Time To Step Up The Research In Female Athlete Physiology


July 6, 2016


There are many heroines of elite sport: Serena Williams, Jessica Ennis, Lindsey Vonn, Sonia O’Sullivan to name a few. You would expect scientific research into the physiology of female athletes to match that of males, and indeed it is becoming standard that males and females should be equally represented in research with countries like Canada leading the way. However, the menstrual cycle means that research into female athletes has an additional complexity.

The powerful female hormones are cyclical, meaning that the physiological environment could be very different from one day to the next, potentially causing differences in the responses and adaptations to training. We don’t know this for sure, because the studies simply haven’t been done. This may be for good reason – it is time consuming and expensive to run trials that take into account the phases of the menstrual cycle. 

The ORRECO expert science network is campaigning for change, as illustrated by our editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine [1]. The editorial cites research showing a gap between the quantity of research being done with male and female athletes and highlights the parallel issues in the pharmaceutical industry where the number one reason for a drug to be recalled is a poor outcome in females because the initial studies did not account for sex differences in response to the drug. 

Bodyform’s red.fit hub (featuring ORRECO’s Georgie Buinvels) provides resources to help athletes understand how the menstrual cycle may be affecting their training, diet and sports performance, however it is acknowledged that this is based on scant scientific research: ‘It’s about getting people talking about this issue, and ending the taboo of the menstrual cycle in sport. Hopefully this will raise the quality and quantity of research in female athletes’ says Georgie. 

Occasionally we see a high profile athlete blaming their period for a poor performance. Surely our superstar athletes and those aspiring to be deserve better. 

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