We all saw Dina Asher-Smith looking cramped and awkward during her 100m event last week at the European Championships in Munich. As usual, everyone appeared from the cracks of the wardrobe to give their say on why she pulled out halfway through the race and discussed her future. On Friday she stormed back for the 200m and revealed to everyone it was her period that affected her during the 100m.
Eilish McColgan, multiple medal-winning long distance runner wrote in her column for the BBC that the few times she pulled out of races was for periods and the impact it had on her body. So, with two of the most recognised names in sport calling for research and conversation on this health problem, why is it still taboo?
There are multiple reasons why girls and female athletes won’t talk about them, the main one being shame. Of course, when you’re 13 or 14 years old the last thing you want to discuss is why your body is changing and what this sudden bleeding is about. After all, sex education in school is non-existent and any time someone goes in to discuss the cycle, you’re so traumatised and embarrassed you compartmentalise it.
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It’s tricky enough being a teenager without that added pressure of being the girl who openly talks about periods.
Add to that, given the lack of resources for women’s sports and teams, the absence of a doctor could be a hurdle to openly discussing your period. Of course not having a doctor is scandalous, irrespective of the menstrual cycle, but if you pluck up the courage to talk and there’s no doctor, you’ll probably move on with your life and try to forget about it.
Shorts and kits are also a big obstacle. Clubs tend to use what’s given to them, irrespective of size, fit, and colour. Underage girls tend to drop out of sport at a higher level than boys, yet we insist on standardised uniforms that are usually white; that more than likely will mean staining. Schools and clubs must do better if providing kits to teenage girls.
We also know that sport is a dog-eat-dog environment, so owning up to having a weakness isn’t something an athlete is supposed to do. The last thing an athlete wants is to provide an excuse so, naturally, they’re not going to use a taboo subject as a reason for not performing.
The menstrual cycle is a health problem at the end of the day. A lot of people, myself included, think that skipping the occasional period is no big deal. However, plenty of research and experience details how gruelling it can be to skip a period. Amenorrhea is the absence of menstruation, often defined as missing one or more menstrual periods. Amenorrhea can lead to complications further down the line, like losing bone density, and can also point toward health problems in the future.
In my case, amenorrhea was triggered by a calorie deficit, meaning I was exercising too much and not replenishing what was lost in a nutritious way. By working with various nutritionists and monitoring my body with a fitness wearable, I managed to get my periods back and regulated.
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The other issue around periods is the lack of awareness around using it to an athlete’s advantage. Companies like Orreco, WHOOP, and others work with women’s teams or female athletes in nutrition and exercise with the menstrual cycle in mind. For example, working on stretching and easy exercise before and during your period while focusing on intensive exercise after.
Again, everyone is different so use a calendar (and some emojis) to track your mood, food intake, and exercise level. See where differences are popping up. See where your moods change or your triggers are. For me, not eating enough and being stressed are two huge factors that make me skip my period. I never knew this because I was taught your menstrual cycle is purely connected to having children, and nothing else.
This is a reality that affects half of the global population. Half of the global population can’t call into work sick, call off a county or All-Ireland final or postpone the Olympics. But, knowledge is power and that starts with giving girls proper education and giving them the tools they need to succeed. And that starts with ensuring resources are there if a conversation needs to be had.
Eilish McColgan said it best: “It still fascinates me that a large majority of women struggle with their menstrual cycles every month, and yet no one seems to have the answers. Even now, the research in regards to sport, especially, is sparse. I presume it would be addressed in far more detail if it affected men - especially our top male athletes.”
[ Joanne O’Riordan: If talk of periods in sport freaks you out, ask yourself why ]
Knowledge is power and open conversation encourages women to become more aware. We’re not asking anyone to shout about it, but understanding your body is key to performance.