23 January 2015

Sports and periods

So, a quick word on all the sports and periods stuff that has been bandied about in the last week.

To recap: British tennis player Heather Watson loses a first round match at the Australian Open, makes a casual remark about "girl things" affecting her performance and now she's broken "the last taboo" in tennis.

The BBC followed up with a lengthy discussion of whether periods really affect sporting performance and Runner's World encouraged Paula Radcliffe to speak out on the subject. Middle distance runner Jess Judd has been drawn into the debate too, after it emerged she was prescribed drugs to delay her period - with apparently unhelpful side effects - during the 2013 World Championships. The Telegraph chipped in with an awkward piece that started "Poor Heather Watson" and ended in what some might describe (I wouldn't) as a "joke" about PMT.

Honestly, I don't whether to laugh or cry. It's as if no one ever considered that having blood streaming out of you, being kept awake at night by stomach cramps and all the other general inconveniences that come with being on your period, might not be the best thing for someone trying to push their body to the limits of human performance.

So good on Watson for just coming out with it. But she clearly didn't expect her remarks to cause such a stir, and they shouldn't have. Being a modern kind of woman, she probably didn't consider that mentioning a thing that affects 50% of the people on the planet would be such a big deal.

OBVIOUSLY, the reason most female athletes don't talk about their periods publicly is because they don't want anyone to think they're trying to make excuses. But that doesn't mean female athletes aren't talking about them at all. The idea that Watson's remarks were "the first time in history" that someone has referenced periods as a reason for a poor performance is plain ridiculous. Er. Perhaps, women just aren't talking about them to the national sports media, because they're afraid someone somewhere will say, "Yes, but can she really put that crappy match/race down to her period? Maybe she just didn't train hard enough." (Unfortunately, I suspect that is what some people will now be saying.)

So while I think we should talk more openly about periods, I wonder how Jess Judd, for example, will feel about some disappointing performances being so publicly put down to periods. Perhaps periods were a big factor but I'm sure both Judd and Watson will have other thoughts about why things didn't go to plan and they'll have discussed them in private with their coaches.

Plenty of women in sport ARE talking about periods - to each other and to the teams around them. I know a running coach who expressed some concern about my periods and potential symptoms of anaemia. I've talked about periods numerous times with team mates at my running club. I'm sure I'm not the only one here.

Honestly, I don't think anyone really knows whether having a period makes you suck at sport. I haven't done a thorough search of the literature, but from what I can tell the studies are quite limited in scope - this one, from 2006, covers basketball, volleyball and martial arts but it's quite common in sports science for studies to be small and for methods to vary from one study to the next, making it difficult to come to solid conclusions.

Doubtless, there's a psychological aspect to it as well. There have been plenty of times I've got myself into some sort of shape for an important (by my standards) race and then realised it was on a collision course with the first day of my cycle. It puts you off but if, say, you've trained for a marathon for six months, well, you just have to get on with it. Which I think is what Watson was saying - "Hey, what can you do?", rather than "Oh, poor me".

Yes, it would be good if we knew more about the effects on sporting performance and how to safely avoid those effects. But I don't think we need special allowances for period days or anything. We've be dealing with them for, like, millions of years, after all, and we're mostly competing against other people with the same problem.

It would just be nice, though, if these sorts of statements didn't come as such a shock. By the media's reaction, you'd have thought we were still in an age when ladies were only let on to tennis courts in full length frocks and it would be unthinkable for a woman to try to run a marathon. So can we all just talk about this stuff enough so that periods are no longer a taboo.... but not so much that amazing athletes like Heather Watson and Jess Judd have to be pitied or excused for having a period? No, not "Poor Heather Watson"! Amazing Heather Watson! Who had a bad day and is probably over it now because she's a strong, intelligent woman who works really freaking hard.

  • Blood Speaks discusses the stigma attached to menstruation in other parts of the world.
  • Salty Running is home to numerous articles about running, periods and fertility written by women who run.

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