Actually, it’s somewhat “taboo” to mention periods in sport. But it’s exactly what tennis player Heather Watson told BBC Sport after her first-round exit at the Australian Open in January. That prompted questions about female athletes and how they manage their menstrual cycles.
Watson said she suffered from dizziness, nausea and low energy levels, something that many women can no doubt relate to. But as a 22-year-old professional athlete, some feel she should have found some coping mechanisms to help her by now.
“My opinion of that situation was it’s really not an excuse,” said Leith Drury, a sports psychologist for the Ryerson Rams. “Elite athletes competing at that level or really any significant level learn to manage any kind of distraction … they build strategies to deal with that and menstruation is exactly the same thing.”
Drury works with some Ryerson Rams female athletes to recognize how their menstrual cycles affect them, and then find a way to overcome those issues.
“For example, if an athlete says, ‘I’m extremely tired during my menstrual cycle,’ we’ll strategize around napping at the right time or eating foods prior to an important game or important practice that gives you more energy than you would normally seek,” said Drury. “You have to know how it’s impacting you and then counterbalance that distraction.”
In an article published earlier this month by the Globe and Mail, Dr. Andrew Bosch, a researcher at the University of Cape Town and the Sport Science Institute of South Africa, said that the effects of the menstrual cycle vary from athlete to athlete. He added that while some athletes may notice a drop in performance during certain times of their menstrual cycle, others may not. But this “drop in performance” is not always due to pain from cramps. In fact, the pain is often the most manageable side-effect of menstruation for athletes.
“You come prepared,” said Emily Rose Galliani Pecchia, a player for the Ryerson Rams women’s hockey team. “You make sure you have some Tylenol on you.”
Ryerson Rams basketball player Savanna Hamilton said she believes the pain just makes her a fiercer athlete.
“I think because we have to deal with it so much, like when it comes to other types of pain, you’re like, ah this is nothing. Have you tried being on your period?” she said. “I think it does make you stronger.”
A real challenge for female athletes can be weathering the storm of changing hormone levels in the days leading up to a period, the dreaded premenstrual syndrome.
Higher estrogen and progesterone levels can make female athletes vulnerable to mood swings and fatigue, which can ultimately make exercise feel harder. Also during this time, it is harder for the female body to access carbs efficiently enough to create the fuel needed for high-intensity training or competition. Eating more carbs before and during these sessions can help, but is not always easy.
“I think the biggest thing for me, is the bloating,” said Galliani Pecchia. “Like when I feel bloated. I don’t really want to eat. Especially if you’re practising or playing a game, and you’re having to deal with food and you’re not eating properly, it can affect you.”
Ryerson Rams women’s volleyball coach Dustin Reid said menstruation cycles have never been a serious enough issue amongst his female players for him to make any adjustments. And although he does not see it as an excuse, he said he is always willing to make necessary changes to help athletes better perform.
“If it is indeed sincere, then it puts the topic on the table for discussion,” said Reid in regards to Watson’s comments. “And it helps people understand what they’re going through and how they can better support them.”
One thing we know for certain is that menstruation cycles are a challenge limited to female athletes. Nevertheless, no matter how an athlete or a team chooses to deal with it, ultimately, it is just one of many challenges that all athletes, regardless of gender, have to overcome.
By Billy Diep and Kalia Garcia-Rojas
This story also appeared in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Feb 25, 2015.