Changing the conversation around periods in sport
Joanne O’Riordan: Orreco and Dr Georgie Bruinvels are changing attitudes
‘You gotta get ’em up there, girls!’: Tampax’s banned Tampons & Tea television advert
“Really? You feel like you’re moving forward with the world, and then you say that, and you’re like, “no, I’m not.” To be fair, that’s a real reflection. Sometimes I think, ‘yes, we’ve made things better and I feel like there’s so much more to be done, but we have made headway’, and then sometimes, I hear things like that, and I’m like, “No, we still have a long way to go.” My conversation with Dr Georgie Bruinvels takes place a mere few days after that infamous Tampax ad. We arrange this chat because I’m interested in performance and health, in particular about how our menstrual cycle affects performance. Now, it’s fair to say this conversation is vital in tackling the stigma and shame that surrounds periods.
So, I put it to Dr Georgie quite simply: why does this shame around periods and menstruation exist? “I think that it’s the history around it. There is an unmentionable historical element to it. Throughout the years, it’s like blood leaves your body from your private area, and I think that just seems to be disgusting. They often say that if it was men in this position, then it wouldn’t be such a taboo. Unfortunately, it almost makes a perfect storm whereas for women, then it’s women’s problems”, Dr Georgie says, pointing out one element.
“I do feel as well that the whole perception needs to be changed, that it’s not just like menstruation is the key thing. We should see the whole menstrual cycle, we shouldn’t just be like, ‘you’re bleeding, that’s really gross.’ We need to have it as your body’s going through this sexual pattern of hormonal changes. A lot more needs to be done around education to help with separating out girls and boys from the menstrual cycle, but boys shouldn’t be omitted entirely. I don’t think singling out girls helps even though it is something that happens to girls. It needs to be totally normalised. I know in myself, I felt so narrowed by the whole thing. We need to just change or reframe the discussion around it, to be honest”.
So, that’s what Orreco, along with Dr Georgie, are trying to do. Reframing the menstrual cycle as a tool to enhance performance, and for ordinary folk like myself who aren’t athletes, encourage a conversation that hopefully breaks down stereotypical barriers.
“I really, really think people are increasingly tracking their cycle, understanding their symptoms, or trying to appreciate it more and not just think of it as this once a month thing. Of course, it is still an inconvenience, but I think people are increasingly aware that actually, they can be savvy around that”.
When Dr Georgie and Orreco talk about being savvy with your menstrual cycle, they talk about breaking it down to four phases, as per their free to download the app, FitrWomen.
“Phase one is when an individual is menstruating, and their hormones are really low, and at that time, it’s crucial to eat well and recover as well as possible. You might need a bit more recovery and sleep. There are more high levels of inflammation also in the body. In terms of training, again, I really believe that you can train as hard as you can, as hard as you want on any day of the menstrual cycle, but being really savvy around recovery might be more important”, Dr Georgie explains. While everyone is different, individuals can either feel incredibly happy and ready to go or else super low energy levels and a bit lethargic.
Then going into phase two, this is typically where levels of estrogen increase and women also feel like they’ve got more energy. “Serotonin levels increase in line with increasing levels of estrogen. Here it’s really important to remember to like fuel regularly as often the athlete feels this is where the appetite is suppressed a bit here. This is where the cycle elongates”, explains Dr Georgie.
The most in-depth phase, however, is phase three for any athlete. “Going into phase three, this is interesting where progesterone levels increase, levels of estrogen and progesterone increase. It’s very important to ensure that you’re eating enough protein, particularly before training because progesterone breaks down muscle tissues. That can cause more muscle soreness. Progesterone also affects moods, so just being mindful of that and also fuelling regularly. This is where some people start to experience cravings. We know that as our body temperature increases, it’s in line with the high levels of progesterone and an increased breathing rate, and heart rate can increase a bit. Again, just being mindful of that, making sure that you’re hydrating enough, eating well and just minding yourself.
“Then during phase four, this is where it’s essential to eat really well and factor in recovery. This is where hormone levels decrease, and symptoms often typically occur. There are things to help that, like yoga, Pilates, stretching, keeping the body flexible and moving is super important.”
As for teams who are initially signing up and get to monitor their cycle in such an in-depth way, there are many factors to why a lot of women aren’t initially bothered or are maybe fearful. Dr Georgie tells me that since this is such a big undertaking, practitioners and those involved are afraid and a bit overwhelmed. “Helping manage it, that’s why we made this platform to help manage that. That’s a big thing. I just think it is like opening Pandora’s Box or just opening a whole can of worms potentially creating a fear. I think it’s just got to be broken down into stages of like education to start with and then a drip-feed process. There is an embarrassment, there is breaking down that initial barrier, but it can be fear, and I’ve seen that that can be very effectively eradicated and education is essential”.
As for relationships between athlete and coach as well as practitioner, and given the current state of certain sporting organisations who are embroiled in abuse scandals, I wanted to know whether gender roles have an influence or impact with how open or closed off coaches can be with their athletes when it comes to the menstrual cycle.
“I’d love to say no because I feel like any man and woman should be able to talk about this area, but I do think it often helps [to have two females working together]. I’ve seen in loads of scenarios where male practitioners work really well with female practitioners or female athletes or male practitioners work as well as female practitioners to manage it together. Actually, off the top of my head, I thought of a swimming teacher, and he’s a man, but he’s absolutely brilliant. Even with his athletes and it’s just that it’s normal.
“There’s no shame in it from young women, they’re young all the way up and right through. It’s just been a very normal conversation. I think one thing that helps us the way we term the menstrual cycles. We break the menstrual cycles down into four phases. I think that always takes out the, ‘you’re on your period’ kind of thing. It’s all like, ‘you’re in phase one or in phase two or whatever’”.
At the end of the day, fear, shame and stigma still exist when it comes to the menstrual cycle. Directly after speaking with Dr Georgie, I was explaining to a female friend about this interview. After going through each phase and discussing the impacts associated with each phase, the general consensus was how interesting the whole topic is. The human body is the most fascinating living thing in this world.
Through education and integration, along with open conversations like these, the stigma will hopefully be broken down, piece by piece. Overall, your menstrual cycle is a journey and is something that should be embraced, rather than shutting it out and hoping it goes away. As Dr Georgie explains along with many other doctors, if your body is off, one thing that will notify you is, more than likely, your menstrual cycle.