Let’s talk about periods. Because, as athletes, we seem to talk about everything else. We talk about our mileage and our pace. Our watts and our weight. We talk about how much sleep we get and how many calories we consume. We even talk about our pooping habits! But we don’t talk openly about periods, which is kind of crazy, right? Because if you’re a female athlete — or you coach female athletes, train with female athletes or are the father of an aspiring female athlete — periods matter, kind of a lot.
So we asked you, Strava’s female athletes, how your training and exercise is impacted by your periods. Over 14,000 of you, from around the globe, responded. And you told us some pretty incredible things.*
It turns out that, as young women, we’re not often taught how to navigate the world of exercise and periods. Over 70% of you told us that you’d never received any education about your menstrual cycle and exercise. In fact, we often think of periods and exercise as enemies, fighting against one another, rather than working together. But amazingly, 78% of you said that exercise actually reduces the symptoms related to your menstrual cycle. Pretty cool!
Let’s be honest though, periods still suck and it’s not always appealing to get out the door when you’ve got cramps or you’re feeling bloated. Over 90% of you said that your menstrual cycle impacted your training but shockingly less than 1 in 5 women with coaches had discussed their menstrual cycle with their coach. That’s a problem because periods are important. I know first hand, just how important.
I, like many female athletes I know, fell into a trap of believing that it would all just be easier without periods. And that they didn’t matter that much anyway. Periods were inconvenient things to be bemoaned, not celebrated. They seemed to signify that my body was changing — was becoming more ‘womanly’, was rounding and softening in a way that felt like the antithesis of all the hard work I’d put in. Periods meant gaining fat and slowing down; they weren’t for athletes, right?
I started under-fueling my training creating a dramatic mismatch between the energy I was taking in and the energy my training was demanding. My body shut down my menstrual cycle in an attempt to preserve energy and I didn’t get a period for eight years, a condition known as amenorrhea. I thought, at least at first, that I was doing something right. That not having a period meant that I was truly an athlete. Now, multiple stress fractures down the line, as a result of the adverse impact of low estrogen on bone health, I know that having a regular period is as much a marker of training health as fast times and medals.
Although periods might be inconvenient they’re our body telling us it’s working. Missing one or two periods because of exercise isn’t normal. While missing 6 months, or 8 years in my case, can be catastrophic to our bone health, hormones, and athletic ambitions. I thought that not having a period meant that I was a better athlete. Actually, it meant that one day I wouldn’t be able to be an athlete at all.
But how are we meant to know all that when nobody really talks about periods? When our coaches often don’t ask about our menstrual cycle, or we feel too embarrassed to bring it up? I was lucky enough to be coached by someone who was willing to talk about periods and have teammates who celebrated the return of my menstrual cycle with as much gusto as a stellar workout. This might sound strange, but that’s only because we’re conditioned to think periods should be private.
Strava believes that female athletes deserve to be taught about their periods and that young women deserve to grow up in a culture that celebrates menstruation as a sign of health, not a taboo to be brushed under the carpet. We need our coaches and our training partners to understand the menstrual cycle and be unafraid to talk about it. Just like we’d tell our coach when we’re getting sick, or when the neighbours had a raging row that kept us up all night we should be able to have a conversation about periods.
Talking about periods opens the door to understanding, and tracking your period alongside your training: checking if it’s regular, and monitoring how you feel, can help you maximise your athletic performance and your health. Which is why I’m really excited that Strava has partnered with FitrWoman. The FitrWoman app provides a place for female athletes to track their menstrual cycle while also having access to training and nutrition advice tailored to menstrual cycle hormonal changes. You can sync your Strava with the FitrWoman app so you’ll be able to track your activities and menstrual cycle on the same screen making it easy to see the impact your training is having on your periods (and vice versa).
Tracking doesn’t suddenly make it easy to talk openly about periods, or celebrate them in all their inconvenience, but it starts to reframe the menstrual cycle as another training metric. It can help you learn when you’ve asked too much of your body, or explain why you feel so tired or lethargic, And It can help you stay accountable to yourself if you’re missing periods. Because periods matter. Period. They matter more than miles and PB’s, more than having abs or toned thighs, because they keep us strong and durable and able to do the sports we love. And what could be more important than that?
*14,184 Strava athletes completed the study, led by Dr. Georgie Bruinvels from St Mary’s University, co-creator of the FitrWoman App. Survey respondents were members of Strava from the UK, Ireland, USA, Brazil, France, Spain, and Germany.