'Aunt Flo" and the Female Athlete (from BlogHer Sports)

No, not Flo-Jo (aka the legendary Florence Griffith-Joyner—still considered the fastest woman ever). I’m talking about our monthly visitor, curse, and any other number of nicknames/euphemisms we women use to describe our menstrual cycles. As women gain access to more opportunities outside of the home, and outside of the bounds of the traditional “separate spheres,” we still have to acknowledge some biological differences between men and women. That women menstruate and men don’t is one of them.It’s a question that economists and psychologists have recently pursued, particularly as it relates to earnings.  This paper, by a group of psychologists out of the University of New Mexico, finds that exotic dancers earn less during menstruation but more during the fertile phase of their cycles. Another paper by University of California, Davis economists finds that naturally cycling women exhibit more risky behavior (than men) in the marketplace during their fertile phase.

While menstruation affects all women at some point in their lives, it is a particularly tricky issue for female athletes. You want to get your period, but it can also impact performance.


Why does a female athlete want to get her period? Well it’s not ideal to develop amenorrhea.  Amenorrhea is defined as not getting your period for at least three consecutive months.  Menstruation is a sign of a healthy body, so the lack of menstruation can mean that a female is underweight, which can impact bone density (making her more susceptible to breaks in the short-term and osteoporosis in the long-term), and also impact energy levels.  This is known as the “female athlete triad.”  It is of particular concern when it comes to sports that emphasize a slim physique—like gymnastics, figure skating, dancing, and diving—and sports that emphasize endurance—like swimming and long distance running.

Last month, as part of my monthly blog series on female athletes called Shrinking and Pinking, I wrote about elite runner Lauren Fleshman. Fleshman finished seventh in the 5000m at the World Track and Field Championships. This impressive woman wrote candidly on her blog about the finals being on the “absolute worst day of the month for my cycle.”  On the one hand it is great news that such an elite runner gets her monthly visitor; but, as she notes, it also means bloating and water retention that can make her four pounds heavier, thus impacting her running.  She solicited advice on how to handle this, and received many comments on her posting.  Some suggest using synthetic hormones to control and manipulate the cycle to help manage the impacts on performance.  Clearly, this is not something that male runners have to fret over.

A recent study on female rowers finds that overall endurance is not effected by estrogen fluctuations related to the menstrual cycle (though we may feel more tired, perhaps our bodies can still perform consistently if pushed).  Yet, changes in hormone levels still matter depending on the type of athletic activity.  For example, there is evidence that our joints loosen at certain times of the month.  So, when jumping, we may land differently, putting us at risk for injury.  Some have hypothesized that this could be a possible explanation for the higher rates of knee injuries, particularly ACL tears, in female athletes.

None of this is to say that women can’t be superb athletes and that they shouldn’t compete!  Prior to Title IX this had been a concern so some pushed aside questions of biological differences and impacts on athletic injuries and performance.  Now that women athletes have proven themselves it is time to think seriously about ways to improve female performance, cognizant of some biological differences between men and women.

Understanding how to train to accommodate monthly bodily changes means continuing to research both the female body from a scientific and medical point of view and a practical point of view.  Having athletes like Lauren Fleshman, draw attention to this issue is significant, as is the fact that a range of researchers are interested in the question of how the menstrual cycle impacts female performance.As always, more work remains to be done—including making sure that girls understand how important it is to know their own bodies and not starve or overtrain in pursuit of some unattainable perfection.>Aunt Flo may sometimes not be welcome, but she is an important monthly visitor and female athletes should start learning how to welcome and deal with this visitor before puberty hits.