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  • After the U.S. Women’s National Team dominated at the World Cup, head coach Dawn Scott said the team tracked their menstrual cycles to optimize training.
  • There’s little research on how menstruation affects elite athletes, but growing evidence shows that shifting hormone levels can help or hinder workouts.
  • Even if you’re not a pro, studies suggest your workouts can benefit if you’re aware of your cycle and adjust your nutrition, sleep, and exercise accordingly.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.

Ever since the U.S. Women’s National Team brought home gold at the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the second straight year, members of the team have become superstars, prompting a ticker-tape parade in New York City and bringing issues of women’s pay equality in sports to the national stage.

Now it has come to light that the team is pioneering another issue that often goes undiscussed in women’s sports – periods. Head coach Dawn Scott has spoken publicly that members of the team tracked their menstrual cycles, just like their heart rates, in order to optimize their training and performance, The Telegraph reported.

Read more: Mesmerizing photos of the Women’s World Cup, which was filled with fierce competition, talented players, and historic moments

Amateur athletes can benefit from similar strategies too, Georgie Bruinvels, a research scientist at the sports consulting company Orrecoon who studies menstrual cycles and athletic performance, told INSIDER. “There is research to show that changing diet, looking at sleep, and exercising enough can have an impact on reducing the severity of symptoms,” she said.

Good nutrition, exercise, and sleep can help reduce period symptoms

According to research by Bruinvels, an elite runner herself, 70% to 80% of woman report they’re not able to perform at their best during their menstrual cycles. As many as 1 in 3 women have missed work because of period symptoms.

But daily exercise combined with plenty of fruits and vegetables can help. According to a study led by Bruinvels, side effects like cramps, fatigue, and mood changes were reduced for 78% of women who maintained good nutrition and exercise during their periods. Sleep is also crucial – having enough high-quality sleep each night has also been shown to play a role in mitigating menstrual symptoms.

Higher levels of certain hormones have been shown to improve training and boost performance

Research has suggested that women may have an improved adaption to strength training during the first half of their menstrual cycle, when estrogen levels are high.

There’s also evidence, according to Bruinvels, that women’s metabolisms may work differently at specific points in their cycles, processing carbohydrates and fat in response to particular hormone levels.

Whether you’re trying to reduce symptoms, give your training an edge, or both, Bruinvels said a good place to start is a period tracking app (her company offers one free option, FitrWoman, but there’s plenty to choose from). Tracking your cycle can allow you to identify patterns specific to your body and identify changes. From there, you can pay more attention to nutrition, exercise, and sleep during different times in your cycle and find what works best for you.

There’s still a lot of catching up to do in research specific to female athletes

Historically, studies of sports and athletes were limited to male test subjects since “women were a protected species,” Bruinvels said. Although researchers in science and medicine eventually realized women had significant physiological and hormonal differences, the concept of studying the specific needs of women was often deemed to expensive and time-consuming. As a result, Bruinvels said, for most of professional sports history, women have been trained the same as men.

With opportunities like working with the USWNT, that’s just now beginning to change. “There’s a whole group of women who want to learn more about their bodies and Dr. Google just isn’t the best resource,” Bruinvels said.

Although more research is being done specific to women’s fitness, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how menstruation affects an athlete’s body.

Ultimately, Bruinvels said one of her goals is to bring discussions about menstruation to the forefront, alongside routine training topics such as nutrition and recovery. “I don’t want it to be headlines,” she said. “I want it to be a normal everyday discussion.”

Read more:

There’s even more evidence that working out during your period is good for you

The 36 most iconic female athletes of the past century

Your period could be more than 90% cheaper if you switch to menstrual cups, new research finds

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