Some of my earliest memories of athletics are running cross country at age ten, alongside the boys, fiercely competitive, and trying to beat them. I had no concern for how my body was different from theirs.
Fast forward to age sixteen, and I was lining up to run 800m at a county track event with debilitating period pains, barely able to finish the race. The pain was coupled with the embarrassment of feeling like I couldn’t explain my performance to my male coaches. While puberty made the boys around me faster and stronger, it seemed only to inhibit my ability to run.
As they finish puberty at around age seventeen, 64 percent of girls will have quit sports, according to Get Moving. Menstruation seems to be a key factor: 42 percent of fourteen to sixteen-year-olds say their period stops them taking part in physical activity inside school. Many of us can empathise with the feelings of helplessness that lead to girls giving up on participating in sport.
Cavan Ryan, the Welfare and Inclusivity Officer for Edinburgh University Athletics Club, argues that athletics training is often “male centred” as the coaches and leaders place no emphasis on hormonal differences that affect those who menstruate. Cavan believes that because menstruation or hormonal changes during the cycle often inhibit training or performance, girls begin to get self-conscious and frustrated with their bodies, often leading to a negative self-image.
For many girls, in Cavan’s words, “sport becomes embarrassing” when they hit puberty, and it is difficult to have the confidence to continue. This opinion is echoed by research: according to Get Moving, as they reach puberty, many girls perceive sports as being only for boys. In a poll, 80 percent of girls at puberty age felt that they did not belong in sport.
Cavan has been working to spread awareness of “menstrual cycle specific training”, where you fuel your body and move your body in different ways that are specific to different parts of your cycle. With male-centred training, those who menstruate are often “training against” their periods rather than training in harmony with them.
For example, Cavan notes that she records her hormonal cycle on a strength and conditioning plan, to have an awareness of what her body needs throughout the month. According to Runner’s World, during the luteal phase menstruating runners should be extra careful to take in more carbohydrates, to avoid low blood sugar. If possible, athletes should also avoid high intensity training during this time.
Clearly, menstruation in athletics is a key component dictating performance, but it is highly under researched, and is often overlooked in training plans. Cavan said: “It is important for everyone to learn about how these hormonal changes affect training, not just people who menstruate, but male coaches as well. This will hopefully help increase participation as we work to break taboos around menstruation and make everyone feel more comfortable.”
She added: “Being the welfare [secretary] I would love to hold an event where we all talk about periods. In athletics everyone takes injuries and illnesses seriously when they inhibit performance, but there is such a lack of awareness about how menstrual cycles affect training and competitions.”
Cavan praised the high proportion of girls in Edinburgh University Athletics Club, noting that “it is inspiring to see so many women around you participating, and supporting other women.”
However, she also encapsulated the divide that remains in Athletics, and in sport in general: “It is like men have a straight 100m race, while women and people who menstruate have many hurdles to deal with along the way. As a society we need to more to raise awareness, so hopefully for the future more girls will feel that they can continue to take part in sports.”
Photo courtesy of Freddie Clemo.