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Menstruation & Sport

By Maibh Shiels - Local Women In Sport - Feature Writer.

The below piece originally appeared in Local Women In Sport NI in Sept 2022.

Women taking part in sport might not know just how much menstruation affects how they train and play sports. Holistic Wellbeing Coach Joanne Callan shares why tracking your cycle can make such a difference. She says the conversation around menstruation and sport that is happening at the moment is so important to keep women in the game for a lot longer.

Joanne, 41 from Newry, set up Changing Cycles Community Interest Company to educate and empower women to track their cycle, and work with it instead of trying to power through. Joanne shares why it matters for women to know what their body needs at each stage of its cycle.

“Whilst painful periods aren’t and should never be accepted as “normal” they are common and many women have physical pain, heavy bleeding, along with an impact on their mental and emotional wellbeing . Sometimes there is this idea that we need to get over it or get on with it. On the contrary it is a time when your body is communicating that is needs some extra support. “In recent years, there has been more awareness and more conversations happening about knowing our cycle and working around that. Charting our cycle can be the answer for today’s stressed, often caffeine-fuelled women who are running on empty while trying to do everything they need to.”

Joanne says that charting their cycles is even more important for sports women because of the physical demands on their body:

“Elite professional athletes will now often have their cycles considered as part of their training programmes, whereas the average woman who plays amateur sports or goes to the gym probably isn’t considering it. “Over the years we’ve been told to power through it and a lot of women reach the week of menstruation feeling burnt out , we need to work with our natural cycles rather than against them. If you have a football game, or a race, and try to power through with an already depleted body you’re putting your body under more pressure.”

The Wellbeing Coach shares why women should track their cycles if they work out, train, or play sports, working with your cycle can improve energy levels, know what food is best to fuel you, the type of exercise you should be doing, and even reducing the potential for injury. “In the past few years there has been an increase in awareness and interest in this and some of this formal research suggests that women are more likely than men to suffer ACL injuries and that this may occur at a particular time in their cycle.”

Many women might wonder where to start. Joanne says a simple way to understand our cycle is to think of it like the seasons, and base diet, training and rest times around that. “Our cycle is a lot like the seasons. Spring is the week after menstruation, summer is the week of ovulation, autumn is the pre-menstrual time and then winter is the week where we menstruate. Because of that, we need different things at different times. “When it comes to nutrition thinking about the foods we eat at different seasons is helpful. During our autumn and winter, focus on nutritional, warming foods, then during spring and summer think of light, fresh food. “Summer is a high-energy time for people, while in winter we want to slow down. Because of that, when we ovulate is probably a good time to train harder and achieve personal bests, while the week when we menstruate is a time when we will want to rest, so gentle exercise might be best, “The main thing is for women to listen to their bodies, because they do tell us what they need, however we tend to ignore that and listen to what the clock or the calendar says instead. None of this is suggesting we shouldn’t participate in sport or training during menstruation, if we’re working with our body throughout the month, it might be easier to take part during that week because our body has what it needs."

Joanne’s simple advice can help women who aren’t elite athletes to understand how their cycle can affect their training, but she says this is all part of a bigger conversation around menstruation and sport, and the changes that need to be made to make sure women feel comfortable to participate.

“We know a lot of girls drop out of sport in their teenage years, around when they hit puberty, and menstruation is certainly one of the things that contributes to that. A young girl who isn’t in tune with her cycle wouldn’t want to play a match in white shorts and take her bleed, so I think on a subconscious level menstruation can impact women’s participation in sports. “Some people might think that’s an extreme example, but research shows that some young women don’t want to play sports while they’re on their period because of that reason, and not because of any physical pain or anything else. “Teams, and even schools, should consider whether it is period-friendly sports kit that they are asking young girls to wear, because swapping to darker colours is a really simple way to remove that embarrassment and maybe keep girls participating in sport for longer."

Joanne says that, as part of Changing Cycles, she is having these sorts of conversations regularly: “These weren’t problems for many of our parents and grandparents, because they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take part in sport. Thankfully that has changed and now many of our young women want to be part of the sporting world, menstruation can sometimes be a barrier to that.” Menstruation should never stop women from participating in sports, yet it does, and Joanne says it’s time that changed. Whether it’s charting cycles, swapping team kits, or simply starting the conversation, small changes can be made to show that menstruation matters when it comes to sport.

Thank you Maibh for taking the time to Interview Joanne & to write the Article.

Thank you to Local Women In Sport for publishing and including this conversation.

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