Periods in sport, you’re cramping my style

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On Tuesday 16th August 2022, Dina Asher-Smith shocked the world by finishing last in her 100m final at this year’s European Championships in Munich. Merely four seconds into the race, Asher-Smith was forced to slow down due to cramping in both her calves which prevented her from sprinting into athletic history once more and retaining her gold medal title from 2018.

However, in a recent interview after qualifying fastest for the 200m final, Asher-Smith revealed how “girl stuff” got in the way of her attempt at gold in the 100m final. This allusion to her period pains broke into the often-tabooed subject of women’s menstrual cycles and has since kickstarted an important conversation.

Undoubtedly, every athlete goes through their own struggles and setbacks, both mental and physical; yet menstrual cycles and their effects within female sport often remains a supressed subject.

 A recent article in the British Journal of Sports Science (which delves deep into research regarding the menstrual cycle and its effect on elite female rugby players) revealed that “33% perceived heavy menstrual bleeding and 67% considered these symptoms impaired their performance”. Period pains are real and clearly this issue is not something that can always be simply fixed through a quick pre-race paracetamol.

So, how can we combat the menstrual mayhem female athletes face? A quick ‘remedy’ people are often swift to suggest is for these women to take some form of contraception and obliterate their periods all together.

Menstrual cycles and their effects within female sport often remains a supressed subject

However, ‘the pill’ is not as enticing as it may seem. Although it is undeniably easy to slot into your routine and smaller than a one pence coin, this tiny tablet is not to be underestimated. There are countless side effects that come from contraception, with a major result being harmful effects on one’s mental health.

Studies have shown that women on the combined pill can be up to “23% more likely to be prescribed an antidepressant than those not on hormonal contraception”. Furthermore, when consulting results from the progestin-only pill, the statistic jumped up to 34%.

Finally, it rose to a staggering 80% when concentrating on girls only aged between 15-19 who were on the combined pill. Suddenly, this ‘simple fix’ becomes far more dangerous as physical impairment is replaced by damage to one’s mental health – a risk I am sure many female athletes strive to avoid.

Additionally, the effects of a menstrual cycle differ massively between different women. Some females face a minimal number of symptoms, whilst others are left bed-bound and facing severe cramps, migraines and/or muscle aches. Therefore, like injuries and other setbacks athletes face individually, period pains become something female athletes are forced to just deal with it.

Her interview has undoubtedly helped start important conversations regarding this taboo topic

Nevertheless, oestrogen – the hormone that regulates and thickens the uterus lining during the menstrual cycle – can increase the elasticity of joints at times. This can lead to athletes being more susceptible to anterior cruciate ligament problems, a notoriously career-threatening injury.

Although there is no easy fix or exact solution to the problems athletes such as Asher-Smith face, her interview has undoubtedly helped start important conversations regarding this taboo topic. The 26-year-old’s smile remained constant throughout her interview, highlighting her acceptance of period pains being unavoidable at times and simply part of being female.

This positive mental attitude displayed by the two-time Olympic bronze medallist, despite her 100m disappointment, is a true testament to her resilience as an athlete as she continues to be a role model for thousands of young women and aspiring athletes.

Hopefully, this unfortunate event can be used as leverage, as Asher-Smith stated, towards introducing “more funding” and “research from a sports science perspective”. Such progressive thinking would certainly allow women to prevent menstruation from ever cramping their style and success.

Image: Mark via Flickr

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