Menstruation impacts athletes — period

The women’s volleyball team played against Wright State University on Sept 26. Photo by Gunnhildur Baldursdottir.

By Gunnhildur Baldursdottir
Jambar Contributor

Gender equality is on the rise in sports, and so are studies on the impact the menstrual cycle has on training, competition and injury.

According to the National Library of Medicine, a regular 28-day menstrual cycle has four phases — menstruation, follicular, ovulation and luteal — that are regulated by four hormones. While this research defines four phases, some scientists argue a different number of phases exist, ranging from two to six. 

Research from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health shows female athletes have greater strength when estrogen peaks during the late follicular phase and lower strength during the luteal phase, when progesterone increases. 

Birna Varðardóttir, a Ph.D. student in sports and health science at the University of Iceland, was among researchers who established Iceland’s first research project on relative deficiency in sports, or REDs. Varðardóttir said evidence shows female soccer players could be more susceptible to injury around the ovulation phase. 

“Sometimes [injury factors] can be a very bad cocktail. Studies have, for example, suggested that joint stiffness decreases around the ovulation phase, and this might explain why some females feel more prone to injuries around this time,” Varðardóttir said.

Research on menstrual cycles and exercise can be expensive, and results often remain unclear because of health factors. Varðardóttir said female athletes can track their cycles independently and monitor their symptoms to communicate their needs with coaches.

“It’s important not to demonize the menstrual cycle, that it’s not a monthly disturbance and just a complete hassle. We should rather try to educate people about where the changes happen and how important the menstrual cycle is,” Varðardóttir said.

Varðardóttir said while the conversation is essential, it’s important to respect female athletes’ willingness to discuss their periods or not. 

“Some are just lucky that it has little effect on them, and they aren’t among those who feel this affects their success or capacity. It’s unnecessary to put too much power on something that’s otherwise not bothering them,” Varðardóttir said.

Among female athletes tracking their menstrual cycles is Norwegian native Tirirl Eckhoff, a two-time Olympic champion and a 10-time world championship gold medalist in biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. 

Eckhoff retired in March 2023 and left her mark as one of the first elite athletes to adjust her training to her menstrual cycle and share her knowledge openly. 

According to the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, after Eckhoff stopped taking birth control pills in 2017, she began prioritizing her training according to her cycle for the 2020-2021 season. The season was the most successful of her career, with 13 World Cup victories, four World Championship gold medals and her first Crystal Globe. 

“One must use their cycle to bring out the best in themselves,” Eckhoff said in October 2020 to “Kant ut,” a podcast about biathlon. The episode’s name was La oss snakke om mensen og trening,” or “Let’s talk about periods and exercise.”

Ådne Ausland is a head coach of a cross-country skiing club and doctoral candidate at the University of Agder in Norway. Ausland is developing a research center called FIDES, or Female Inclusion and Development in Exercise and Sports Coach Education Program. 

Ausland said research on menstruation is not “one size fits all.”

“There is a lot of good research being done today, but the best research you can do is on yourself because it’s so individualized,” Ausland said. 

Ausland said coaches must also be educated on how to communicate with athletes about their health. After interviewing sports coaches for his research, Ausland said he witnessed significant ignorance about menstrual cycles among male coaches. 

“I recently talked to a track and field coach who has coached female athletes for the last 45 years. He said they haven’t talked about the menstruation cycle at all because it hasn’t been a problem,” Ausland said. “Thats what we have to get up against because it’s mostly stubborn adults. Many males don’t understand the value.”

Aron Gauti Laxdal, an Icelandic associate professor in sports science at the University of Agder, is a member of the FIDES research team. He said girls should be educated on menstrual cycles at a young age, especially those who want to excel in athletics. 

“Lets think about young girls in swimming. Those who have experienced a great upswing for years, but out of nowhere, there comes a flat line. Their improvements go backward because suddenly their bodies have changed,” Laxdal said. “This affects their motivation extremely. So, many of them quit.”

Laxdal said one of the main focuses of FIDES is to demonstrate women belong in sports and that their participation has its own value.

“They shouldnt have to be trying to be like men or having to do things out of mens presupposition, but showing that womens sport is something independent,” Laxdal said.