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Meeting Your Match: Tips For Menstruating During Sport

Periods can sometimes be an inconvenience and stand in the way of our hobbies, especially when it comes to sport - but they don't have to.

Whether it’s being a part of a sports team in school, taking up a hobby, or working as a professional athlete, there are various reasons why menstruation can be quite the inconvenience. Even for women that do not suffer from severe cramps during their period, tiredness, bloating and mood swings can still have an impact on performance and stamina.

For female athletes, menstruation has become a consistently buried topic. In fact, menstruation has been coined as the “last great taboo” in women’s sport, as women are expected to play and perform under challenging conditions that are beyond their control.

The real challenges facing menstruating women that regularly play sports can only be tackled through open conversation and changes in regulations. However, there are ways in which young girls and women can prepare themselves if ‘Auntie Flo’ comes to visit during an important sporting event.  

Get To Know Your Body

Being comfortable and knowledgeable about your menstrual cycle is always advisable, even if physical activity and sports are not a regular part of your life. When sports or exercise is involved though, an awareness of your cycle length, duration and regular symptoms will ensure that you’re better equipped to adapt your schedule or routine accordingly.

For athletes, period tracking apps can be a useful way to keep tabs on all sorts of details that can make a difference to their training schedule, including cramps, bloating, mood swings and even sleep cycles. In fact, it’s not unusual for female athletes to send their trainers and coaches detailed plans of their menstrual cycle in order to ensure they are receiving the right training at the right time.  

One proponent of this idea is Hannah Macleod, a member of Great Britain’s women’s hockey team, who practises this habit so that her trainer changes the size of her weights during menstruation. Keeping track of these details could be particularly important for young female athletes, who may be travelling around the world at an age where they do not have much experience with menstruation.

Though not every woman will have a regular or even problematic menstrual cycle, especially younger girls getting involved with sports for the first time, keeping in touch with your body can help you to anticipate problems before they appear.

Look Out For Your Nutrition

It seems logical to assume that those who take part in sports, personally or professionally, also practice good nutrition – but this is not always the case. Not only does eating the right food during menstruation help to keep fatigue as low as possible, but it can also help to prevent amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation).

Of course, it is possible that consistent and intense training can cause amenorrhea regardless of nutrition, but a lack of balanced nutrients or a low percentage of body fat can also contribute to this condition if there is enough of a deficit. Amenorrhea can result in a prolonged low estrogen levels, which affects bone mass and can lead to stress fractures.

This might not be the best news for budding young athletes, who may hope that regular exercise will stop their periods altogether. But while missing a period needn’t always be a cause for concern, a healthy cycle is better for your body in the long run if you are hoping to take up a professional sport. By maintaining a healthy weight and supplementing vitamins and nutrients wherever necessary, you can reduce these risks considerably.

Choose The Right Products

Every athlete prays for a period-free experience when important sporting events are scheduled, but luck may not always fall on your side. Even during training or practice, it is important to consider what menstrual products will work best for your body and your period.

Where physical activity is involved, comfort should be a priority at all times, and it is important that your menstrual products are not distracting you or causing you any pain. In fact, just this year, 26-year-old London Marathon runner Kiran Gandhi chose to bleed freely during her run, as she found the concept of running for miles whilst using a menstrual product “absurd”.

Though free bleeding may not be for everyone, Gandhi’s decision to do so highlights the importance of comfort and freedom during menstruation, and the value of choosing what makes you feel most at ease.

For example, if you usually experience a heavy period and are concerned about this affecting your performance, then opting for a tampon may be a better solution during sports events, even if you do not usually wear them. However, if you are more sensitive to synthetic materials, sanitary towels may be a safer and more comfortable choice.

Change Your Products Frequently

Just as choosing the right sanitary products for you is extremely important, changing them frequently during practice or sporting events can be just as vital for comfort and concentration during games. Though providing sanitary bins is a legal requirement for toilets in sports venues, changing your products frequently may not always be possible.

For some women, not being at liberty to access to washrooms or sanitary bins often enough can cause unnecessary anxiety that could affect their performance. 22 year-old tennis player Tara Moore has spoken openly about the concerns she has had while menstruating during Wimbledon, where tradition mandates that all players wear a white uniform, and bathrooms breaks are limited to one after each set. These sorts of conditions can be the stuff of nightmares for some menstruating women.

If you usually have a heavier flow, wearing extra protection may be advisable in these situations to give you peace of mind and confidence when playing. For example, wearing both a tampon and a sanitary towel can offer extra security until you’re able to take a bathroom break.

Another alternative to this could be pairing a tampon with period underwear, which may be a good alternative for those that do not enjoy the feeling of a sanitary towel during physical activity.

When In Doubt, Speak Out!

Unfortunately, menstrual taboos and stigmas are not unique only to the sporting world. And though many female athletes have spoken openly about the inconvenience and strain that menstruating during sporting events can have on them, there is still room for improvement regarding openness.

British number one tennis player Heather Watson, for example, has spoken about the fact that her period made her feel such dizziness during a tennis match, that she was forced to call for a doctor at the end of the first set. It seems that there is still a lack of understanding concerning the fact that many women do feel mental and physical limitations during their menstrual cycle, and for good reason.

Even if you do not compete in sports on a professional level, it is still possible to over exert yourself if you are not listening to your body, or speaking out when you do not feel well. If you feel as though your period is making it difficult for you to perform at your best and do what you love, it’s always advisable that you speak to your trainer or your doctor.

But more importantly, it is important to be as assertive about your body as you would be about a winning a match. Although many of the inconveniences women can face in professional sports come from regulations and traditions (such as wearing white during a tennis match, even during your period), speaking out where possible is the only way that awareness for female athletes can be spread and new traditions can emerge that allow women to enjoy sports without stress or complications.

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