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New study backs sports stars' calls for more support around impact of period on performance

Female athletes should be offered more systematic support to help them understand the impact of the menstrual cycle on sports performance, according to a new study by international research partners including University of Gloucestershire.

Female athletes can experience health issues that prevent them from performing at their best during their period, including low energy levels, headaches, bloating and cramps, which may impact both their physical and mental wellbeing.

But the new study found that menstrual health literacy (MHL), or an understanding of how the menstrual cycle can affect performance, remained low among female athletes, most commonly because of a lack of knowledge and information, and only limited discussion between athletes, coaches and medical practitioners.

Portrait photo of Karen Carney

It follows increased calls by leading sportswomen, including football pundit and University alumna Karen Carney (pictured), British swimmer Hannah Miley and sprinter Dina Asher-Smith, for more open discussion and research around the impact of periods on performance.

Debby Sargent, Lecturer in Sport and Exercise at the University, collaborated on the new research with experts from Mid Sweden University, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Massey University in New Zealand, the University of Munster, and La Trobe University in Australia.

The study – published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport –  has recommended a systematic, evidence-based approach to developing intervention strategies to improve MHL among female athletes and their support teams.

These recommendations include an increase in research into how the menstrual cycle can affect training, performance, and health; strategies to improve MHL in sport, such as a formal and informal age-appropriate education programme; a detailed evaluation of levels of MHL, including a sport-specific MHL questionnaire, to enhance the quality and accessibility of education programmes.

Findings by previous studies include only 8% of elite female endurance athletes had sufficient knowledge about how the menstrual cycle affects their training and performance, while another study found that 75 % of female athletes chose not to discuss menstruation with their coaches.

Impact on sports performance

Debby Sargent said: “As Karen Carney, Hannah Miley, Dina Asher-Smith and many others have said, it is time now that more time and resources were devoted to investigating and explaining the impact of the menstrual cycle on sports performance.

“A systematic, evidence-based approach to developing intervention strategies to improve MHL in sport is necessary, to help identify problems, develop strategies to address them, and organise the intervention strategies into a cohesive plan.

“We hope our study will help drive more meaningful conversations and high-level research around such an important health issue that impacts millions of girls and women around the world.”