When Anna Eisen, a swimmer and water polo player at Berkeley High School (BHS), was younger, nobody on her swim team talked about periods. Since it was never discussed, “[Eisen] had no idea how to deal with [her] period as a swimmer.” She said, “I used to skip a week of practice every month because I had no idea what to do.”
This lack of conversation is a barrier many athletes with periods have to overcome. Sarah Darzacq, an athlete on the BHS swim team, shared that when she was younger, myths surrounding menstruation rattled her. For example, “People [often] say, ‘Oh, you can’t swim while you’re on your period, [but] yes … you definitely can,” Darzacq said.
Having a period is a highly individual experience, Lila Crutchfield, the nurse practitioner for the BHS Health Center, explained. Although it can vary, “there hasn’t been evidence that having a period in and of itself is … a bad factor in terms of exercising. There are Olympic athletes who have performed very well during their menstrual cycles,” said Crutchfield.
“Honestly, [my period has] never really affected my swimming that much because I feel like once I’m in the water … if I’m feeling [cramps], swimming usually makes it feel better,” reflected Darzacq.
One danger for athletes with periods is referred to as “the female athlete triad,” where athletes with a low body fat percentage over-exercise without enough nutrition, leading to the absence of a regular menstrual cycle. “The body stops … ovulating, so that the person couldn’t get pregnant because nature decides that it probably wouldn’t go very well, [as] they’re not at a nutritionally good enough status to maintain a healthy pregnancy,” said Crutchfield. “That’s because with the caloric deficit and with the hormonal changes, they’re not actually getting enough estrogen to keep their bones strong,” Crutchfield explained. A lack of estrogen prevents adequate bone formation, leading otherwise strong athletes to have low bone mass.
Research is being done into how exercise affects the menstrual cycle. The concept of “cycle synching” focuses on aligning people’s workout routines to their menstrual cycle, factoring in changes to hormone balances and energy levels. According to Healthline, exercises like aerobics can lessen premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms, decreasing discomfort and fatigue.
Though period research is increasing, the taboos surrounding reproductive health have historically inhibited funding for and interest in studies relating periods and athletics. Despite athletes constantly being reminded to listen to their bodies, athletes who experience periods are rarely encouraged to pay attention to their cycles.
“It’s important to have [conversations about periods] in sports because when you’re an athlete and you don’t know how to deal with your period … you can just feel totally isolated,” said Eisen. Darzacq agreed, “I really [try to] tell younger people that [having a period in sports is] not that bad. It can be hard at times, but it’s definitely manageable and nothing that you should be scared of.”