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Olympian Lauren Smith: we need to break the taboo around periods and sport & her tips for training around your cycle

Periods 101
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Olympian Lauren Smith: we need to break the taboo around periods and sport & her tips for training around your cycle

The period taboo is still putting many of us, young and old, off sport and exercise. How can we break down the remaining barriers around periods in sport and unlock the full potential of training around your menstrual cycle?

We turned to Olympic badminton player, National Champion and #RealMooncupuser Lauren Smith to hear her thoughts on how we can shift the conversation and smash that period taboo in the sporting world. Lauren also shares her top tips for training around your menstrual cycle and maximising performance.

We have yet to unlock the full potential of the female athlete

“I believe the lack of research on women in sports has a huge impact on female athletes. In sports, you’re trying to get the best out of your body, trying to get those small percentage gains. The difference between the world number one and the world number two comes down to minuscule factors. Managing your periods or training around your periods could be the factors that make all the difference.

Given the huge differences that training with your cycle can make, this lack of research is a real loss. We’re clearly not unlocking every part of the female athlete’s potential. I think once they do start doing the research, they’ll find so many more things to delve into simply because of how we change throughout our cycle.

In sport, we can do so much more to maximise performance. It’s such an emotional career, with real highs and lows. If we have this hormonal fluctuation going on inside our body as well, it’s really adding to the stress and intensity of playing. It should be more researched, discussed, and better understood, both from a performance and mental health point of view.”

Training around your menstrual cycle

How do you go about training around your menstrual cycle? Is it something that is considered in your training plan, or is it more something that you have actioned yourself?

“A week before my period I generally feel stronger and hit more personal bests in the gym. This time frame could differ for everyone, but once you’ve identified that window it’s there to be taken advantage of. For example, I’ll often add jumps in after court sessions, or extra reps to maximise my body’s potential.

I would say I have noticed the majority of these trends myself. Over the past year, I’ve started to talk about training around my menstrual cycle with my strength and conditioning coach. I actually approached it in rather an unusual way. I have a wristband, which tracks my activity. You can see how hard I’ve trained, the volume of training, etc. You can also input when you’re menstruating and add notes. I add things like: ‘tired because I’m on my period’ or ‘strong because it’s just before my period’. My coach, who can log in and see the data, started to engage with that and was interested in the recurring patterns. It proved quite a good way to just slide it into the conversation without it being a big deal.

I recognise that I am fortunate that my coach responded to it in the way I hoped he would. I think that’s a credit to him for not pretending that it’s not happening like some male coaches might have. He’s helped with identifying the patterns and harnessing them. We’ve identified the days when I can do more, as well as days when we might need to take a part of the programme out. For example, we’ll drop a set because my energy levels are quite low.”

The importance of tracking your cycle & performance

How did you start noticing these cycle-related strength and energy trends?

“A lot of it came from tracking my cycle with an app. I used to be on the (contraceptive) implant and have quite random periods. So, it meant if I went away for a few weeks, I had to take 20 boxes of tampons *just in case* I came on my period. The app allows you to record energy levels, breast tenderness, spots on your face, and other tell-tale signs that a lot of us are aware of.

I decided to see if I could track any recurring symptoms and better predict when my period was due. This then morphed into thinking about performance-related symptoms because energy levels are one of the things you can track.

I then changed to the Mooncup menstrual cup and no longer needed to worry about not having enough period products with me. I didn’t feel as much of a need to know when my period was due, but I began to understand more about my body during my period. When you use a Mooncup you see how much you are bleeding. Is it a little bit? Is it a lot? Does that affect your energy? I noticed that on heavy flow days, I am usually quite tired.

It’s been a long learning journey getting to where I am, but I now feel much more able to adapt my training to my cycle.

I am aware I am extremely lucky with my period symptoms have been quite moderate, there are only a handful of times in my career I’ve had to miss training completely. But for some athletes, it’s a much more regular occurrence and I think it’s extremely important to highlight that sometimes the best choice for your body and performance is to rest. When energy levels are low, cramps are at their worst, and often hormones are all over the place, doing high focus physical tasks can risk injury.

This is one of the reasons training around your menstrual cycle it’s a difficult topic. It’s so individual, but there are definitely a few trends to look for and pick up on. At the end of the day, we need more research, don’t we? There’s simply not enough out there.”

Women are underrepresented in sports science research

‘Women underrepresented in sport science research’, ‘Periods are putting schoolgirls off PE’, ‘Women forced to wear white at Wimbledon’. Periods in sport is a topic hitting the headlines more and more. It has been revealed that only 6% of sports science research is done exclusively on women. What kind of impact might this lack of research into women in sports be having?

“I think it’s a real shame. I have seen people speaking up on social media about how little medical research is done on females. And this is obviously reflected in sport science research.

