Tokyo Olympics are the first time that almost as many women as men will be participating. Almost 49% of the about 11,000 athletes will be women.
The International Olympics Committee says that at least 40.5% of the Paralympic players are women, which is 100 more women than at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
But on top of the huge amount of pressure that comes with fighting on the world stage at the Olympics, female athletes also have to deal with their periods, which can cause cramps, bloating, breast tenderness, and other symptoms.
Some studies have found that female players are more likely to get hurt at certain times during their menstrual cycle.
Researchers found in a study of female football players done in 2021 that changes in reproductive hormones like oestrogen and progesterone can affect organs like muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
During the late follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, when the brain tells the ovaries to get ready to release an egg, there were 88% more muscle and tendon injuries.
Eilish McColgan, a British Olympic runner, told BBC Sport in 2019 that she had to drop out of a race in Rome the year before because she got her period and soon after pulled her hamstring.
She said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s all connected,” and the radiologist who scanned her muscle afterward said, “He’d never seen that much inflammation in one muscle before.”
Athletes can also do worse when their periods make them feel tired all over. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, a reporter asked Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui why she was holding her stomach after her 4×100 yard relay race.
“I don’t think I swam well today,” she said. I let down my friends. Last night, I got my period, and I’m really tired. But that’s no reason why I didn’t swim as well as I should have.
Some athletes keep track of their periods to make sure they can train and perform when it’s best for them.
Fran Kirby, a Lioness and Chelsea FC football player, told Women’s Health in a short video interview that her team uses the “Fit For Women” monitoring app to track their cycles and train properly. She also said that periods can “affect you so much, whether it’s your coordination or your reaction time, which is so important in so many sports.”
Last year, Chelsea Women was the first club in the world to change their training plan based on when their players had their periods. This was done to improve performance and cut down on injuries.
Sam Quek, who won the gold medal in hockey at the Olympics, told BBC Sports that she used an app on her phone to track her heart rate, the colour of her pee, how many hours she slept, if she had sore muscles, and if it was the first day of her period.
More recently, the English Institute of Sport and Manchester City Women announced a research partnership using a technology called Hormonix. Players will be able to find out about their hormone levels and learn more about how their menstrual cycles may affect their health and performance.
Captain Steph Houghton said, “I’m really happy to be able to take part in this study. Menstruation has always been a taboo subject, but it shouldn’t be because it’s an important part of life for women, especially professional athletes.”
Control of births
A lot of female athletes also take birth control pills to stop or “pause” their periods.
Scientists have said, though, that more study needs to be done in this area because hormonal birth control affects women in different ways.
On the Sports MD website, it says, “there are contraindications to using hormonal birth control methods in athletes at all levels.” Contraindications are situations in which a drug or treatment shouldn’t be used because it could be harmful.
“These include a personal history of blood clots or a history of blood clots in first-degree relatives, known disorders in blood clotting, poor liver function, breast cancer, a history of heart attack, high blood pressure, smoking, migraine headaches, or a recent surgery,” it says.