1.3966173?mode=amp
In 2016, Chinese Olympian swimmer Fu Yuanhui cited her period as a primary factor in her poor performance in a previous competition. This comment incited international discussion about the taboo of discussing menstruation in the context of sport.
Of all athletes, swimmers are most often required to confront the realities of menstruation. Finding discrete ways to deal with the potential inconveniences caused by menstruation is a major topic on many swimmers’ minds. One athlete remembers wearing multiple swimsuits growing up to subvert the need for tampons. While tampons are a popular option for swimmers, some use oral contraceptives to effectively dictate when they get their period. However, these contraceptive methods are not without potential consequences.
For a variety of reasons, some athletes undergo amenorrhea – in which menstruation does not occur for at least three months. While initially this may seem convenient, the menstrual cycle is an important natural phenomenon indicative of health. Amenorrhea can cause adverse health impacts – low oestrogen levels are linked to osteoporosis and fertility issues.
In fact, being able to track consistent periods can be used to the benefit of athletes. The first half of the menstrual cycle involves increased levels of oestrogen and energy, which can make athletes feel powerful and presents an optimal time for strength training.
Ensuring that female athletes are informed about the implications of training at different points in their menstrual cycle can prevent injuries and can be conducive to maximizing performance. In order to implement this type of education, addressing persistent stigma is of primary concern. A survey by the company FitrWoman found that of 14,000 exercising women in the UK and Ireland, 82% had received no education about the link between menstruation and exercise – despite the fact that athletes who have begun to incorporate their menstrual health into their training plan have been reaping the benefits.
In order to create this social change within women’s sport, all parties involved in the training of female athletes – men and women – should possess at least basic knowledge about the implications of menstruation on performance and health. Menstruating athletes, as well as everyone looking to them for inspiration, can only benefit from this change.