Elite female athletes are opening up about the benefits of tracking menstrual cycles to improve training — could what has been considered a weakness in women’s sport actually be its greatest strength?
As women’s participation in sport and exercise has been on the rise at all levels from youth to professional in recent decades, researchers have struggled to keep up. Historically, sports data has been disproportionately focused on male participants and the findings have simply been applied to their sportswomen counterparts.
This practice has developed a gender data gap within the sporting world. Consequently, elite female athletes have been forced to train according to research results collected on only male bodies and which account for male hormonal and physiological attributes.
Now, researchers are beginning to look into what is missing from this approach to help women reach their optimal performance in sport.
Esther Goldsmith — a sports scientist for Orreco’s female athlete program on “all things menstrual cycle related” — suggests that every active woman, or anyone who menstruates, should be paying close attention to their cycle for possible athletic benefits.
“One the biggest things that I definitely come across all the time is that most women just think about those days where they’re on their period rather than the rest of the days,” says Goldsmith in an interview with the Gazette. “Actually, your hormones are changing throughout that whole time and that can have a massive effect on your physiology and, therefore, may affect you as an athlete.”
The menstrual cycle is often broken up into four phases based on the fluctuation of natural hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone which help maintain the uterus lining among other functions. These phases have been linked to all kinds of athletic benefits and drawbacks that athletes can work with to improve their training and their long-term health.
For instance, a 2021 study that surveyed England international female footballers over a four-year period found that “[m]uscle and tendon injuries occurred almost twice as often in the late follicular phase compared to the early follicular or luteal phase.”
Groundbreaking studies like these on female athletes’ cycles can allow them to better prepare and avoid injury during training and competition.
Another study published last year found that, out of 6,812 exercising women, “menstrual cycle symptoms [were] reported to have a detrimental effect on exercise and work capacity.”
Unsurprisingly, the most common symptoms included fatigue, mood changes and stomach cramps. The researchers suggest that where symptoms affected performance “clinicians could pay more attention to planning training and recovery accordingly.”
In 2019, an ongoing global survey released initial findings that showed a disconnect between female players and their coaches.
The findings reported that “among women with an athletic coach, 81 per cent never discussed the impact of their period on training. Yet the majority of women [65 per cent] feel their performance is worse prior to or during menstruation and report altering their exercise routine as a result of their menstrual cycle [69 per cent].”
“You just need to really know your athletes,” says Goldsmith, who works with high performance female athletes on the Chelsea Football Club. “If you can somehow monitor [menstrual cycles] and begin to understand [them], then hopefully you can really reap the benefits from it. That’s what we’re all about, not looking at it as a negative thing but as a really positive thing.”
One tip Goldsmith has for athletic university and college students looking to implement changes is to begin tracking their cycles and symptoms and, where possible, tweak lifestyle choices like nutrition, sleep cycle hygiene and warm-ups or cool downs to correspond.
For instance, phases one and four — or the period and PMS phases — are “linked with higher levels of baseline inflammation.” During these phases, Goldsmith suggests eating more foods that are “anti-inflammatory” and “rich in antioxidants” — oils, fish, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.
There are plenty of menstrual cycle tracking apps out there. One of the first to be tailored towards athletes and fitness was Orreco’s FitrWoman — an app the United States national women’s soccer team used leading up to their 2019 World Cup victory.
“You can track your period, you can log symptoms, but [the FitrWomen app] also breaks down each phase of the cycle based on what your hormones are doing,” says Goldsmith. “ [These hormones] are so powerful, and so the app really aims to break down all of the scientific research into really tangible pieces of information or pieces of advice, and things you might want to consider in each [phase].”
One final thing to note when cycle tracking is that certain forms of birth control can affect the body’s natural production of hormones.
For example, the combined hormonal contraceptives release synthetic estrogen and progesterone which can affect the body’s own production and cycle of these natural hormones.
“Knowing what those hormones are and do and how they might impact you, I think is so important not just from an athletic point of view but from a kind of long-term health point of view as well,” says Goldsmith.
So, Mustangs, it comes down to knowing your body, being informed and preparing for excellence in sport. Go crush the menstrual cycle stigma and break some records while you’re at it.