A tracker app is helping women in sports to open up about menstruation and to get better results, reveals
WHEN British tennis player Heather Watson crashed out of the 2015 Australian Open in the first round, blaming her poor performance on “girl’s things”, it is safe to say that most women would have felt a pang of sympathy.
It was also a rare acknowledgement of periods affecting a sportswoman’s ability to compete — Serena Williams had referred to the impact of menstrual migraines on her game a decade previously, something that went largely unreported on this side of the Atlantic.
While Watson’s comments were seen as a watershed moment, the fact she couldn’t even use the word ‘period’ demonstrates how, as a society, we have been conditioned to think of menstruation as shameful and embarrassing.
Someone who can clearly remember the impact of Watson’s comments is Georgie Bruinvels, who at the time was pursuing a PhD on women’s health in sport and the effects of heavy menstrual bleeding and iron deficiency.
Now, she is putting her research to good use, working on an app which aims to help women exercise smarter by adapting training and nutrition in line with hormonal changes throughout their menstrual cycle.
“Through my research, I met so many women who said their menstrual cycle affected their ability to train, perform, and compete and really hindered them. I really wanted to help them and give them ways to better understand what was going on in their bodies,” she says.
Bruinvels is a research scientist at Irish sports and data science company Orreco, which has developed the FitrWoman app.
Its research showed one in two women has stopped exercising because of their menstrual cycle; younger women are the most severely impacted group, with 73% of all 16-24 year olds saying their menstrual cycle has caused them to stop exercising or playing sport at some point.
Orreco, which has established a partnership with the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA), found that a significant reason behind the decision to stop exercising (54%) was the fear of ‘showing’, with many women preferring to hide any physical signs of a period and 76% citing associated symptoms.
According to Bruinvels: “When women are having their period, they often don’t want to train or exercise, they feel restricted. Obviously, they are losing blood so their risk of iron deficiency is increased. They can also suffer from nausea, sleep deprivation, joint aches, muscle aches, increased fatigue, changes in mood, so many different things. Hormones can affect anything from your spatial awareness to your mood to your motivation and all of that needs to be better understood.”
She says the FitrWoman app gives girls and women the information they need about what is going on in their bodies. “It also provides them with specific evidence-based nutritional and training information while also highlighting key points where their injury risk is greater. It provides tangible options so they can get on to the field of play on any one day. We never want to hold women back, we want to help them go forward.”
Gráinne Conefrey is product development manager with Orreco and worked with Bruinvels on FitrWoman. A keen sportswoman, she has seen the impact of menstruation on sports participation at first hand.
“When I was growing up, I saw so many of my friends just drop out of sport. I couldn’t understand it. Working with Georgie, I discovered how all of those changes throughout your whole cycle affected your body in so many different ways. It was really insightful information that I thought everyone should have access to,” says Conefrey.
While sportswomen and athletes are often in prime physical condition, they are often unaware of how their energy levels can be affected by their menstrual cycle and how they can be more prone to injury during certain phases.
“We would hear athletes say things like ‘Why was that run so bad? I don’t understand, last week I had such a great session, this week, it just wasn’t good’. That was an eye-opener for me and Georgie and really pushed us to develop the app,” says Conefrey.
The lack of education around female physiology can also hinder an open discussion of menstruation. This was highlighted by research carried out in June by children’s rights organisation Plan International, which found that 59% of the 1,100 Irish girls surveyed felt lessons on their period from school were not helpful, with 110 respondents stating that they did not receive any education about their menstrual cycle at all.
“The education I got was not great, we just read about it in a biology book,” says Conefrey. “There is a huge need to educate girls, and boys, and to educate the people who are educating them. This information needs to be common knowledge, you shouldn’t have to access it from lots of different resources, it should be in one place. That is how the app developed, originally as an educational resource.”
While more research is being done on women’s sport and the impact of the menstrual cycle, especially in terms of increased risk of injury, it still has a long way to go to catch up with the money and resources devoted to men’s sport. As male athletes tend to be the default subjects, findings are often just assumed to apply to women, too.
