Dina Asher-Smith, the fastest British woman on record recently called for more funding, to research how periods impact athletic performance. This occurred during the European Championship 2022 at Munich, after Asher-Smith pulled up experiencing cramps during the 100m race. She said that “more people need to research (periods) and talk about them”, particularly in the context of women’s sport from a scientific perspective. “It could do with more funding because if it was a men’s issue, we’d have a million different ways to combat things” she told BBC Sport.
This comes at a time when women in sport are increasingly discussing the impact of periods and other conditions like premenstrual syndrome.
In an article for BBC Sport, Eilish McColgan discussed the taboo culture around periods in sport. She said “I’d only ever dropped out of two competitions, and on both occasions, periods were the perpetrator”. She noted that being on a period added risks for injury – such as muscle and tendon injuries. She talked about coordinating training with period cycles, saying that some women’s sports teams accommodate athletes’ cycles within their training programmes.
Clare Jones, Welsh netballer said that “It’s a massive topic within sport and it’s definitely not given focus” and that “coaches should be aware of the effects it can have on us”.
The English Institute of Sport’s recently launched campaign SmartHer focuses on female health, opening conversations between athletes and coaches, and offering expertise to support female athlete’s performances in elite sports. Richard Burden from the EIS Physiology team comments that “Historically academics have shied away from doing research that involves females. Because female research is difficult, people don’t do it,”. This is hopefully something that’s set to change on the research agenda, as more and more female athletes raise it as an issue. However, it shouldn’t take suffering athletes, whose performances were compromised by menstrual cramps for research to be conducted.
Outside the world of sport, periods are starting to gain recognition in other workplaces as well, with Spain being one country to introduce period leave in a draft bill this year. Other countries have also implemented policies – historically the Soviet Union brought a national policy in 1922, and Japan in 1947. Critics have complained of policies being unfair or leading to further stigmatisation. In regards to the unfairness – some policies simply mandate a number of remote work days to be taken in event of period pain being too severe to come to work, or a small number of paid-leave days on top of their usual amount. As women (transgender and non-binary people included) generally have 12 periods a year where they can experience heavy cramps, discomfort and nausea, is it really unfair that their sick leave is proportional? As to the stigmatisation, that could be argued as not so much having to do with paid leave, but the general social culture around periods. That is the problem to tackle, rather than criticising an accommodation for women who are suffering badly on their period.
Opening up the conversation on periods is important, as for many years this has been a stigmatised issue with great reluctance to discuss how periods affect women’s lives. Last year the Scottish Government passed a new law to provide free period care products for people who needed them. This acknowledgement of the cost of period products, and effect that unaffordability has on women’s lives helped make a difference to those on lower incomes, to access equal dignity and ease as other women. This is just one example of the effect of destigmatised conversations around periods.
Dina Asher-Smith was right to bring up the effect of periods on her performance, and raise awareness of the fact that it isn’t well-researched at all. If we want our female athletes, and beyond that, women in general to thrive, we must research periods more and have open conversations about them.
Written by Aysha Sohail