Periods and Sport: What Do We Know?
Taylah is a Public Health student at the University of South Australia who recently completed a placement with TABOO. She's passionate about the intersection between between sports and menstruation, and how the cycle can be leveraged to make us better athletes.
We all know that having our period can be painful, and it can alter our mood and mental state. Some of us might even know exactly when our periods will be at their peaks and what to do to manage them. Knowing this can be really useful for improving your health, especially if you’re an athlete.
At the elite level of sport, individualising training is vital for maximising athletic performance. For menstruators, this includes managing menstrual cycles and planning trainings around them. You may have heard that menstruating athletes have reported that they believe their performance is worse during their periods and in the few days before.
Several systematic reviews have investigated the impacts of menstrual cycle phases on athletic performance, but none have found conclusive objective evidence on how performance differs with each phase. This isn’t because the claim is untrue – this is because there haven’t been enough high-quality studies on the topic.
But this may be about to change. The NRLW and the Australian Catholic University are currently conducting a study on menstrual cycles and athletic performance. Over several months, the NRLW athletes are having their menstrual cycles tracked, as well as having their performance, sleep, nutrition, recovery and strength analysed. This study will provide some very important and detailed findings that will help many menstruating athletes and their coaches better incorporate their menstrual cycle into their training.
Athletes taking hormonal contraceptives (HC) have different experiences of the menstrual cycle than those not taking them. Some athletes in this study are taking HC and some aren’t, which will again provide important results for the approximately 50% of elite female Australian athletes that take HC. (This fact isn’t definite either – this statistic comes from a study with only 189 participants!)
Hopefully in the next few years, as periods and menstrual leave and women’s sport are discussed more and more, we will have some conclusive evidence to support menstruating athletes. It could help reduce injuries, increase training efficiency and generally improve the overall menstrual, physical and mental health of athletes.
But, we must be careful of how we translate this evidence. Research may show that menstruators are weaker at one phase of their cycle compared to another. We must keep in mind that menstruators achieve great things at all phases of their cycle – after all, periods are powerful.
Burnside, N & Groves, E 2022, 'AIS researchers launch new study into how the menstrual cycle influences sport performance', ABC News, 25 August, viewed 16 November 2022, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-08-25/ais-researching-effect-of-menstrual-cycle-on-sport-performance/101371544>.
Carmichael, MA, Thomson, RL, Moran, LJ & Wycherley, TP 2021, 'The Impact of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Athletes’ Performance: A Narrative Review', International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 18, no. 4.
McNulty, KL, Elliott-Sale, KJ, Dolan, E, Swinton, PA, Ansdell, P, Goodall, S, . . . Hicks, KM 2020, 'The Effects of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Exercise Performance in Eumenorrheic Women: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis', Sports Medicine, vol. 50, no. 10, pp. 1813-1827.
Meignié, A, Duclos, M, Carling, C, Orhant, E, Provost, P, Toussaint, J-F & Antero, J 2021, 'The Effects of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Elite Athlete Performance: A Critical and Systematic Review', Frontiers in Physiology, vol. 12, 2021-May-19.