That time of the month. A visit from Aunt Flo. Girl Flu. Surfing the Crimson wave. On the rag. Shark week. Monthly gift. I could go on (and on) about the euphemisms used to describe a woman’s menstrual cycle, but it’s all to avoid saying the word PERIOD. It’s something that affects half our population directly at one time or another, and the rest of the population indirectly at one time or another. There are still countries where girls don’t attend school while on their period (and they often end up dropping out), and in just about every other country, it’s a taboo subject.
By now you may be wondering why, exactly, are we talking about periods on a soccer website?
Because it’s about damn time someone talks about it.
When it comes to periods, they run the gamut from mild cramping and bleeding to migraines to oh-my-god-I-just-might-die-this-month because of endometriosis, and everything in between. Sometimes you just feel a little more tired than usual, and sometimes you feel like your uterus is trying to rip you apart from the inside. It’s not pleasant. Yet every month, women deal with this.
Hormonally, a woman’s estrogen and progesterone levels are going up and down throughout the weeks are she runs through her cycle. The third week brings the PMS symptoms when the hormones drop, and then the bleeding comes in the fourth week. Studies have shown that period pain is significant enough to impact cognitive functioning as well as everyday tasks.
Now, imagine if you will, having to be in peak physical condition while all of this is going on, and compete in your sport.
You may remember during the Olympics when Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui made waves (pun intended) when she commented about her period making her feel more tired, impacting her performance. And this made the news. A woman talking about her period in public made the news. In 2016.
There is (surprise!) very little scientific information out there about female athletes and their periods, and most of the studies are years old, but there was one in 1984 and one in 2002, both showing that female athletes (one was specifically about soccer players) were more likely to have a traumatic injury (such as tearing their ACLs) in week three and four of their menstrual cycle. Researchers assume this is due to hormone fluctuations, but also possibly a decrease in coordination and reaction time around this time of the month.
A sports med doctor wrote an entire article about ACL injuries in U.S. Women’s National Team players without a single mention of their menstrual cycles. An article on GoalNation.com also covered the topic of female soccer players and actually explained why “that time of the month” can stress the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Of course, there are other factors why women are more likely to get ACL tears, but the menstrual cycle should not be overlooked – it obviously has an impact.
There are two studies about the actual strength levels of women on their periods that are regularly cited. One consisted of 24 rowers. The study found that there was no real difference in strength, endurance, or power output when the women were on their periods. Another study consisted of 241 elite tae-kwon-do, judo, basketball, and volleyball players, and also found that while the women didn’t feel well, their pain decreased with competition, and there was no significant difference in their performance whether they were or were not on their periods.
Yet in a survey from “Female Athlete Health Group” , more than half of women reported that their period has an impact on their training. The group also surveyed female athletes at the London Marathon in 2015 and about a third of those women said their period impacted their performance.
When I first sat down to write this article, I wasn’t sure if I really did want to dive into this topic. If we don’t talk about it, this topic continues to be taboo (which is ridiculous). But if we do talk about it and conduct more research on the effects of periods on athletic performance, some people might try to use this as evidence of women being the weaker sex (which is also ridiculous. Just surviving a lifetime of periods is proof of the strength of some women). So what do we do with this information?
I was hoping to interview a female athlete about how she deals with her athletic performance during her period, but, well, we return again to it being a taboo topic, that many women just don’t want to talk about.
I personally can’t imagine performing at my best during my period. Some days, it’s hard to function at all, much less compete. And I get that we can’t schedule all games and athletic events around each woman’s menstrual cycle, but more research would help women to train smarter during certain times of the month. It could result in better methods for dealing with the pain of periods, and safer ways for women to participate in sports throughout their menstrual cycle. Bringing more awareness to this topic and bringing it to the table as a legit conversation could possibly reduce the number of ACL tears that female soccer players end up with, and focus more on strength training to avoid these injuries in the first place.
To be honest, woman already have enough external factors going against them when it comes to sports (equal pay, unbalanced media attention or lack of media attention at all, etc.), so we need to figure out a way to help women deal with what’s going on internally so they can at least perform at their best as consistently as possible. And let’s be real here, if men had to deal with periods, we would not even be having this conversation – there would have been a solution decades ago.