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Study suggests women are better at sport during their period

Female athletes have long had to contend with the lack of attention to what role their menstrual cycles plays in their athletic performance. Recent research is seeking to shine a new light on this.

Though, over the years, strides have been taken to address sports inequality, one thing in particular remains woefully overlooked: the effect of the menstrual cycle on women’s athletic performance.

Due to the prevailing taboo surrounding periods in general, it isn’t all that surprising that this has long been dismissed in a field dominated by men, nor is the fact that research on female athletes pales in comparison to their male counterparts. But the gap is finally narrowing.

As it stands, 66 per cent of sportswomen believe their menstrual cycle puts them at a competitive disadvantage, 64 per cent experience period anxiety that puts them off their game, and 47 per cent worry that they can’t perform to the best of their ability when it’s their time of the month.

This is according to data from Always in collaboration with Well HQ, which in March launched its #KeepHerPlaying initiative to bolster support for the one in three girls who drop out of sports during puberty.

The menstrual hygiene brand is on a mission to change the narrative so that female athletes view their periods as a natural part of their lives on and off the pitch, rather than as a setback.

‘It’s time to challenge the status quo and empower women and girls to thrive alongside their menstrual cycles,’ said Dr Emma Ross, chief scientific officer of Well HQ, which works to improve upon societal understanding about women’s health and fitness disciplines.

Similarly determined to do so is UCL and the Institute of Sport, Exercise & Health (ISEH), both of which recently joined forces to examine whether there is really any truth to the claims that periods make for bad players.

Interestingly, their findings suggest the complete opposite – that women are in fact better at sport when menstruating.

To reach this conclusion, they collected reaction time and error data from 241 participants who completed a battery of attention, accuracy, and spatial cognition tests designed to mimic the mental processes involved in team sports.

While they felt worse and thought their performance would suffer, participants were on average 12 per cent faster at ball-moving tasks and 25 per cent more likely to pass a test of their anticipation skills.

In other words, they make fewer mistakes and have quicker reactions when they’re on their period.

This explains why women playing contact sports appear injury prone in their luteal phase (between ovulation and menstruation) when they experience a drop in oestrogen – which stimulates parts of the brain – and increased levels of progesterone – which inhibits cognitive function and can slow reaction times.

These changes begin to reverse during menstruation, however.

‘What is surprising is that the participant’s performance was better when they were on their period, which challenges what women, and perhaps society more generally, assume about their abilities at this particular time of the month,’ says lead-author, Dr Flaminia Ronca.

‘I hope that this will provide the basis for positive conversations between coaches and athletes about perceptions and performance: how we feel doesn’t always reflect how we perform.’

The study is the first of its kind to assess sport-related cognition during the menstrual cycle and is part of a larger research project supported by FIFA. Its authors hope that if women understand how their brains and bodies change during the month, it will help them adapt.

‘As suggested by what the soccer players had told us, the data suggested that women who menstruate – whether they are athletes or not – do tend to vary in their performance at certain stages of the cycle,’ says senior author, Professor Paul Burgess.

‘As a neuroscientist, I am amazed that we don’t already know more about this, and hope that our study will help motivate increasing interest in this vital aspect of sports medicine.’