“It is expensive to run these studies and there are so many problems involved because even ascertaining where someone is in their menstrual cycle is difficult because women’s bodies are constantly changing through their cycle,” says Bruinvels.
“There is a massive taboo but there is also a know-ledge gap. Many people don’t understand their hormones are changing in a cyclical fashion — that is how it should be looked at, not that you bleed once a month and it is disgusting.”
One of the related topics on which research has been carried out is that of contraceptive use and its impact on performance.
Researchers at Nottingham Trent University in Britain concluded that while athletes liked having a reduced number of bleeds per year, which can be achieved by skipping pill-free days, having a menstrual cycle was better for women than not having one. They said athletes need to be supported with issues around their hormonal cycle and contraceptive use, which can be achieved by athletes talking openly with their coaches and medical professionals.
In this regard, Orreco is working on rolling out a version of the FitrWoman app for coaches. Conefrey says the use of the app in this way will also help educate the many men involved in coaching women’s sports.
“It facilitates such an important discussion, which people are increasingly realising,” she says.
Feedback from athletes using the app has been overwhelmingly positive.
It also means the app is playing a role in the growing ‘period positivity’ movement exemplified by social media hashtags such as #periodproud and #menstruationmatters.
“It is great to hear how the app has helped open up discussions,” says Conefrey. “Athletes have told their friends who have downloaded it, or they have started to talk to someone who they have realised has also been struggling with their menstrual cycle. To see more people talking about menstruation is fantastic.”
Case study: Bernie Breen
Bernie Breen plays senior inter-county football with Wexford and uses the FitrWoman app. She says her menstrual cycle has definitely affected her performance. “Even leading up to days before your period, you would have different symptoms — fatigue, weakness, cramps, disturbed sleep.”
Breen says she has seen girls struggle in sport because of issues with their periods but they will often cite a lack of interest.
“A lot of girls don’t want to discuss it. They will drop out of sport and say they’re not interested but it is probably down to their menstrual cycle and embarrassment, maybe leak-through.”
She believes the app helps alleviate uneasiness discussing periods. “A lot of women are embarrassed to talk about it… speaking with your teammates about the app can reduce that embarrassment.”
Breen says her performance has improved since she began tracking her cycle on the app.
“I log my symptoms every day. I might be tired some days, and it might suggest to reduce weight training and focus on endurance or cardio. It gives updates on nutrition, maybe to take in more carbohydrates on certain days. I have also got a lot of information I wouldn’t have had before.”
She says she looks forward to the version of the app specifically for coaches. “That would reduce the risk of girls dropping out as they can speak about it more. It would also help coaches understand, male and female. There are a lot of male coaches who also need to be educated on this.”
Case study: Noelle Healy
Noelle Healy plays inter-county football with Dublin, and as a doctor, has an interest in how the FitrWoman app can help women gain a better understanding of their physiology.
“Most of the studies done about sportspeople are about male teams and male athletes,” she says.
“It was interesting to see studies looking at how the menstrual cycle can hinder your ability to train or perform if you are feeling unwell or have cramps. Pain is probably the most difficult thing.”
While she says her period doesn’t hinder her performance as such, associated conditions like dehydration and iron deficiency can be a concern. “It’s important to get more iron on board so you are not fatigued. You have to eat the right food, build up your energy stores. Education is important, not everyone would have done biology or science at school. They mightn’t understand the connection with everything.”
She has found the app to be valuable in giving her an edge when it comes to training and performance. “It shows you how you can tailor your training to get the benefit out of it… there are certain times when strength training might be more beneficial or it will suggest what you can eat to try reduce your symptoms, which is brilliant. It is good to have that information to give you that extra 1% or 2% in terms of performance.”
How to exercise in sync with your cycle
The menstrual cycle biologically has four distinct phases: Menstrual, follicular, ovulatory, and luteal.
Rest is key during actual menstruation.
Focus on gentler forms of yoga and walking.
The follicular phase is good for moderately active exercise such as hiking or light runs.
During ovulation, your testosterone and oestrogen are peaking, so this is the best phase to push yourself, try high-intensity interval workouts or a spin class.
The luteal phase is when progesterone is on the rise as testosterone and oestrogen declines. A good time to concentrate on strength training.