There are so many interesting differences. For instance, women are a lot more likely to snap their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in their knee. The percentage chance of you snapping your other cruciate ligament after having snapped the first one goes through the roof. It makes you wonder if snapping this ligament has anything to do with where you are in your cycle. Is there anything we can do to change that? The recovery time from this type of injury is 11 months minimum which can potentially be career-ending. That’s just one example of hundreds and hundreds of things we need more information on.

From a mental health point of view, the differences are huge. Women are twice as likely to experience depression because of how our hormones change. We shouldn’t be facing those things without explanation or ways to manage them.”

Lauren’s training tips to help PMS

Are there any training tricks to help relieve PMS symptoms that have worked for you?

“I experienced the worst of my PMS during my last year on the implant. There are a few things I change or add to my week to manage the symptoms. I spend longer warming up and focusing on my hips and lower back to ease into movement. In my weights training, I focus more on the range and quality of movement and opt for slightly lighter weights.

I also make sure I’ve got my best sports bras at the ready, nothing worse than the distraction of painful breasts when you’re trying to move!”


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Periods, sports, and tiny white shorts

Speaking of kit, what do you have to wear when you play in tournaments or the Olympics? Short skirts, dresses or shorts still tend to be the dress code in a lot of sports. What are your thoughts on this?

“In general, badminton players tend to wear either shorts, or what we call ‘skorts’ – a skirt with some tight, Lycra shorts underneath. I tend to play in darker coloured ones, just because of personal preference.

However, in 2020, for their 75th Anniversary, All England had a special sponsored kit. They asked me if I would wear it. I said yeah, of course, but then I thought ‘uh oh… what if I’m on my period?’ It was a retro, all-white kit, with tight shorts and a skirt over the top, so very unforgiving for any sort of leak. That did weigh on my mind.

I was using the Mooncup® at the time though, and thought ‘well, I’ve never had a spill before, so this would be a really bad time for the first one.’ But if that had been five or six years ago, when I was using tampons or even sanitary pads, I would have had to say no. Or I’d have had to go out in a black skirt and when they asked me why I’d just say I spilled my juice. I’d have made something up. It was very much a business relationship so I would have absolutely no idea how to go about telling them I was on my period.


Saying yes to the sponsored kit was a moment of fear but I had a lot of faith in the Mooncup. It made me really think about the clothing and its impacts on females in this sport. In team events, you do have to wear whatever coloured bottoms the rest of the team are wearing. And that could be white or other light colour. It’s a potential issue for a lot of female athletes out there.

It comes back to periods not being considered in the wider conversation and culture across all sports. At Wimbledon for instance, there’s no way that some players aren’t on their periods during that, unless they delay it.

This should be something that we can talk openly about. Because then when you’re 16, and you have a similar issue to mine, you would be able to speak openly to your coach instead of saying you’ve spilled something on your clothes.

In an ideal world, I would love to have thought ‘I will wear a white skirt and if I have a leak, I have a leak. That’s totally normal. It’s completely acceptable. It’s not embarrassing. Or shameful. Or gross. It’s not any of these things.’ But it goes against everything that we’ve grown up learning.”

Changing the conversation around periods in sport

How do you think the conversation around periods can change from within the sports world?

 “We must start to set examples ourselves and hope that that passes on and grows. Being open and honest can start to change that shame culture that has been implemented for so long.

As a 30-year-old athlete, I wonder if I should be speaking to some of the younger girls on the team who are 16, 17 or 18? I’m not sure me going up to them and starting a conversation about periods is necessarily the ideal approach. But talking openly around them about periods so they can feel like it’s normal is a good place to start.

It’s too much to ask from teenage athletes that they go out there and suddenly speak to their forty-year-old male coach about their periods. I believe, as we’ve already seen in the past 5-10 years, it will change. But it takes time. And there’s a huge responsibility for adult staff and older athletes to be part of that change.“

How to talk to your coach about your menstrual cycle?

Do you have any advice for younger athletes that are maybe not that confident about talking about their periods?

“We’re all different, which I think is one reason it’s quite hard to talk about our cycle in our training. Some athletes will do a questionnaire every morning to record their energy levels. A really simple way to get our menstrual cycle into the discussion would be to include a tab where you can tick if you are on your period or not. Coaches and other staff have access to the questionnaires, so this could be a straightforward way to gather data and hopefully start to build knowledge.

If you don’t feel confident engaging in conversation with a coach about periods, start the conversation with someone close to you. Think about the people that you trust and can openly speak to. And hopefully, they will then engage with a coach for you.

Growing up, I was scared to talk to my mum about my periods, which is just bonkers. Hopefully, that culture has changed now.

