Athletes and periods: how the sporting world is starting to smash taboos

Is the sports industry finally embracing a new era of understanding periods?

Two-time Commonwealth Champion and three-time Olympic swimmer Hannah Miley has been competing since she was about seven years old. “As a kid, I could trip on flat ground, but I always felt very safe and relaxed in the water,” she says. Reaching puberty threw something of a wrench into the work.

“If I had my period on the day of a competition, it affected my performance quite a bit. I’d have to hide in a locker room after a race because I’d be in agony.” Finally, one of the team’s sports doctors suggested that she try the birth control pill, which Miley took for the next 15 years. “There wasn’t really any discussion,” she adds. “It was just seen as the best option.”

Periods are sometimes called ‘The last great taboo‘ in women’s sport. But thanks to athletes like Miley and professional runner Lauren Fleshman, who just wrote a book that shows what it’s like to be an athlete in a male-dominated industry, things could change.

Last year Miley was one of 50 top athletes Join the #SayPeriod campaign created by women’s health advocacy Well HQ to normalize conversations about menstruation in sport. The effects are being felt across the industry.

Periods are sometimes referred to as “the last great taboo” in women’s sport. Athletes like Hannah Miley are trying to change that. Image: Euan Duff.

West Bromwich Albion, Stoke-City And Manchester City Football clubs have switched to darker shorts for their women’s teams and footballer Beth Mead revealed during Euro 2022 that England women’s national football team, the Lionesses, had Talks with Nike about the same change. In 2021, Adidas The first major sportswear brand to launch a line of period-proof athletic apparel.

Meanwhile, feminine hygiene brand Intimina – which regularly posts helpful advice on the subject – worked with the French Olympic fencer Manon Brunet to demystify a training day for a professional athlete during her period.

The governing bodies are also making progress: swimmers can do it wear period pants now under swimsuits during competition, and the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club are expected to allow female players Wearing dark underwear under her tennis whites for the first time at Wimbledon in 2023. In Sweden, the Swedish Football Association introduced the All Day Initiativewhich will, among other things, conduct pilot projects to evaluate how football training can best be adapted to the menstrual cycle of the players.

Coaches, schools and athletes themselves can play a role in encouraging open and honest conversations about menstruation

In addition to leveling the playing field for professional athletes, there is hope that such changes will lead to this also inspire women and girls to exercise. In 2022, Intimina surveyed 500 of its social networks media followers and found that 79 percent take a day off from exercising at the start of their period. One in four say they don’t exercise during menstruation because of cramps, and nearly one in three say they do because they are afraid that they will leak.

Dunja Kokotovic, Intimina’s Global Brand Manager, says it’s positive that the consideration of women’s menstrual needs in sport is gaining recognition, but more needs to be done. “This is a complex problem, influenced by societal attitudes towards menstruation and inadequate facilities and resources for period management,” she adds. “Coaches, schools and athletes themselves can play a role in encouraging open and honest conversations about menstruation. And there is a need for more research to better understand how menstrual cycles affect athletic performance.”

Only 6 percent sports and exercise studies focus specifically on women, but there is an increase number of experts who suggest that cycle mapping can help female athletes train more effectively. Hormone fluctuations mean that some women, for example, can endure a higher intensity of training at the beginning of their cycle than at the end, when there is a higher risk of muscle and tendon injuries.

A tiny fraction of sport and exercise studies focuses specifically on women, but interest from researchers is growing. Image: Mike Von

British researcher Georgie Bruinvels developed the FitrWoman app using performance data from thousands of professional female athletes. The app was used by the US national soccer team in training ahead of their 2019 World Cup victory. Olympic heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill also recently launched her own app to help women who may not be professional athletes optimize their training regimen.

Those are all positive moves, says Tanya Martin, interim head of insights and innovation at the charity Women in Sport. But more needs to be done to address the dropout rate at the grassroots level. A Study of more than 4,000 teenage girls The study, published by Women in Sport in 2022, found that 43 percent of those who previously described themselves as athletic dropped out of sport after elementary school. This contrasts with 24 percent of boys of the same age. Puberty is a major factor – nearly 80 percent of girls say they avoid exercise when they’re on their period.

Puberty has a significant impact on whether girls continue to play sports into their teens. Image: Jeffrey F Lin

“The teenage years are particularly important because they form lifelong habits and attitudes for adulthood,” says Martin. “We know that seven out of ten girls avoid being active during their period, regardless of how committed or athletic they are. Even the most athletic girls regularly drop out, miss training, and miss competitions because of their periods and because they don’t have the right support and guidance to manage them effectively.”

Women in Sport is one of the partners behind the Big sister Project funded with £1m from the UK Government’s Tampon Tax Fund. The deposit distributes money from VAT on hygiene items to projects that improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls.

started Over the past year, the Big Sister Project aimed to provide a range of resources to help girls overcome the challenges of puberty – with information on periods, breast development, sports bras and period products – and regain the joy of sport . “There’s not enough talk about sport and exercise, even though half the population has their period,” adds Martin. “There’s a lot more that needs to be done to normalize this conversation… and get some of the basic fundamentals right, like: B. Not restricting the kinds of clothes girls can wear.”

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Miley spent the final year of her career getting off the pill and working with her period instead of against it. It wasn’t without its challenges. “It was really hard to change my attitude towards competing while on my period because at such a young age it was the worst thing in the world,” she says. Talking to Georgie Bruinvels made a big difference, she says. “She opened my eyes to a lot. I started monitoring and tracking my body and learned to really listen to it.”

Miley retired from professional swimming in December 2021 and now runs Period workshops in partnership with Scottish Swimming to bust some of the myths surrounding menstruation for teenage athletes, their parents, and their coaches.

“For me, it’s trying to offer some management strategies and how to use it as a superpower,” she adds. “Menstruation shouldn’t be a secret. It’s private, but it’s not a secret. And as an athlete, you shouldn’t feel like you can’t talk about it.”

Main picture: Hannah Miley with her silver medal at the XXI. Commonwealth Games. Credit: Garry Bowden/SIPPA

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