Game, Set, Cramps: Jhulan Goswami Shines a Light on Menstruation Taboo in Sports
Periods suck, especially when you're an athlete. How does menstruation affect sportspersons and their performance?
"It's the biggest challenge as a female athlete," former captain of India national women's cricket team, Jhulam Goswami, said about having to deal with menstruation as a sportsperson, while speaking to SportsStar magazine.
"If it is during the competition time, its a huge challenge to compensate that area and concentrate on your job, mentally you have to be strong."Jhulam Goswami, veteran cricketer, as quoted by SportsStar
"It is something that we accept as normal, and we prepare that way," she added.
She went on to say that when athletes on their periods are unable to perform as well, people tend to criticise them without knowing the real reason.
In recent years, however, athletes have been more open when menstruation comes in the way of their performance.
Recently, 19-year-old tennis player Zheng Qinwen after losing to world no. 1 Iga Świątek in the 2022 French Open lamented, "I wish I can be a man on court, (so) that I don't have to suffer from this."
The devastated teen went on to talk about how she wasn't able to give her best because of severe menstrual cramps.
"The first day is always so tough and then I have to do sport, and I always have so much pain on the first day. And I couldn't go against my nature."Zheng Qinwen
Speaking to FIT, Indian cricketer Jemimah Rodrigues sympathises with Qinwen. "Those who don’t know won’t understand," she says.
"Sometimes we take painkillers when it's time for the match. But we gotta do what we got to do at the end," says Rodrigues.
Period Pain Sucks, Especially When You’re an Athlete
People who menstruate have historically operated with this mindset for ages – Don't ask, don't tell. Just power through and act like your body isn't going through a hormonal havoc – at the workplace, at home, in school, and it isn't any different in sports.
There's the pain, the cramps, the muscle tightness, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue – all of which can cause a setback to a pro athlete's performance.
"I get tired, and my back gets sore. It doesn’t affect my training as much, but I have seen my teammates," Rodrigues tells FIT.
"Some of them cannot even get out of bed. It just feels like someone is sucking your energy, and more than that the pain is very annoying."Jemimah Rodrigues
However, each body is different and there is no one-size-fit-all-solution.
"Three months before the 2016 Olympics, I had told all the female athletes who were going to the Olympics in Rio, if you think it’s going to be an issue, I think you should see your gynaec about adjusting your cycle, (so they don’t clash with their events) now, because you have to do it at least two to three cycles before," Nikhil Latey a physiotherapist and a sports scientist tells FIT.
"I didn’t follow up on it because it's an intensely personal thing. It was my job as someone in charge of their health to give them the advice, but I am not a gynaec, so I wouldn’t prod them about it," he added.
"With boxing, if your cycle is going to fall on the day of a match, you can manipulate your cycle, so it doesn't fall on that day. A boxing tournament lasts about 5 days."Nikhil Latey, physiotherapist and a sports scientis
"But with a sport like badminton, at an Olympic level a tournament will last up to 12 days, and you can’t mess around with your cycle for that long. It’s not advisable," he adds.
Speaking of painkillers, Latey explains, "You have to be smart about the type of painkiller you take as well. Something like paracetamol won’t make you slow or have any side effects, but some stronger painkillers may affect."
In professional sports, on top of the usual taboo, there is also the added layer of female athletes having to go the extra mile to prove they are capable of holding their own in a historically men's domain – a space where monthly 'weaknesses' find little sympathy.
Although many are no longer about smiling through the pain, the fear that it may be perceived as an excuse still lingers.
"I have seen so many people play with the pain. No matter how painful it is, when you get to the stadium you just put it aside and just focus on what they need to do."Jemimah Rodrigues
"At the end of the day, we’re playing international cricket, you’re playing an international sport, and you can’t give an excuse," she adds.
During the 2016 Summer Olympics, when Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui spoke about being on her period when she won the bronze medal, she prefaced it be saying "but this isn’t an excuse. At the end of the day, I just didn’t swim very well."
Does Menstruation Affect Performance?
There have been some studies here and there that have looked at the possible ways in which different stages of the menstrual cycle may impact an athlete's performance, but they have been small and far apart, with varying results.
One study conducted in 2020, for instance, found that the core body temperature goes up by 0.3 to 0.7 percent in the luteal phase after ovulation. The body also cools down at a slower rate at this time.
Researchers suspect that this can be a disadvantage when it comes to sports and exercise in general where thermoregulation is important.
Studies have also shown that fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone levels during menstruation can increase the risk of muscular and skeletal injuries.
But, there isn't enough scientific evidence to back these hypotheses, and there are still gaps in our understanding of the menstrual cycle.
The reason – studies on women's health, particularly the menstrual cycle, is too 'complicated'.
Anecdotally, though, those keeping a keen eye on it like athletes, coaches, trainers and physiotherapists will tell you it does.
“It definitely affects performance. For the uninitiated person they may not even see a difference, it’s because we’re working daily with the athletes that we are aware," says Nikhil Latey who works with elite athletes, including Mary Kom.
“During London Olympics, one day before her semi-final, she (Mary) hit her cycle, and it did make her slower. She was maybe 95 percent instead of a 100 percent."Nikhil Latey, physiotherapist and a sports scientist
"She was a tad slower than she should have been, her muscles weren’t as strong as they needed to be. And she lost fair and square," he explains.
"...but it differences from sport to sport."
“With boxing, since it is only a 9 minute sport, and you’re virtually exploding the whole time, if you’re slower, it shows up for sure.”
"Whereas a sport like badminton is not a sport of continuous exertion. It has its rhythm, it has its fast and slow areas, it has more tactic."
"So if your body is slightly slower, you can easily cover that up with tactical and technical changes— by changing the game plan, making the opponent work harder.”Nikhil Latey, physiotherapist and a sports scientis
Putting the P in Sports (and Saying It Out Loud)
Things are changing, and like Qinwen, many pro athletes in the last few years have openly spoken about how being on their period has kept them from giving their optimum performance in important meets.
Closer to home too, elite sportswomen like Mary Kom, PV Sindhu, Dutee Chand, and younger players like Rodrigues have been opening up about the struggle of being a menstruating sportsperson.
"Nowadays, a lot of athletes are coming out and talking about periods," she says, adding, "Previously, I think it used to not happen because society was not as accepting as it is today."
"People look at it as something that’s not normal. And I’m so glad so many people are now opening up about it because it’s going to help so many young girls."Jemimah Rodrigues
Jemimah is optimistic that menstrual issues will be accommodated in sporting events, and that with more openness and more understanding, people are bound to become more empathetic to menstruating sportspeople. "It’s going to help women’s sports grow, that’s for sure," she says.
(Written with inputs from SportsStar.)
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