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Isn’t it wonderful that the number of Indian female athletes have grown over the years? Whether it’s Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, or PV Sindhu—these sports women have gone on to make the country proud on a global level, and we couldn’t be happier! While this is a sign of empowerment, there are several things that haven’t changed.
Until a few years ago, female athletes were wary of speaking about their ‘periods’ on a public platform. Although the situation has improved, there’s still a long way to go. In 2016, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui had spoken of having her period during the 2016 Summer Olympics, after she won the bronze medal. She had also gone on to clarify that she wasn’t using her period as an excuse!
“My period started last night,” Fu told reporters after the race, “so I’m feeling pretty weak and really tired. But this isn’t an excuse. At the end of the day I just didn’t swim very well.”
And this brings us to an important question: do periods affect a female athletes performance? Let’s find out.
It’s not as easy
There’s no evidence to prove how menstruation impacts athletic performance, although some say that the middle of the cycle is easiest for women. For instance, if a woman’s menstrual cycle is 28 days long, it is the first five days when the flow occurs. The first 14 days are called the follicular phase, when the egg is building up.
Now this is the time when female athletes have to be particularly careful, since they are at a higher risk of getting tissue injuries, including tears of the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee.
The next 14 days, called the luteal phase, is when the uterus is prepared to accept the fertilised egg. This time is not as great for athletic performance, since the body produces higher levels of oestrogen. And in case an athlete has to participate in a sporting event, she must load up on carbs. In a nutshell, this is a tough time for female athletes!
In some extreme cases, athletes lose the ability to get their periods—this condition is called amenorrhea. In such cases, the brain sends the wrong signal to the uterus and that leads to scanty or no periods at all. When women train hard and are extremely physically active (as in the case of athletes), the production of oestrogen and progesterone in the body goes down, and a woman’s periods stop.
And amenorrhea brings with it a whole set of other issues, such as bone and heart-related diseases! It is said that a woman’s fat percentage, whether high or low, weight and cortisol levels are reasons for amenorrhea. Once the woman reaches the appropriate body mass index, she can regain her ability to menstruate again.
So how do female athletes manage their periods ?
This brings us to something critical: how easy or difficult is it for female athletes to manage their periods?
Ayesha Billimoria, a three time 200-metre national champion, Olympic aspirant, and sports trainer, shares her experience: “Most women have a hard time training during their periods, but as a young teenager and even in my 20s, I used it to my benefit (mentally), and told myself that it charges me up to run faster. It really didn’t affect me so much. Although when I stepped into my 30’s, it was a completely different story. It was a sign my body was telling me to relax, breathe and do light movements on those first three days.”
Some female athletes also use birth control pills to manipulate their periods, but it is advised not to pop these pills right before an event, since it could lead to decreased performance levels.
There’s another way female athletes manage their periods, and that’s by using a period tracker. “I think nothing works better than a tracker for me. I feel it mentally prepares me for my period, and I don’t have to keep stressing about its uncertainty,” shares Jhanak Dubey, a state-level athlete from Kanpur.
Each woman’s body is different, what really matters at the end of the day is listening to it! And in the case of female athletes, tuning it to meet professional demands.