The period of the period: Understanding the Female Athlete
A major gap in the scientific literature and sport in general is a more equal representation of women in research and the understanding of their unique physiological, nutritional, and training needs. Over the course of history, and across research disciplines, women are grossly underrepresented as study subjects and thus recommendations (mainly talking sport here) are simply extrapolated from their male counterparts.
The paradigm is shifting. With more and more members of the scientific research and sport community recognizing this disparity, conversations are brewing and hard data is being collected. One of the leaders of this new guard of researchers dedicated to learning more about the female athlete is Kelly McNulty, a PhD student at Northumbria University in the UK who is conducting research on female athlete health and performance. Notably, she recently coauthored two phenomenal meta-analyses and systematic review papers on the effects of the menstrual cycle phases and oral contraceptive use, respectively, on athletic performance.
These reviews scoured the available research (which they will admit is lacking in quantity and quality) found, in a brief nutshell, that for some athletes, performance may suffer in the early follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, and that hormonal contraception may slightly reduce performance compared to normally menstruating females. The caveat though, is that it’s highly individual and so much variation exists which makes it nearly impossible to provide sweeping recommendations or guidelines for training or nutrition across the menstrual cycle.
This week on In The Flow, I chat with Kelly about her research and the practical side of what we do know about female athlete physiology and what athletes and coaches can do to better understand things like the menstrual cycle and its performance implications, impacts of low energy availability, oral contraceptive use, resources, and more. It’s a wonderful conversation.
Kelly also founded the period of the period, a social media account (and forthcoming podcast!) dedicated to promoting conversation, awareness, and education around these topics to accelerate the paradigm shift into normalizing discussing periods, supporting female athletes more effectively, and opening the door for more research to be done. For the full episode, listen wherever you stream podcasts, such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Play.
As a male sports nutritionist and coach, I feel a certain responsibility to be a part of this movement to educate and amplify the voices of those doing the work to better understand this topic in an effort to better support the female athletes I work with and will in the future. There is still so much taboo around this topic and it needs to become normalized in order to make progress. It’s a big goal of mine with In The Flow to propel this paradigm shift, so I’m extremely grateful for Kelly to come on the show and share her wisdom with me and the podcast audience.
Enter: the period of the period.