Periods and performance: navigating your period as an athlete
This article was written with Dr Jana Pittman for the launch of our latest PUMA X Modibodi range.
When it comes to dealing with periods as a female athlete, Olympian and two-time World Champion, Jana Pittman, knows a thing or two. Here, she shares her experiences and challenges with periods, sport and uniforms.
Have you ever worn white or tight uniforms that made you feel uncomfortable about leaking when competing in sport on your period?
Many, many times! I started competing internationally at the age of 14 and had only just started menstruating, so my cycle was all over the place. I remember it vividly as in the same week I got caught out twice. The first I was just at an important pre-race training session when an unexpected moisture trickled down my leg. I had only had my period 2 weeks before so I thought it was sweat. I wiped it away with my gym towel only to see a smear of dark red.
I was training with only boys and to this day I am unsure if they noticed but it promptly had me running for the bathroom feigning sickness, and the session was wasted. Two days later was race day, I wasn’t yet comfy using tampons, so I rocked up with my maxi-pad and baggy shorts over my skimpy two-piece race suit. They called us to be marshalled so I dashed off to the loo, one glance in the mirror told me I couldn’t run with that wad in my briefs so wiped it out thinking surely it would be fine for 30 minutes. Nope, I leaked through my skin-coloured briefs right before the race even started.
Our starting position requires our bums in the air so there is no way it wasn’t noticed but my competitive spirit wouldn’t allow me to lose, and I ran one of my fastest times that year. This experience provokes two things for me: first, it dispels the myth that your performance is always worse when you are menstruating. Now don’t get me wrong some people have horrendous menstrual pain and bleeding which changes everything, but if you are like me and can manage with some simple analgesia it shouldn’t have to stop you playing. Secondly, I am a professional athlete with a massive work ethic and desire to win and even I skipped training in shame. Ok, I raced, but it took a huge amount of self-talk. An experience like this would greatly affect some kids and deter them from any sport.
From archaic sports codes to national team uniform fines, athletes are often told to keep playing sport on their period, when what they are told to wear makes it extremely uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing. What’s your take on this?
Luckily, we never had penalties placed on us, although I did object to wearing briefs about halfway through my career and thankfully, they listened and provided me with shorts.
By the time I was 18, I was using tampons, which in hindsight isn’t great either as many of the grounds we trained at didn’t have clean bathrooms. Perfect hygiene wasn’t always possible as there was rarely soap and hand sanitiser didn’t exist. I honestly wish I had the option of period shorts back then, the freedom it would have provided would have given me such peace.
Has the fear of leaking ever affected how you performed on your period?
It never affected how I performed, I refused to let it. But there were occasions when I thought my period was due so I would put a tampon in ‘just to be sure’ it wouldn’t embarrass me. This is quite uncomfortable and terrible for vaginal pH. When I was training heavily, my cycle could be irregular which meant many days of no flow but a tampon in. Period shorts or undies would have been a lifesaver.
What would you say to athletes who sit out of sport due to shame and the stigma of leaking through their uniform?
I would say: I hear you, but I wish I could help you reframe your shame into realising how beautiful your periods are. Your body is remarkable. Please don’t sit out, please rise and play so that we can reduce this stigma for the generations that come after us. Find solutions like the reusables that work for you and then be brave enough to share what worked so that others may follow in your footsteps.
Ready to take on the game without leaks? Check out our new PUMA X Modibodi range today.