We Need To Talk About …. Periods and Performance

We Need To Talk About …. Periods and Performance

As anyone who has ever been through it will know, training for a marathon is a big commitment.  Just when everyone is cracking open the Christmas Quality Street, your 16-week programme kicks off with weekly long runs that put your physical endurance to the test, not to mention your mental toughness. 

As the big day draws nearer you start to give yourself a bit of a pat on the back for battling the wind, rain and (in this year’s case) snow, and thanking your lucky stars that you have managed to remain injury free.  Then, a phenomenon known as ‘maranoia’ sets in.  This involves the urge to wrap yourself up in cotton wool, avoid anyone who so much as sniffles in your direction for fear of catching the lurgy and overestimating every twinge in your legs to the point where you start googling plantar fasciitis, runner’s knee and the like every 5 minutes.  All because you want to be at your best on race day.

So far so much the same for men and women.  However, female runners have another potential curve ball to contend with and one which threatens to scupper all that hard work and dedication.  It is around about this time that we start to do the maths, check our calendars and keep everything crossed that our period will not fall on marathon week.

This is exactly what I did in March this year in preparation for the Manchester Marathon that was taking place in early April and I was well and truly pissed off to discover that for the second year in a row I would be running a marathon on my period.  Memories of the logistics of dealing with my period at the previous year’s Paris Marathon came flooding back (as did the unforgettable memory of the most horrific race portaloo I have ever experienced which was truly an assault on the majority of my senses) and all hopes of a PB started to fade away.

Women experience periods in different ways but I knew for me it would mean a whole host of delights including exacerbated pre-race anxiety due to my hormonal state, pre-menstrual insomnia, bloating, feeling hotter than usual and worst of all I would have cramps and therefore be in pain during the race (as if 26.2 miles doesn’t hurt enough!).  Not to mention the logistical side of dealing with a period whilst running for up to 4 hours.  There was no way my period was going to stop me, but I could not control the fact that it might affect my performance.

As luck would have it my period was not too heavy and thankfully the Manchester facilities were a big improvement on Paris (thank you Old Trafford Cricket Ground loos)!  The cramps were not too noticeable until mile 20 and I was able to push on to a PB.  When I uploaded my run to Strava (an app which records your run so you can share it with other runners) I was very tempted to title it Tamsin 1 – Period 0, but I didn’t.  Why?  I guess I was concerned it might make some people uncomfortable and it might be deemed ‘TMI’ (Too Much Information!).  The whole experience got me thinking about how ridiculous it is that in 2018 talking about periods and their affect on sport and exercise performance is still largely a taboo subject.

Of course, I am an amateur runner.  No one was going to interview me at the finish line regarding my performance or give it a write up in the sports section of the Sunday Times but if periods and how they can impact sporting performance is not more openly discussed at the elite level, perhaps its no wonder that us amateurs are not more open about it.

There have been a handful of applause worthy moments where the taboo is threatened with being broken but still it remains a largely unaddressed and under researched issue.  In 2016 Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui on being interviewed regarding her teams 4th place performance in the Olympic relay, stated; “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,”.  Similarly, in the same year, tennis player, Heather Watson put her performance down to “girls’ things” when she crashed out of the Australian Open.

The general response to the comments made by these athletes was one of praise and support (notably by other retired female athletes who had clearly had their own struggles during their careers but perhaps didn’t voice them at the time).  It was perceived as a brave thing to do to show such honesty, particularly in the case of Fu Yuanhui as it was evident she must have swum using a tampon and tampons are far from the norm nor widely accepted in China.  But we are now two years on and the conversation doesn’t seem to have moved forward – so why do we continue to pretend that menstruation doesn’t matter? 

As I train predominantly female clients I make a point of being honest about periods and hoping that my clients will be too.  I want my clients to know that I won’t see it as an excuse if they tell me they have their period, are suffering with cramps or feeling tired as a result.  I want them to be assured that we can adapt their training around their periods each month and whilst periods don’t need to stop you training, let’s be honest that in reality they may well affect your ability to perform as you usually would on that day.

In my view, the lack of openness on the issue and the woeful underrepresentation of female coaches in sport is no coincidence.  Perhaps with more women coaches, conversations about how periods affect training and performance will become as regular (‘scuse the pun!) as conversations about how nutrition affects performance. 

Perhaps this openness could lead to more research on the subject (there is surprisingly little) so that women can train like women rather than like men, adapting training programmes around the hormonal side effects resulting from the menstrual cycle.  And if the elites are more open about it, perhaps we all will be too.  Or maybe we ought to take a bottom up approach and start the conversation ourselves….