Alongside her Chelsea teammates, Fran Kirby has been tailoring her training to fit her menstrual cycle.
The past few years have been momentous for all forms of female sport, yet the world still seems to shy away from discussing biological issues that sportswomen will encounter when competing, training and playing.
The idea that a sportswoman’s menstrual cycle could affect her performance has often been overlooked, however, Chelsea forward Fran Kirby has revealed that, alongside her teammates, she synchronises her training schedule with her periods to ensure she achieves her maximum potential.
The 26-year-old is the latest sportswoman to openly discuss her menstrual health and how it can affect her performance on the pitch.
“At Chelsea, we have a really big focus on our menstrual cycle. We’re focussing on what phase [of the menstrual cycle you’re in going into certain training methods,” Kirby told Women’s Health.
The England International goes onto explain that, at Chelsea, they use an app called Fit For Women that allows them to log everything relating to their period and menstrual cycle.
“We log all of our symptoms [on the app] and the coaches have it so they can tell us ‘ok you need to eat more of this’ or ‘today in training I’m going to pull you out of this because I don’t think you need to be exposed to that type of running,'”
The Chelsea star adds, “[your cycle] can affect you so much. Whether it’s your co-ordination, your reaction time, which is so vital in so many sports.”
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Despite years of disregard, the evidence that a period can heavily upset a players’ form is there. The Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs) has found that women can perform differently depending on where they are in their cycle.
When oestrogen levels are high there is a higher chance of musculoskeletal injuries, in particular, the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. High levels of oestrogen often occur during ovulation or the follicular phase, more commonly referred to as the first phase. The increase in injury risk is linked to “lower rates of tendon collagen synthesis following exercise and increased joint laxity at ovulation”.
Another factor to consider is the change in body temperature. During the luteal, or second, phase of the menstrual cycle, women commonly experience a higher body temperature than normal as well as a “delay in sweating response and a decrease in skin blood flow.” The culmination of these side effects can have a heavy impact on a players’ performance, especially when they are required to play in warmer temperatures.
With the core body temperature at a high, the heart rate and rate of breath can also increase. This must be observed by coaches so to differentiate whether exercise or hormones are to blame for a players’ high heart rate.
It must be highlighted that the overall body mass of a woman can increase and fluctuate during the menstrual cycle. The change in body mass is a result of water retention which commonly occurs just before the period, and although only minor increases are caused, sportswomen that work on weight-based training have to consider the effects.
According to Dr Jacky Forsyth, a woman will have around 457 menstrual cycles in her lifetime, and with that considered, we must question why the discussion of women’s health is still deemed taboo. With the menstrual cycle affecting ones ability to contract an injury or carry more weight, it’s a factor that needs to be covered when looking to improve training facilities for sportswomen.
Despite years of research, the conversation surrounding sportswomen and their menstrual cycle is still ridiculed by the minority in what can only be interpreted as a misogynistic attempt to further segregate women in sports from their male counterparts.
That said, the menstrual cycle is not there to be blamed for poor performance. Fu Yuanhui openly referred to her female health after a loss at the Olympic Games in Rio.
“I don’t think I performed very well today. It’s because my period came yesterday, so I felt particularly tired – but this isn’t an excuse, I still didn’t swim well enough,” said the Chinese swimmer in 2016.
Sportswomen are not asking to be excused when they don’t reach their potential, but instead, want the ability to speak openly about their health much like Fu Yuanhui did in Brazil.
Female health should be a factor welcomed into studios by commentators and pundits when debating training methods. Club coaches should be encouraged to adopt a similar protocol to that at Chelsea in where they can cater to their players’ needs. The sporting world needs to allow room for an open conversation surrounding the relationship between a sportswoman and her menstrual health.
Only then can the women’s game reach its maximum potential.