From Wimbledon allowing dark coloured shorts to the campaign by the Swedish Football Association to spread awareness around menstruation, is the sports industry finally welcoming a new era of understanding around periods?
Double Commonwealth champion and three-time Olympic swimmer Hannah Miley has been competing since she was around seven years old. “As a child, I could trip over on a flat floor but in the water I always felt really confident and relaxed,” she says. Hitting puberty threw something of a spanner in the works.
“If I was on my period on the day of a competition, it affected my performance quite badly. I’d have to go and hide in a changing room after I’d finished a race because I’d be in agony.” Eventually, one of the sport doctors within the team suggested she try the contraceptive pill, which Miley took for the next 15 years. “There wasn’t really any discussion,” she adds. “It was just seen as the best option.”
Periods are sometimes called ‘the last great taboo’ in women’s sport. But thanks to athletes like Miley, and professional runner Lauren Fleshman, who has just written a book that busts open what it’s like to be a female athlete in a male-dominated industry, things might be starting to shift.
Last year, Miley was one of 50 elite athletes to join the #SayPeriod campaign, launched by women’s health advocacy group the Well HQ, to normalise conversations about menstruation in sport. The impact is being felt across the industry.
West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City and Manchester City football clubs have switched to darker shorts for their female teams, and footballer Beth Mead revealed during Euro 2022 that the England women’s national football team, the Lionesses, have had conversations with Nike about making the same change. In 2021, Adidas became the first major sportswear brand to introduce a line of period-proof activewear.
Meanwhile, the feminine care brand Intimina – who regularly publish helpful advice on the subject – worked with the French Olympic fencer Manon Brunet to demystify a day of training for a professional athlete while on her period.
Governing bodies are also making progress: swimmers can now wear period pants under swimming costumes while competing, and the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club are expected to allow female players to wear dark underwear under their tennis whites at Wimbledon for the first time in 2023. In Sweden, the Swedish Football Association has launched the All Days initiative, which, among other things, will run pilots assessing how football training can be best adapted to suit players’ menstrual cycles.
Coaches, schools and athletes themselves can play a role in promoting open and honest conversations about menstruation
As well as levelling the playing field for professional athletes, the hope is that such changes will also inspire women and girls to participate in sport. In 2022, Intimina surveyed 500 of its social media followers and found that 79 per cent take a day off from training when their periods start. One in four say they don’t train during menstruation because of cramps and almost one in three say it’s because they’re afraid they’ll leak.
Dunja Kokotovic, Intimina’s global brand manager, says it’s positive that there’s growing recognition of accommodating women’s menstrual needs in sport, but more needs to be done. “This is a complex issue influenced by societal attitudes towards menstruation, and inadequate facilities and resources for managing periods,” she adds. “Coaches, schools and athletes themselves can play a role in promoting open and honest conversations about menstruation. And there is a need for further research to better understand how menstrual cycles affect athletic performance.”
Only 6 per cent of sport and exercise studies focus on women specifically but there is a growing number of experts who suggest ‘cycle mapping’ can help female athletes train more effectively. Fluctuations in hormones mean some women can withstand a higher intensity of training at the beginning of their cycles, for example, compared to the end when there can be a higher risk of muscle and tendon injuries.
British research scientist Georgie Bruinvels developed the FitrWoman app using performance data from thousands of professional female athletes. The app was used in training by the US national football team before their World Cup victory in 2019. Olympic heptathlon athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill also recently launched her own app to help women who may not be professional athletes to optimise their exercise regimes.
These are all positive steps, says Tanya Martin, the interim head of insight and innovation at charity Women in Sport. But more needs to be done to address the drop-off rate at a grassroots level. A study of more than 4,000 teenage girls published by Women in Sport in 2022 found that 43 per cent who once considered themselves sporty disengage from sport after primary school. That’s compared with 24 per cent of boys of the same age. Puberty is a significant factor – nearly 80 per cent of girls say they avoid sport when they have their period.
“Teenage years are particularly important because that’s when lifelong habits and attitudes are formed for adulthood,” Martin says. “We know that seven in 10 girls avoid being active on their period, regardless of how engaged or sporty they are. Even the most sporty girls are regularly dropping out, missing training and missing competitions because of their periods, and because they don’t have the right support and guidance to be able to manage it effectively.”
Women in Sport is one of the partners behind the Big Sister project, which is funded by £1m from the UK government’s tampon tax fund. The fund distributes money generated from the VAT on sanitary products to projects that improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls.
Launched last year, the Big Sister project aims to provide a range of resources to help girls manage the challenges of puberty – with information about periods, breast development, sports bras and period products – and reclaim the joy of sport. “We don’t talk about it enough in sport and exercise even though half of the population have periods,” Martin adds. “Much more needs to be done to normalise that conversation … and to get some of the fundamental basics right like not restricting the kind of clothing that girls can wear.”
Miley spent the last year of her professional career coming off the pill and working with rather than against her period. It wasn’t without its challenges. “It was really hard to change my mindset of competing on my period because from such a young age, that was the worst thing in the world,” she says. Talking to Georgie Bruinvels made a big difference, she says. “She opened my eyes to a lot. I started monitoring and tracking my body, and learned to really listen to it.”
Miley retired from professional swimming in December 2021 and now runs period workshops in partnership with Scottish Swimming to bust some of the myths around menstruation for teenage athletes, their parents, and their coaches.
“For me, it’s trying to offer some management strategies and to show how to use it as a superpower,” she adds. “Menstruation shouldn’t be a secret. It’s private, but it’s not a secret. And as an athlete, you shouldn’t feel like you can’t talk about it.”
Main image: Hannah Miley with her silver medal at the XXI Commonwealth games. Credit: Garry Bowden/SIPPA