Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui made headlines in 2016 at the Rio Olympics for telling a reporter that she hadn’t performed well due to the timing of her period.

Although her comments showed that discussing a woman’s menstrual cycle in sport was still taboo, it also highlighted a research gap.

Sport and exercise scientist Brianna Larsen says most sports research is based on male physiology.

“Research on women can be a bit complicated, we have what’s called the menstrual cycle,” said Dr Larsen, from the University of Southern Queensland.

And on top of that, she said there is still no understanding of the impact of hormonal contraceptives on exercise performance.

“We all have these different, invariant hormonal profiles that men don’t really have to worry about, that way men are easier to study.

Lions FC players undergo speed and strength tests to measure the impact of the menstrual cycle on performance.(Supplies: Kirkup Beak)

Performance Test

When exercise specialist Kurt Vogel started working with female athletes about seven years ago, he started by setting up rule tracking and initiating conversations with players.

“That’s when I started looking at the research, I realized it wasn’t just the lack of research, it was the inconsistencies in the research methodology, that means you don’t can’t really trust most articles,” Vogel said.

He said much of the evidence supporting women’s sport was based on male research that could affect injury risk, recovery times and overall performance.

Mr. Vogel conducts his own research with female athletes at Lions FC.

Three times a week, it tests their maximum strength and maximum speed while tracking changes throughout the menstrual cycle.

women who sprint
Players take speed and strength tests.(Provided: Kurt Vogel)

“For the record, it’s quite interesting to see that during the period, after the first day, there is usually an improvement in performance,” he said.

“It’s before that that performance tends to decline.”

Semi-professional footballer and personal trainer Bec Kirkup, who is part of Mr Vogel’s test group, agrees more needs to be done to support women in sport, including research.

“It’s so important that research is done so that we have more scientific evidence so that we can help women in sport get the most out of their performance,” she said.

women playing soccer
Bec Kirkup is a personal trainer and plays semi-professional soccer.(Supplied: Kirkup mouthpiece)

Ms Kirkup describes her symptoms as mild, with cramps, headaches and lower back pain, but has seen other female athletes suffer at different stages of the menstrual cycle.

“Other girls feel really exhausted, tired. The cramps can be extremely painful and they can also feel a bit clumsy,” she said.

Raising Awareness

“We need more awareness of the menstrual cycle and sport and more awareness of women’s sport, period,” Ms Kirkup said.

“Some women have to train full time and then work full time too.”

Ms Kirkup said while milestones had been achieved in professional women’s sport in recent years, there was still a long way to go, particularly in the semi-professional space.

woman playing soccer
Bec Kirkup says many female athletes juggle full-time work and full-time training.(Supplied: Kirkup mouthpiece)

“It’s definitely getting there, it’s definitely getting better, it’s going in the right direction,” she said.

“When the day comes when women are paid closer to what men are paid, then women will be able to play full time and they will be able to focus a lot more on their training and recovery.

“So that means the games we watch on TV will also improve.”