parkrun has always been committed to understanding and removing the barriers to taking part in regular physical activity and volunteering. One such area is the menstrual cycle, with recent research revealing that more than 50% of women and girls in the UK have stopped exercising at some point because of this.
Dr Georgie Bruinvels, who has represented Great Britain at cross-country, is a leading expert on women’s health in sport, the menstrual cycle and iron deficiency, and based her PhD on this subject.
Georgie explains how women and girls should be able to perform at their best at all times in their menstrual cycle, and why education and accurate information is vital in helping females understand their bodies and get the most out of everyday life.
I have always loved being outside and I truly believe that you cannot beat the sense of satisfaction you get from going for a run. However, as a young girl, I remember some of my friends not exercising when they were on their period.
Sadly this hasn’t changed, and is often linked to a flawed historical belief amongst many that females should not exercise when menstruating. Yet the opposite has been found true – with exercise found to reduce menstrual symptoms and improve mood.
This is something that needs to be communicated as a way of overcoming some of the challenges that women and girls experience that hold them back from exercising, while also appreciating that physical activity can serve many purposes, from improving mood, to clearing your head and reducing stress.
In a recent UK-wide opinion poll of 2000 women, 54% of participants identified that they have had to stop exercising as a result of their menstrual cycle, with this increasing to 73% in 16-24-year olds. Perhaps even more concerning is the recent finding by Women in Sport that 42% of girls do not exercise when they are on their period.
This demonstrates that girls of today and the women of tomorrow are not being educated or are still being held back by a normal and natural physiological process. After all, it is really important to know that having a regular menstrual cycle can actually be used as an indication of health, showing that the endocrine (hormonal) system is working, and effectively that the body is in a ‘well enough’ state to have a child.
From the five years I have spent working with exercising girls and women (so far) the biggest thing I have learnt is that many feel that their menstrual cycle holds them back. But this does not need to be the case, and, unless there is an underlying dysfunction, women and girls should be able to perform to their best at all times in their menstrual cycle. It is all about them making smart decisions and being proactive, and not fighting their natural physiology.
Throughout studying for my PhD I worked with a lot of exercising women and quickly appreciated that they wanted to learn more about their own body; to better understand why they may feel as they do on any one day, and essentially how they can not only train smarter, but also feel better.
I believe that by better understanding themselves, they can work with the changes in hormones, and not fight against them. Yet, traditionally, this an area that is not commonly discussed, and this is exacerbated by a historical lack of research that has been conducted in exercising women.
Throughout the entire menstrual cycle (not just during menstruation), hormones are changing. These changes can impact physiological and psychological function, and as a result this can alter optimal training type, nutritional requirements, and how an individual feels both in training and in their everyday life.
For example, resting heart rate, breathing rate and appetite may increase during the second half of the cycle, while adaptation to strength training has been found to increase in the first half of the cycle. Additionally, susceptibility to certain injuries has been found to vary and pre and post run fuelling requirements differ based on where an individual is in their menstrual cycle.
My main goal is to improve education, helping appreciation that the menstrual cycle is a normal and natural process and is actually a sign of health. Furthermore, it is critical that we normalise this area of discussion, breaking down one of the key barriers women experience, and helping them to be the best they can be, while also making smarter and more informed decisions.
Long term, I want children to be educated about this from a young age, coaches, parents, to be able to have informed discussions with these. It is crucial that we educate women and girls by helping them to better understand their body, to make smarter decisions in training and in their day-to-day lives, in order to empower them to get the best out of themselves.
Women and girls shouldn’t panic and stop exercising, it is actually the opposite. Women should be able to work with their cycles and be able to train as women (not as men as historically done!).
It is time for change, and I am very lucky that Orreco (a Sports Science and Data Analytics company) feel the same way. Together we have created a female athlete specific programme, FitrWoman, which aims to empower girls and women with the tools and understanding to help them work with their body throughout their menstrual cycle, for example helping them to know when to focus on certain training types or when nutritional demands vary.
In my opinion, it is also essential to educate coaches, support staff, partners, parents and everyone else to better understand the menstrual cycle, and to prevent it from being such an unmentionable topic.
Dr Georgie Bruinvels
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