In the Rio Olympics, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui made headlines when she mentioned that she suffered from menstrual cramps while participating in the swimming relay. Menstrual periods during sports competition has been pretty much a taboo subject in the media.
But as Deborah Slander Larkin, head of the Woman’s Sports Foundation, recently noted “It’s a completely natural process that affects half of the world’s population and is certainly having an effect on many of the athletes in Rio. Why shouldn’t we talk about it? None of us would be here if it didn’t happen.”
Fortunately, medical researchers are starting to look at the effect menstrual cycles may have on athletic performance. One of the experts is Dr. Lynn Rogers, a director at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, who has been studying the impact of hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle on a woman’s muscles, ligaments, and nervous system.
During the first part of a woman’s menstrual cycle, when estrogen levels are somewhat elevated, Dr. Roger’s research group found that a woman’s muscles are slightly looser. Looser muscles could result in slightly slower reflexes, and perhaps a higher risk of injuries.
However this study was not a large study, and it was not clear if the changes occurred principally in the muscles, or in the nervous system (nerves and brain) that control the muscles.
The knee during a menstrual cycle
Dr. Rodgers notes there is some evidence that women might be at higher risk of certain injuries, especially tears in one of the principal ligaments of the knee—the anterior cruciate ligament—during the first half of the menstrual cycle. The suggestion is that athletic training take this into consideration, and that perhaps limiting drills and motions that stress the knee might be wise during the first half of the menstrual cycle.
During the latter part of the menstrual cycle, when progesterone levels rise, there is evidence that the higher progesterone levels may protect against knee injuries.
Further, during this part of the menstrual period, progesterone also changes heat metabolism, and some women may feel hotter and more susceptible to becoming fatigued.
But the general thinking so far is that, while there are changes during the menstrual cycle, that a woman’s performance is unlikely to be significantly changed during her cycle. Further, there is no good evidence that menstrual cramps effect athletic performance, but much more research is needed.
Dr. Rodgers is about to begin several research projects to better understand the issues. One of the questions to be answered is why some competitive athletes—especially endurance athletes—develop irregular periods. Another question is if women who note problems during different parts of their cycle might minimize that by manipulating their periods through use of birth control pills. We will keep you informed as the results come out!
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