If you are confident enough to have that conversation with your GP, physio, or strength coach, then great! And if they’re uncomfortable with it, that’s very much their problem and something that they need to change. It should never ever be your problem. In most cases, you’ll find that people respect you for doing that. Especially in the world of sports, for thinking about it from a performance point of view.

The real key is tracking. Learn about your body, and how it responds at different stages of your cycle.

At the start of the day, what are your energy levels? At the end of the day, how recovered do you feel? How are your hunger levels? How much are you sleeping? Are you hydrated?

Gather as much information as you can. Then when you eventually sit down with a doctor, coach or strength coach, you are armed with a wealth of information. You can then ask: ‘this is my body, this is my cycle, how can we get the best out of it?’ It’s not only important for sport but also just for life in general.”

Periods are putting schoolgirls off sports and PE

Research from the Youth Sports Trust has shown that many girls stop doing sports when they reach puberty and that this is strongly related to periods. As a sporty teen, this was probably not such a big deal for you?

“It’s a strange one for me because like you said, I was a very sporty teenager. PE was my favourite lesson. I had no issue with getting a sweat on, running around, and doing all that stuff. I count myself very lucky in that sense, but I recognised that around me that wasn’t the case with a lot of my peers.

There were those girls that were ‘on their period’ every week and couldn’t do PE. But it came from this fear of doing sports, being seen as being competitive or getting sweaty maybe. This is something I find, I don’t think frustrating is the right word… sad, I guess. Because when you look at how good sport is for us – not just from a professional perspective. Sport is great for your mental health, physical health, managing PMS symptoms, socialising, all these things. Girls might be missing out on this because of potential misinformation, a lack of education, or fear of criticism from the boys, or other girls.

As a teenager, you’re incredibly unsure and fragile and your hormones are all over the place. Add to that the worry of boys thinking that you’re gross because you sweat, or the fear that you might leak on your period. You can absolutely understand why they would not want to do PE.”

Why we need to normalise the conversation around periods at home and in schools

What do you think can be done to help address this in education?

“In my opinion, education has a huge role to play in this. I was listening to The Female Athlete podcast, and they have a couple of episodes on the menstrual cycle. In one of the research studies, they found that 88% of teachers think that participation in PE is limited by the menstrual cycle. The teachers also said they feel they want to help, but they don’t have the resources or the education themselves to help in the right way.

You’re looking at teachers willing to educate girls and help them understand and get around these invisible barriers that have been put up by society, but they don’t know how to do it. They don’t know what language to use or how to begin the conversation.

You have one lesson in school, we used to call it PD (personal development), and that one sex ed lesson. Everyone’s embarrassed, giggly, putting condoms on a banana. You watch some terrible video and nobody wants to talk about it again. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Getting the information out there and giving teachers the confidence to be able to share it is paramount. Then when that child comes up to them in the changing room saying ‘I can’t do it, I’m on my period’ the teacher can ask the right questions. What is it that’s making you not want to do it? Is it PMS? Do you just not want to do it? Is it confidence? And so on. The right questions lead to the right discussions and build healthy habits.”

“Periods also need to be more normalised at home as a discussion, with girls and mothers as well as sons and fathers. Then when the child says, ‘I don’t want to do PE today, I’m on my period’, it can start a healthy discussion, not an uncomfortable, clunky, awkward one. Perhaps schools should provide parents, when kids reach a certain age, with information to help have those discussions with their children.”

Contraception for managing periods in sport

Many female athletes take contraception to make their periods stop. What has been your experience?

“I used the pill for a while, that wasn’t great for me, so I changed to the implant. My GP said there was a chance that my periods would stop altogether with the implant. I thought that would be quite beneficial to me – that it would level things out across the months or across my cycle.

Low and behold, I found that with the implant I would get very light periods. For me, the feedback my body gave me that was that it wanted to have a period. I’ve since made the change to a progesterone-only pill (POP).

From the discussions over the years that I’ve had about contraception, I’d say that 95% of them have been with my regular GP rather than my sports doctor. I’ve mentioned in passing to the doctor that playing badminton is my job, but I’ve not really asked: ‘what does the research say? What would you recommend based on performance?’ It’s been more trial and error for me.

I think it’s partly a cultural issue. When I first moved to Milton Keynes, I was about 19 years old. I was still incredibly embarrassed and shy about talking about my periods even to a female doctor. At the time, I probably didn’t even consider it from a performance point of view. I just thought: ‘I’m a woman, I need contraception’.

That was more than 10 years ago now, and things have changed quite a lot. But I believe that, when female athletes are moving into full-time or professional sport, the doctor should lead the discussion, rather than the athlete. This is key in sports like gymnastics for instance, where there are 12-year-old athletes, who are just starting their periods. It may be that in their sport the discussion is more open, but it’s not something I’ve personally experienced. Hopefully, this is something that we can continue to move to change and normalise.”

Find out more about the Mooncup and get yours here.


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