Periods vs sport!

7 October 2015 by
First published: 24 February 2015

There is plenty of evidence that says exercising during your period can help alleviate cramping and bloating

We’re not one to moan about that time of the month but it can affect more than your mood. So, here it is, periods vs sport – who comes out on top?

Is this the last taboo in sport? Last month it was revealed that – brace yourselves – women have periods. Some even play sport when they have their periods. Some, and this is shocking, are even world-class athletes.

Phew? Calmed your nerves? Let’s continue. When tennis player Heather Watson attributed her poor performance at the Australian Open to her period, or ‘girl things’, the story made headlines. She experienced dizziness, nausea and low energy levels, and a doctor had been called towards the end of her first set.

She later told BBC Radio 5 Live: ‘Women’s monthly issues seem to be one of those subjects that gets swept under the carpet and is a big secret. I think women do suffer in silence.’

Other female athletes have since come forward to help break the taboo. They talk about things every woman is familiar with: bloating, tiredness, pain. And, for tennis players in particular, Wimbledon’s insistence on wearing white is a common concern for female tennis players. Current British number five Tara Moore told the BBC: ‘Male players don’t understand that we have another element to deal with… I’ve had nightmares about that before.’

For the rest of us who are not quite at Wimbledon level, periods and sports are a tough combination. While we will happily (or not so happily) mention cramps over a glass of wine with a girlfriend, we’re probably less likely to mention our periods to the man spotting you in the weights room. In fact, most of us are doing well to even make it to the gym.

So should you just stay in bed with a hot water bottle and pack of Jaffa Cakes every month? Well, yes, if you like (this should be mandatory every once in a while for everyone) but there is plenty of evidence that says exercising during your period can help alleviate cramping and bloating. The body produces natural endorphins when exercising, which have the added bonus of being nature’s painkillers. There are also some studies which claim you may even perform better during your period. The theory is that this is, paradoxically, when your body is most like a man’s as far as hormones are concerned, you may find yourself lifting heavier weights or running even further.

And is there any exercise you should avoid? Apart from inversions like headstands and shoulder stands in yoga, experts say there is nothing you can’t do during that time of the month. Runners will probably be familiar with Uta Pippig’s 1996 Boston marathon win – and the finish-line photos showing her grinning and celebrating, despite signs of menstrual bleeding on her legs.

However, listening to your body is key – if you do suffer from dizzy spells, an ultra-run isn’t going to be the best tactic that day. Most good PTs will tell you to keep a diary of your cycle if you are serious about your sport. Note the days of your cycle you perform better, and they days you should go easier on yourself. This will help you when scheduling events and races.

Sportswomen have different tactics for dealing with their periods. It can be difficult to treat symptoms with pain medication as many would fall under the doping ban, so some use the Pill or other contraceptive methods to help control timing and lighten or even stop periods altogether. For some athletes, especially those who have to maintain a very low, lean bodyweight, periods can stop altogether. Paula Radcliffe would take the Pill for three weeks at the start of her season to alter her menstrual cycle, but that is not exactly an ideal or practical solution for anyone.

British Athletics says it is addressing the lack of understanding of ‘girl things’ in the sport, and its medical staff are being trained in dealing specifically with the challenges sports stars face with their period. They hope that this will help to encourage young female athletes to ask their staff for help, and not suffer in silence. It seems quite forward thinking, but in an era where no other bodily functions seem taboo among athletes (how often do you hear of a long-distance runner copping a squat on a roadside nowadays) – it seems bizarre that the sporting world has just noticed that a large proportion of its athletes are women.

For the rest of us mere mortals, we still have our girlfriends for a gripe, but let’s not be afraid to inform our PTs too, should we think it’s important or affecting our performance. And whether it’s a swim, a punishing weights workout or a gentle walk, let’s not be put off getting the exercise that suits us on the day. Even if we do want the Jaffa Cakes afterwards.