Elite athletes know almost everything about their bodies — their resting heart rate, how long they take to recover from a workout and just how far they can push themselves. But there’s one thing they just don’t talk about: their periods.
“It’s really common for athletes not to talk about their periods, and almost just deal with it as something completely separate from their athletic performance,” Dr. Natalie Brown, an expert on how menstruation affects sports performance, said in an interview with NBC Sports.
In her research, Dr. Brown found that female athletes simply don’t communicate with their coaches about their periods, or how menstruation might be affecting their performance.
Female athletes are already fighting to prove that they’re just as good as their male counterparts. Combine that with the general discomfort that many people feel about talking about menstruation, and it’s not hard to understand why periods might be taboo.
But of course, periods don’t go away just because we’re not talking about them. In fact, the accomplishments of elite female athletes are even more impressive when you factor in the challenges of cramps and fatigue.
So, let’s talk about periods and sports — because having a period doesn’t make you weak. Here are two amazing athletes and one entire team who are fighting period stigma by talking about menstruation.
Lonah-Chemtai Salpeter, Israeli Olympic marathon runner
When Lonah-Chemtai Salpeter ran the Toyo Marathon in 2021, she didn’t do as well as she had hoped. Despite feeling like she was in peak physical condition, some particularly bad cramps forced her to stop and take a break with just a few miles to go in the race. Instead of finishing first, as she did in the same race in 2020, she came in 66th.
So, she turned her experience into an opportunity to speak out.
“I think we really need to normalise the conversation around being female athletes,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “Knowing that a lot of female professional athletes face health issues, I feel that I have to play an instrumental role to help and break taboos around the female period. I wish more girls have access to information I had to learn through experience and would fell [sic] comfortable discussing such private issues with well prepared professionals.”
Fu Yuanhi, Chinese Olympic swimmer
“Fu Yuanhui is awesome!”
“I really admire Fu Yuanhui”
“Our Ms Fu dares to say anything.”
Even though her team finished in fourth place in the Olympic 4x100m medley relay in 2016, Chinese social media lit up with praise for swimmer Fu Yuanhi.
Why? Because she talked about her period.
In an interview after her event, a reporter noticed that Fu seemed to be bending over with stomach pain.
“Yes,” Fu responded. “Actually, my period started last night.”
With just those few words, the swimmer shattered the cultural silence around menstruation for female athletes.
Many people said they didn’t even realize that it was possible for a woman to swim during her period. Very few menstruators use tampons in China, partially because they are more expensive, but also due to fears about compromising virginity. Instead, most people use menstrual pads, which often expand and dissolve in water.
Fu’s comments inspired another athlete in particular: Japanese Olympic swimmer Ito Hanae.
“At first, I was kind of surprised someone spoke about the subject so openly,” Ito told Olympics.com. “But then I thought, ‘Well if she’s doing it, why not chime in?’
Ito went on to found the 1252 Project, an organization dedicated to spreading awareness about sports and menstrual health in Japan among young people.
“I thought that maybe it is important to properly address the subject,” Ito says. “Ultimately, we do need men to understand everything but — at the same time — there are many women who don’t understand either. I think we need to improve our literacy just as much.”
The Chelsea FC Women soccer team
In early 2020, Chelsea FC Women manager Emma Hayes announced that her team had started factoring a new element into their training plans: the players’ menstrual cycles.
“The starting point is that we are women and, ultimately, we go through something very different to men on a monthly basis,” Hayes said. “We have to have a better understanding of that because our education failed us at school; we didn’t get taught about our reproduction systems. It comes from a place of wanting to know more about ourselves and understanding how we can improve our performance.”
The team now tracks their period symptoms, food intake and more using an app developed specifically for female athletes.
“These players are going to be the first generation of women who are well educated about their menstrual cycle and they will spread that knowledge as far as they possibly can,” Hayes said. “We hope that becomes a culture within every football club in the world, so everybody can cope better with their menstrual cycles.”
Players say that the approach has helped them to customize their training plans and take care of their bodies.
“For a long time, females in sport have been viewed as smaller males, but I think we’re very different,” Jessie Fleming, who plays forward, said. “To be able to recognize and appreciate those things and build the dialogue and find solutions is really important. I now appreciate that these things are natural and it’s not about working against myself or getting frustrated but recognizing that it’s normal and it’s something to work with.”
Fellow forward Erin Cuthbert says that she has learned a lot through the program.
“I’ve seen a drastic reduction in my symptoms and I’m able to manage my body better on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “It’s about having an action because if you keep leaving things without the knowledge or awareness, then it can fester and end up in an injury.”
So far, the team’s strategy seems to be working. On May 14 this year, Chelsea won the league championship, called the Women’s FA Cup, for the third time in a row.
Fight period stigma with Plan
Too many people still think periods are dirty and shameful. Your gift can help show girls that menstruation is a healthy, normal experience through in-school awareness sessions. Check out the Gifts of Hope below to start making a difference!