A lot of women avoid doing sport when they’re on their period. Research shows almost half (49.8%) of us have cancelled a workout because of it, while 46% of girls have used their periods as an excuse to skip PE in school.
But when you’re expected on court at Wimbledon, in a scrum at Twickenham or in the pool representing Team GB, tapping out once a month isn’t an option.
“It’s something that we as women can’t change. It’s how we’re made, it’s what happens to us every month,” tennis star Heather Watson tells HuffPost UK.
“So I really don’t think there’s much you can do when you’re on your period before a game except be strong and deal with it as best you can, because that’s what we all do on a monthly basis.”
To end period taboos and get some handy tips, we asked three elite athletes how they deal with their period, plus why it shouldn’t hold women back.
Watson, who’s an ambassador for Always, says Wimbledon’s kit rules can pose a challenge if you’re due on your period, so last summer she took the pill to delay her cycle throughout the tournament.
“We have to wear white at Wimbledon and I don’t want to be thinking about that [leaking] at all while I’m on court,” she says.
Most of the year though, she prefers to manage things naturally and simply “be prepared” for when her period comes.
“I usually feel bloated and a lot lower on energy, so I have to make sure I have the right food and stuff with me on court that will give me that extra energy if I need it,” she says, adding that bananas and caffeine-based energy gels are her go-tos.
Isabelle Thorpe, who competes as part of GB’s synchronised swimming team, also overlaps her pill when she’s expecting a period around competition time to stop herself coming on.
“It is a little bit stressful because obviously it’s not the most natural thing to do,” she says. ”I have had a few times when it’s gone wrong and I’ve bled for longer than I expected.”
Thorpe describes having a period during training or a competition as “a hassle, but nothing major” these days, but admits she worried about it more when she was younger. “I was quite scared of going into the pool. I worried I was going to leak everywhere when swimming, but it was totally okay,” she says.
England rugby star and Harlequins Ladies captain Rachael Burford used to rely on the pill, too, but has ditched it in recent years.
“I went on the pill because my period was a little bit irregular so I wasn’t sure when it was going to happen and I didn’t want it cropping up the day of the game,” she explains.
“But now I’m not on anything and I just manage it naturally.”
Watson feels her period has a negative impact on her performance on court, which she describes as “frustrating”.
“I feel a lot lower on energy and my temperature rises a lot more when I’m on my period too. Just before I start my period I have a lot of cravings as well. I tend to want to eat chocolate and sweet things,” she says.
In contrast, Thorpe doesn’t feel impacted other than mild cramps that she manages with paracetamol during training, while Burford thinks that she’s actually physically stronger during her period.
“I don’t know why that is. Part of it might be psychological, but the numbers don’t lie when you’re lifting heavier [in the gym] during that phase,” she says. “It gives you great encouragement about it, rather than seeing it as a negative.”
“I think 100% exercise does help with period pains, but also with your mood."”
With many women turning to period trackers on their smartphones, Burford tracks hers via the FitRWoman app, designed by sports scientists to help women train smarter on their periods. It provides advice such as what foods you might want to eat more of at different times of your cycle and what types of training you may benefit most from at different stages.
“I think it’s all about really knowing and understanding yourself. Before I never used to track it,” she says. “And now, at least I’ve got a system that I can refer to. It’s really, really useful just having knowledge about it because then you can control it in a really positive way.”
Although lots of women avoid exercise while on their period, recent research among women who do continue with their workouts suggests keeping active can actually reduce period symptoms such as cramps and fatigue.
Burford isn’t surprised: “I think 100% exercise does help with period pains but also just with your mood. You can often feel quite sluggish and bloated and heavier when you’re on your period, so to get moving and to push that feeling out of the way is definitely worthwhile.”
Watson would like to see more sportswomen talking about periods to break taboos around bleeding and exercise, a sentiment that Thorpe echoes, especially when it comes to the swimming pool.
“I think people think they’re going to bleed everywhere when they’re in the pool and it’ll be really embarrassing, but it’s not a bad thing, it’s natural,” she says. ”No one really judges people. I think it’s always made a bigger deal than it should be. I would fully encourage everyone to still participate in the sport they want.”
For anyone still unconvinced, Burford adds: “You can’t take the day off of work every month and you can’t avoid going out of the house, so why avoid doing exercise?”