Why periods must no longer be a taboo subject in sport

Written by Louise Lawless of the Irish Times

“It’s because my period came yesterday, so I felt particularly tired.”

The throwaway comment by Chinese Olympian swimmer Fu Yuanhui in 2016 sparked a wave of conversation worldwide, giving voice to the reality that female athletes at all levels can attest to: having your period can impact your performance.

“Fair play to her,” says Ellen Keane, Paralympian swimmer, over the phone. “It’s quite a personal thing, people didn’t want to talk about it, there’s still a bit of a taboo,” especially for swimmers who have to be “more careful than other sports”.

Being an elite athlete hastens the need to be comfortable with periods, but this level of understanding is gradual, and it can be intimidating. Keane remembers her period at 13 years old as “a horrendous experience”. To avoid using tampons she would wear two to three pairs of swimsuits, “it was fashionable then, everyone did”.

Tampons are one option for swimmers, but Keane, along with her team-mates, soon moved to the pill, so they could plan around competition weeks in advance.

Blood clots

Initially Keane was “fortunate” not to have any severe side effects, but switched to the coil after migraines, and her doctor’s warning about blood thinning and clots.

Given that swimming seems particularly sensitive to periods, it makes sense that there is less of a stigma among the team themselves. “We’re all close together in the changing rooms so we’d know if someone is on their period.” Aware of their roles as mentors, the more experienced swimmers compare symptoms, breaking the taboo of the subject for the newer athletes, which is “our version of locker room talk”, she jokes.

Sinead Delahunty, GAA player for Tipperary and Foxrock-Cabinteely, once thought missing a period was “quite convenient”, despite having less energy and being “cranky and short with people”. In December 2016, she took time out to go travelling, and 18 months later realised that she hadn’t had a period. She was diagnosed with amenorrhea, a condition where women and girls miss a period for at least three cycles, and it took months for her to get it back. Periods should be considered a vital health sign, Delahunty says, and its absence should force experts and women alike to ask: “If it isn’t happening, why not?”