News | Wednesday, 26th June 2019
Women’s World Cup: How is the menstrual cycle affecting the players?
Dr Petra Kolić explains difficulties athletes face while on their period
By Dr Petra Kolić, Lecturer in Sports Coaching
“Of course I’ll train. Everyone in the team has periods. I can’t use mine as an excuse.”
“If I wear an extra pair of shorts, I’ll be ok. If I leak, nobody will see.”
“I’ll try to pace myself during strength and conditioning. I feel lethargic. I don’t want to injure myself.”
In the upcoming weeks, considerations similar to these might cross the minds of athletes competing in the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The menstrual cycle is a natural event that affects up to 50% of the worldwide population at some point in life. Although empirical work has suggested that most females get used to dealing with menstrual symptoms, it also highlighted that periods can be a taboo subject that many females see as something to be managed, hidden and not necessarily brought up in conversation, unless with trusted others – usually other females.
In recent years, initiatives addressing period poverty and free sanitary products as well as public discussions of high-profile women (e.g. celebrities and athletes) have helped open conversations around the menstrual cycle.
Listen to Dr Petra Kolić, Lecturer in Sports Coaching, discussing her research in the latest episode of MetCast, the University's podcast series:
We have yet to uncover, however, how the realities of the menstrual cycle affect the physically active female. In this context, I am currently contributing to two projects:
- In a mixed-method study with Dr Chris Morse, Reader in Exercise Physiology at the University, we explore what about the menstrual cycle affects women’s physical activity routines. So far, we have collected survey data from over 100 females and interview data from 20 participants. If you wish to contribute to this study, please click here.
- In a qualitative study with Dr Kirsty Hicks, from Northumbria University, and Dr Laura Thomas, from Liverpool John Moores University, we seek to enhance understandings of the menstrual cycle as a physical, psychological and sociological event. We are conducting group interviews with recreationally active females to gain insight into the practicalities of managing periods in sport, exercise and physical activity as well as self, stigma and norms surrounding the menstrual cycle.
Thinking of the World Cup, the month-long competition will likely coincide with phases in the menstrual cycle that affect wellbeing, self-perception or comfort and subsequently shape the thoughts, feelings and experiences in training and competition in various ways. Similarly, consideration of suppression of the period requires planning and thinking ahead. In other words, the menstrual cycle form an integral part of health and wellbeing in the lives of the female athletes.
Physical effects during the menstrual cycle include, headaches, bloating, sluggishness, heavy bleeding, and general aches and pains, including in the legs. These symptoms, as well as their psychological and emotional state, can all affect performance.
The way a women’s natural cycle affects an individual is different from month to month and person to person and can’t be predicted. As well as having an impact on the footballers’ performance on competition day, it can also hinder their training schedules and motivation.
I’d like to imagine that as a team spending every day with each other, the women will be quite open and comfortable discussing their periods, symptoms they are experiencing and how they are feeling, but it would be interesting however to see their thoughts on discussing their symptoms with their manager – Phil Neville – as a male.
Our research suggests that we need to look beyond the menstrual cycle as an event that can be reduced to bleeding and mood swings. It is a reoccurring lived experience that makes women feel symptoms that sometimes cannot be anticipated, often have to be managed and potentially affect physical activity routines. Our work endeavours to acknowledge and normalise the diversity behind the various experiences of females. After all, no period is the same and cycles are rarely identical.
We believe that the World Cup is a great opportunity to talk more openly about women’s real life experiences with the menstrual cycle to support younger generations in developing confidence, comfort and joy in being a physically active, menstruating female.