Why Athletes Need More Research About Periods And Exercise

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

How often have you skipped the gym because of your period?

Roughly half of the population experiences menstruation, but we don’t really know how it affects athletic performance. And while we are starting to talk about it more, actual peer-reviewed research is hard to come by.

“One of the big things that we hear a lot in popular media and social media is people talking about doing things like training changes due to their menstrual cycle, impacts of menstrual cycle on performance,” said Dr Rachel Harris, one of the health experts leading the Female Performance and Health Initiative (FPHI) at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).

“But when we actually look at the research, the evidence is very, very scarce.”

An Australian First Study Into How Periods Affect Athletes

The FPHI is a landmark study where 26 members of the NRL Indigenous Women’s Academy will train at the AIS for two weeks. Researchers recorded the menstrual cycles of athletes for two months in the lead up to the program in order to gain an understanding of their natural cycles. Further tests continued during their stay at the institute as well.

“At various phases of their cycles, for those that are naturally cycling, we’re doing specific testing.

And so that will involve things like being in the lab and doing, a DEXA scan, and a resting metabolic rate, taking some blood draws and looking at hormone interpretation and various other stress hormones, including things like iron and some inflammatory markers.”

The study also includes athletes that are using hormonal contraception. This can help broaden our understanding of how contraception might impact athletic performance.

And not only is the project capturing much needed menstrual research, it also gives the athletes a platform to train. 

“The important part is that they’re actually in Canberra for a training camp because they are part of the Indigenous women’s academy for NRLW. One of the big priorities for them is for them to increase their profile in the NRL world so that they might actually be able to get picked up by an NRLW club,” explained Dr Harris.

Research Like This Is Important To Normalise Periods 

This research is one of the first steps in shifting the narrative around periods in sport. It’s certainly been discussed before, like with the US women’s soccer team using menstrual cycle tracking to aid their training. But Dr Harris pointed out that this project will track the actual hormonal changes across cycles and provide even more detail.

“This is all being talked about in the popular media and being celebrated, which it absolutely should be.

50% of the population is involved in this, right? So we absolutely know that 50% of the population go through these hormonal changes during their lifetime and their body will have impacts of it.”