Female athletes have grown in number over the last decade and it’s truly a matter of pride for us womenfolk! While this is a sign of empowerment, there are certain things that still remain unchanged. A subject like periods is rarely discussed and continues to stay under wraps, even in athletic communities. In 2016, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui spoke of having her period during the 2016 Summer Olympics. She also went on to say how she was not using it as an excuse, after she clinched a bronze medal in the tournament.
But do periods really affect a woman’s athletic performance? Let’s find out!
Harder than it seems
While there really is not much evidence as to how period flow affects athletic performance, some say that the middle of the cycle is not as hard. The time frame is generally towards the end of the follicular phase, which falls in the first half of a woman’s menstrual cycle. For instance, a woman’s menstrual cycle is 28 days long, and on an average, the first five days is when the flow occurs. The first 14 days are known as the follicular phase, when the egg is building up.
This is also the time when women are at a higher risk of suffering tissue injuries, including tears of the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee.
The next 14 days are when the uterus is prepared to accept a fertilised egg. The luteal phase is not too favourable for athletic performance, especially since higher quantities of estrogen are produced. This is the time when women are advised to have more carbs, especially if they are going to an endurance event. Not that women have not broken records in the luteal phase, but it’s considered a hard time for them.
In some cases, women lose the ability to get periods - this condition is called amenorrhea that is faced by several athletes. What happens is that the brain sends a wrong signal to the uterus, which then results in scanty or no periods at all. It leads to the production of GnrH or Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone that triggers the follicular-stimulating hormone as well as the luteinizing hormone. When women are extremely physically active (such as athletes), this does not translate into the production of estrogen and progesterone, so the woman’s periods stop. It might start off as irregular and then stop completely.
If amenorrhea strikes, it might pose other issues for women, including bone-related and heart-related issues. It is believed that a woman’s fat percentage (high or low), weight or cortisol levels could lead to amenorrhea in a female athlete.
Generally, this condition is temporary and the body regains its ability to menstruate once women reach the appropriate body mass index.
Managing periods as a female athlete
Now a big question arises as to how female athletes manage their periods, irrespective of how good or bad they are for their athletic performance? It is common for female athletes to use birth control pills to manipulate their periods. It’s not that this helps to improve their performance - rather, it just adds more progesterone and estrogen in the body. It is suggested that a female athlete must not pop these pills right before a performance, since it could lead to decreased performance levels.
Also, these pills must be used in the lowest possible formulation, so that your chances of conceiving are not completely done away with. Once a woman stops these pills, the bodily functions resume as before.
Another great way to ensure a female athlete stays on top of her game is by using a period tracker. This would help be prepared for Aunt Flo’s arrival and won’t keep stressing about the uncertainty of her menstrual cycle.
And at the end of the day, it’s all about listening to your body. If there’s a fear of amenorrhea or any such symptoms that are causing trouble, make sure you consult a medical practitioner well within time.
Geetika Sachdev (Author)