During our school days, most of us have had the experience of missing out on our Physical Training (PT) classes due to our periods. It was hardly our fault. Our parents, families, school authorities and physical training instructors did hardly anything to educate us on menstruation and physical activities. In fact, they played a major role in further reinstating myths.
Many of us have grown up with the idea that menstruation and physical training cannot go hand in hand. One should not exercise at all when one is bleeding or has reached menarche, is what we were specifically taught. However, that is far from the truth. A survey conducted (which included a total of 241 elite athletes) showed that in the initial 14 days of the menstruation more than 70% of the athletes felt well, more than 62% of them said that they did not notice any significant change in their performance and 21% mentioned the worsening of their performance during menstruation.
On the first day of one’s period, the estrogen and progesterone levels are at the lowest but they increase gradually. The week following the end of the period, the energy levels rise with the increase in estrogen as the body prepares for ovulation. Estrogen levels are at the highest during ovulation. After the ovulation period, progesterone levels rise which can make a menstruator feel more tired than usual.
However, that should not stop one from engaging in physical activities as exercising can help with the sluggishness. The above-mentioned survey also records 71% menstruating athletes experiencing the worst energy levels days before their periods which is explained by the dip in both estrogen and progesterone in the body (also known as the luteal phase).
It has been noted that research on how menstruating athletes should practice and exercise is extremely limited and often times the methods followed are what works for non-menstruating male athletes, specifically. Menstruators adapt differently to training at different points of their cycle.
One study which focuses mainly on understanding menstruation in elite athletes and using the menstrual cycle to optimize training while decreasing injury notes the different types of training that can be adopted during different points for maximum utilization (for example, strength training can yield more results during the initial part of the cycle because the body tends to adapt and heal better then).
It is also extremely crucial to smash the myth of menstrual normativity because there is no normal or single way to bleed. Menstruators experience a lot of different complications including dysmenorrhea, endometriosis, fibroids and PMDD which require serious attention.
These complications impact one’s psychological and physiological well-being. Another study found that physiological performance was notably better during the menses phase (MP) than in the proliferative and secretory phases (PSP) and also how physiological and psychological performance (which play very important roles) can be improved by monitoring the menstrual phases.
For the longest time, the menstruating athlete was kept in the dark. The discourse around menstruation in sports or how it affects one’s performance was invisibilized and considered unimportant. Athletes were made to just pop a pill to delay their periods with no regard to their physical or mental health. Rigorous exercises when not in sync with the different phases can lead to a lot of complications including amenorrhea.
More often than not, the coach and performing directors are cis-gendered males with no idea about menstruation and that makes it harder for athletes to open up or manage their periods properly. In recent times, many menstruating athletes have started coming forward with their stories of menstrual management during training and competition and how it impacts their overall performance.
The English Institute of Sports (EIS) has launched the Smart Her Campaign which prioritizes women and menstruators’ health and covers a wide array of topics that have been invisibilized in sports and have the potential to impact an athlete’s performance. There has been a rising concern regarding (the lack of) monitoring and tailoring physical training according to the menstruating athletes’ bodies and new research are being conducted.
It is high time that more focus is given on increasing public awareness on menstruation and coaching and training centres (local, national and international levels) need to start training while prioritizing menstruating athletes’ phases. Discouraging young menstruators from taking part in sports is just another way of showing that it is a cis-gendered heterosexual man’s domain and further perpetuates patriarchy.
That added with very little awareness and information about the needs of menstruators makes it even easier to discredit their athletic prowess. It is also high time we move past the idea that menstruation is just a “girly” thing and sports’ being a “manly” (read misogynistic) sphere has no place for these things.
Seriously? Stop. Your misogyny is showing.
Written by Nirajana Sinha