Hormones and the Female Athlete

Ok, so I’m going to start off by stating that I’m no medical expert when it comes to the science behind hormones and the effect they can have on female athletes. But I have recently taken a seriously personal interest in this and have been researching the subject quite extensively as I feel like it really needs a continued discussion. If you’re not comfortable reading around the subjects of periods (although this is more about female hormones than that) then feel free to give this blog post a swerve. Or maybe read one of my other ones? They’re pretty awesome.

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To give you a bit of background to me and my reason for taking an interest in this subject, hormones and I don’t get on very well. My body generally overreacts to them (what a diva, right?) and around the age of 15/16, when I first started my periods (yep, one heck of a late bloomer), my body decided to have a series of seizures. A moderate response I’m sure you’ll agree. Two such memorable examples of this include one when I landed face down on a carpet the day of my drama GCSE exam and had to go in with mild burns on my face (I still got an A), and another in the bath which involved my dad kicking the door down, and me being blue-lighted to Addenbrooke’s in my David Beckham nightie. Sweet.

Since then, it’s been a bit of a battle. Many years of being on different versions of the pill, dealing with crazy hot flushes, and not really having periods for about 10 years after I switched to a progestogen-only mini pill. But towards the end of 2018 I started getting incredibly frustrated that I never really knew what my body was going through month to month. I’d find some training sessions so unbelievably hard and couldn’t understand why I was so lacking in energy.  I had no way of checking just how hard I should be pushing myself week to week, and worst of all my overheating issue was getting out of control especially at night when I would be sweating so much that it was like having a fever. Every. Single. Night. I was exhausted and felt disgusting. So in January 2019 I moved away from hormones (hopefully) forever and had a non-hormonal coil fitted. But this meant that after never having run with a period, I needed to get my head around my body potentially feeling very different. Hence the recent desire to read around the subject.

Now I know, I know – what’s the big deal? People run with periods all the time. And that’s just it. It’s NOT a big deal, but we all know that until recently, people have failed to talk about it. There’s a reason why tennis player Heather Watson felt the need to call it a “girl thing” when she was suffering with hers during a match in 2015. There’s a reason why it made headline news when Eilish McColgan actually used the word “period” last May when discussing how starting hers was one part of a bad day on the track. And there’s a reason why people are losing their minds over the sight of a tampon string in the latest This Girl Can advert (god only knows what these people do when they see all the rope on the Captain Birdseye adverts. They must be irreparably damaged). People are still uncomfortable talking about the fact that women can have periods and do sport.

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We all know that girls drop out of sport in their droves at school. There are many reasons for this – prioritising study, peer pressure, fears of how they look while exercising – but periods, and the associated shame, play a huge part. Back in 2017, Betty for Schools carried out research on 2000 women, where 46% stated that they had used their periods as an excuse to skip PE classes, even when they felt well enough to take part. The top reason given for this (39%) was a fear of leaking, with 18% stating that they felt too tired or in too much pain to take part in exercise, suggesting that embarrassment rather than physical concerns were the major barrier to participation. Take a look at their eye-opening article here. And to be fair, I totally get it. It’s taken me a while to get around to writing this post as it felt like a really personal thing to share (it was a DAVID BECKHAM NIGHTIE for crying out loud) but if we don’t talk about periods young girls will continue to think of them as something to be ashamed of in the sporting arena. Plus I’ve realised at a lot of races there are only portaloos, and trying to change a pad or tampon or – god forbid – rinse a mooncup can be an exercise in flexibility and staying calm under pressure. Perhaps if we continue to talk about these things race organisers might take this into consideration somehow?

But there are other things to consider too. Research by Inger Jacobsen from the University of Lulea in 2006 suggested that women are more prone to injury at certain times in their cycle. It was not exactly clear why this might be the case, but an increase in relaxin (the hormone that helps relax the uterus in childbirth) around the time of menstruation has been cited as a cause, something that has been backed up by other studies. Published work has shown women perform worse on a skill called joint position sense – judging the position of a limb joint, such as the extent to which the knee is bent (flexed) or straight (extended) – around the time of their period. So we need to encourage our female athletes to feel like they can speak about their periods so that their coaches know not to push them during certain training sessions if they’re at a certain point in their cycle. To help me understand this on a personal level, I use the FitrWoman app, which tracks my cycle and lets me know when to push harder, when to prioritise recovery and how to optimise my performance in each phase of my cycle. I thoroughly recommend it.

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So for me, coming off the hormonal pill and letting my body find its natural rhythm again has been invaluable. Yes, sometimes it means there are more logistics to consider, and occasionally I’ve had to interrupt training to pop home and make adjustments, and sometimes training has just been an utter slog that leaves me wondering why I’ve bothered. But that’s not a new thing. It just means that now I understand why. I find this whole thing fascinating and will be continuing to read up on the subject. If you have any insights or suggested reads to share, please let me know!

Inspiring more than one generation

Research carried out by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at Bristol University showed that nearly 80% of adults were failing to meet government targets for physical activity.

A study by University College London researchers found that only 38% of girls were achieving the recommended hour of physical activity each day.

A 12-year study of more than 300,000 people by the University of Cambridge suggested that a lack of exercise could be killing twice as many people as obesity in Europe.

18 months after the London Olympics, the number of people playing sport once a week had increased by only 200,000.

In England, the prevalence of obesity among adults rose from 14.9% to 24.9% between 1993 and 2013.

Yikes.

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But hang on. In England, 75% of women said they wanted to be more active.

Hold the flipping phone. Is that a beacon of light I see upon the very bleak horizon?

