Empowerment and education are key tenets of Drops-Le Col s/b Tempur new ground-breaking wellness program.
As part of that, the team wants to help riders gain a sense of control over their menstrual cycle and the fluctuation in hormone levels that comes with it. The menstrual cycle can affect female athletes and their performances, and the team is working to understand it so as to use it for riders’ advantage.
“There is still a lot of this that we don’t have a huge amount of data on, in terms of the sports industry. A lot of it is very individual and personalized so it takes time to work out what individual riders need and what can personally help them,” said team doctor Claire Rose, a former professional rider herself.
“I think that’s a huge part, one raising awareness of it and, two, identifying who is at risk of it so that we can work through it and figure out where the issue areas are. We want to make it a lot more normal to talk about and make it something that riders can be open about if they’re having any issues.”
Periods are a normal, if annoying, part of life for about a quarter of the world’s population, but every time a female athlete speaks about it we’re told that she’s breaking a taboo.
It’s 2021 and, for some reason, a natural bodily function is still considered an off-limits topic of discussion for many. The taboo around it means that athletes can be too embarrassed to speak about it when it is affecting their work, or it isn’t as it should be.
As well as encouraging openness on the topic and understanding how to work around their cycles, general manager Tom Varney wants to make sure that riders’ goals aren’t held to ransom by it. Getting a period the day before a big race shouldn’t hold a rider back, he says.
“We’re looking at how we can tailor training around certain phases of the cycle, nutrition, where they might be lacking in one week and not in another,” Varney said. “We’re looking at trying to minimise the symptoms and empower the riders to really understand their own cycles and their own completely natural physiology.
“It’s about how can we make it easier or how can we still have them race and do well while being on their period? A period shouldn’t stop them competing, it shouldn’t stop them doing what they want to do and what we want them to do.”
The wrong message
When Drops-Le Col rider Anna Christian started racing professionally at the age of 19, for some riders getting your period meant you weren’t trying hard enough.
“I had the wrong message about it for years. I remember being on a team before and you wouldn’t talk about it but when you did it was almost a bad thing if you had a period,” Christian said.
“It meant you were not pushing enough, or you were not the best you could be. It was almost a negative thing if you had it. I remember being 19 at the time and thinking ‘oh God’.
“Now, it’s really nice to know how much research has gone into it and how you can use it to your benefit now. I think it’s really good that it has become a discussion.”
Missing a period, or the menstrual cycle stopping altogether, is becoming less common but it still a frighteningly regular occurrence among female athletes. This came as a shock to Varney, who has been trying to educate himself on it since.
“Three years ago, we were at a training camp and we started working with someone who had just retired, and they mentioned to me one evening when we were talking that she didn’t have her period for three years and it absolutely blew my mind. It turned out it is quite normal,” Varney said.
“I’ve tried to gain knowledge, and this is the first year that we’re trying to do something about it.”
Also known as amenorrhea, it often happens as a result of the body not getting enough fuel for the exercise it is doing. The menstrual cycle grinding to a halt is part of your body trying to conserve its energy levels and it can have a long-term impact on health.
It can be an indicator of relative energy deficiency in sport – or RED-S – a condition that results in low energy availability and can affect both men and women.
“If you don’t fuel properly that can lead to the loss of your menstrual cycle and a whole host of other long-term problems such as problems with fertility, problems with poor bone density,” Rose said.
Changing the mindset
Thankfully, the mindset that a period is a bad thing is becoming something of the past, like the belief you shouldn’t eat ice cream because it’s too cold or not eating oranges after 5 p.m. because the Vitamin C will keep you awake.
As progress is being made, riders are becoming more acutely aware of what is normal for their own body. But when problems do arise the challenge is knowing how to fix.
“The biggest barrier I have found is that riders don’t know what to do about it if they’re not menstruating or they’ve had periods where they haven’t had it,” Rose said.
“The younger riders have been really proactive and are really aware of it. Riders coming through national teams have had some education about it, which I have found really refreshing.”
Making sure that riders maintain a healthy menstrual cycle is one part of the program, while learning how to work around it and even utilize it to their benefit is another.
Cramps, headaches, insomnia, fatigue and other period symptoms can all have an impact on an athlete when they’re training and racing, but research suggests that some injuries are more likely to happen at certain parts of the menstrual cycle.
Though many women already use period tracking apps, Drops-Le Col has made it a team policy. Riders can log their symptoms and check where they are in their cycle, giving them a broader view how their cycle affects them.
“A lot of the girls automatically have apps to track their periods, so they have a lot of that data already. I guess it’s just being able to help them use it, to see where they can make those gains in performance or where they can make improvements to be fully healthy,” said Rose.
“It comes back to the fact that you want athletes to realize that being healthy is important, not just for being an athlete but for life. For me, it’s the longer-term benefits.”