Happy Tina Fey

Yes, some of these statistics make bleak reading, but it’s the last one that gives me hope. If 75% of women want to be more active, then something needs to be done to inspire them into action. The This Girl Can campaign has kickstarted something brilliant, but it will take time to see how successful it has been. The Olympics tagline was “Inspire a Generation”, but what I want to know is – why just the one?

The reason I’m writing this post is because I was inspired today. I took the last session of my Women’s Beginners’ Running Group this evening, getting five women of all different ages to run 5km around a very hot and very busy Parker’s Piece. And they all did it, pushing themselves harder than I thought they could in the conditions, and all coming in between 30 and 36 minutes, sprint finishing with serious strength and guts. I was so unbelievably proud of them, and I felt inspired by their commitment to trying something different and difficult, especially given the comedy geniuses who liked to shout tips at us, run with us, or copy our warm up. Seriously dudes, we get one of you every week. Come back when you have something unique.

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Warriors.

And so it got me thinking. It’s down to us to inspire each other. To inspire our friends, mother, siblings, daughters. I’m inspired by the women around me every day. By my Zumba instructor and friend Lucy who with her endless energy encourages dozens of women in and around Ely to dance their backsides off and not care what they look like doing it. By my incredibly talented friend Eloise who has worked so hard and dedicated so much of her life to her dancing which has led to her starring in the McQueen show. By my friend Sam who after just a couple of years of running ran the London Marathon for the Motor Neurone Disease Association in memory of her dad. By my boss Karen who pushes her mental strength to its limits by running 24 hour endurance races. By my sister.

And it’s not just the people I know. It’s people like Jessica Ennis, Jo Pavey, Paula Radcliffe, Nicola Adams, Kelly Holmes, Victoria Pendleton, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Denise Lewis, Amy Hughes, Katie McDonnell, Lucy Gossage, Chrissie Wellington, Kacy Catanzaro, the two crews who rowed on the Tideway (and therefore on an equal footing as men) in the Boat Race for the first time and people like 92-year old Harriette Thompson. And I’m barely scratching the surface here. These are just the people I’ve thought of off the top of my head.

But we need more. We need more women’s sport on TV. We need more campaigns like #WSW2015 and This Girl Can. We need to stop belittling ourselves and letting women be physical cliches. In short, we need less of this:

Bridget Bike Fail

And more of this:

Strong Runner

We need to be inspired into action and given the opportunity to try new things. And I genuinely believe that there is a sport out there for everyone. Women should be giving things a go and be encouraged to do so. How sad would it be if someone never found that sporting passion, whether it be netball, sprinting, ultimate frisbee or fencing?

I feel a bit like I’m brain dumping here and pointing out the flipping obvious. But next time you go to your bootcamp class, or see an advert for archery sessions, or decide to sign up for your first 5k like my running group girls, why not pick up the phone and tell your friend/mother/daughter/sister about it? You might end up turning a flicker of interest into an all-consuming flame and then they may go on to do the same thing, a ripple effect of igniting passions. And wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

This Girl Can – With or Without Makeup

To celebrate the inaugural Women’s Sport Week, I’m going to focus my posts this week on women in sport and the topics around this, starting with my thoughts on the “This Girl Can” campaign by Sport England and other partner organisations that launched back in January.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with it, the campaign focussed around a National TV advert that showed women of all ages, cultures, shapes and sizes giving it their all in sport. Take a look:

When it launched, I remember getting into a debate with someone on Twitter who asked “why does it have to be about how women look?” I suspect it was images like this that prompted her question:

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And you know what? I got her point. I can see that she was trying to point out that how you look shouldn’t matter in sport, that it shouldn’t even be mentioned in this campaign – after all, would this be mentioned if the campaign were aimed at men? In a dream world, makeup and appearance wouldn’t be one of the (to be fair, many) focus points of “This Girl Can”. But the problem is, 40% of girls feel self-conscious about their bodies during PE, and 26% say they “hate the way that they look when they exercise/ play sport”. These are horrible statistics, and the fact is that too many of our girls are dropping out of sport once they leave school, and concerns with how they look is a key part of this.

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“This Girl Can” can only really tackle the problem as it stands now. If girls and women are not exercising because of concerns about how they look, then this needs to be addressed in the campaign, and their fears need to be allayed. They need to know that exercise is not synonymous with looking “bad” or “silly”. You can sweat with lipstick on if that’s what floats your boat, or you can go utterly beetroot after a run like me. How you look simply doesn’t matter, so you should do what makes you feel comfortable.

A report by the Commons Health Select Committee showed that two thirds of women do not exercise for fear of being the one “struggling at the back”. I find this to be another terrifying statistic, especially as I know that whether you’re standing at the front or the back of your Zumba or Circuits class, or whether you struggle to clap on the beat or you’re only lifting 1kg dumbbells, no one is going to care. They’re all too busy getting off on that endorphin high and wiping the sweat out of their own eyes. The fact that you’re there means you’re giving it a go, and no one worth knowing is going to judge you for that.

The thing I’ll be interested in come January 2016, is seeing what percentage of women are now taking part in sport. With more and more female sporting role models elbowing their way into male-dominated sports media and campaigns like “This Girl Can” and “Women’s Sport Week” being launched, I hope that more women will make sport as natural a part of their day as cleaning their teeth, and not give a tiny rat’s arse how they look doing it. Then maybe in five years’ time we can have campaigns with no mention of how a woman looks, because we’ll be so used to their sweaty red faces that it won’t even occur to us to mention it.

And just on a final note don’t tell me that these women right here don’t inspire you to give it a go and not once consider how you look doing it. I know they do me, sweat and all.

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