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‘Why is menstruation still a taboo subject?’

Considering almost half the population menstruate every month, it seems odd to me that it’s still such a taboo subject in 2022.

Even more so within the context of sport. As a professional athlete, performing is our number one task. But what if our own bodies are working against us on that particular day?

Dina Asher-Smith talked about it after pulling out of the European Championships 100m with cramps on Tuesday, and I know first-hand how much periods can affect performance.

Before Oslo earlier this season, I’d only ever dropped out of two competitions. The dreaded DNF. And on both occasions, periods were the perpetrator.

The only way to describe it is that my legs feel like they have been replaced with concrete blocks. And that a screwdriver is carving out the Taj Mahal around my ovaries.

Some months, it’s manageable. Other months, it’s unbearable. There’s no telling which Eilish you’re going to get on the day. To try and run, or at least perform to the best of my ability, is an almost impossible task.

And after a bad result, I get eaten alive on social media by armchair critics, giving their theories as to why I’m the failure…

‘I felt like Shamu the whale’
As a youngster, I used to suffer excruciating cramps every month to the point where my body would go into a fever and start vomiting.

Flashing from hot-to-cold, I would have a full day in bed feeling like death, before waking up the following morning as if nothing had happened.

I went to the doctors and they prescribed the pill. It made me feel rotten. I was crying almost every day and snapping at the smallest of arguments.

Considering I was rarely emotional, it felt like a large swing in personality and I didn’t like the way I felt, or the person the hormones were manipulating me to be. I quickly stopped the medication.

For the next decade, I got on with it as best I could. As I got older, the vomiting stopped and my symptoms eased. Life was manageable but as I transitioned into elite athletics, the struggle became more evident as it translated into performances.

In 2019, while at a meet in California, I posted on Instagram about how my periods had caused me to DNF. I couldn’t believe the overwhelmingly positive response from other women. Many felt they were alone with this issue. And as it wasn’t something Olympic athletes spoke about, most assumed it didn’t affect us.

I remember the race so vividly because I had paid a lot of money to attend – international flights, accommodation and a race entry. It all added up to a pretty sum. But it would all be worth it to get a shot at qualifying for the upcoming World Championships.

My period was a little delayed because of the long-haul travel (another factor female athletes need to consider). So of course, it decided to announce its timely arrival while I was warming up for the race.

I took a load of Ibuprofen to settle my stomach cramps and shuffled over to the start line. I felt like Shamu the whale and dropped out after just five laps of a 25-lap race. I remember thinking, ‘what a waste of money’ and really beating myself up.

These qualifying races in the United States are notoriously late in the evening. Too late for any restaurants to be open. But we trekked a couple of miles to the nearest drive-through McDonalds. We literally said a prayer as we arrived but reality came knocking when they wouldn’t serve us without a car.

I sat in the car park, at stupid o’clock in the morning, and cried. Cried because we didn’t have a car, and because they wouldn’t serve us a Big Mac.

Luckily, on our way home we found a 24-hr grocery store. I bought a family-size cake and it was worth every cent of the $8.99 it cost me.

‘Should I just call the Olympics and ask them to reschedule?’
It still fascinates me that a large majority of women struggle with their menstrual cycles every month, and yet no one seems to have the answers. Even now, the research in regards to sport, especially, is sparse.

I presume it would be addressed in far more detail if it affected men – especially our top male athletes. Can you imagine how many Premier League footballers would be left on the bench? Curled up into a wee ball, just waiting for the full-time whistle to be blown so they can go home and sleep.

Periods can also be an added injury risk. Muscle and tendon injuries are far greater and it’s the reason why many of women’s teams in sports such as hockey and football are now accommodating their athletes’ cycles within their training programmes.

I know some sprinters, such as Dina, completely avoid gym work because of it. In an event where power is king, I imagine it’s hugely frustrating having to adapt your schedule. Every. Single. Month. But that’s the reality.

A few years ago, I made the mistake of training too hard during a certain phase of my cycle and ended up tearing my hamstring. It was a lesson I learned the hard way, but I hope the younger generation can learn from it.

In 2019, when I brought up how frustrating it is for periods to coincide with a major competition, a man replied on Twitter. His solution was to not bother competing when it’s my time of the month and to just schedule another race.

As if I could simply call up the Olympic Games and ask them to move my event to the following week to fit my cycle. The mind boggles sometimes… but it also just shows me the complete lack of awareness that some people have.

This shouldn’t be an embarrassing topic. Coaches, physiotherapists, teachers, parents, partners and friends – they all play a role in making this an open dialogue. We need to feel comfortable having this discussion.

A few professional athletes I’ve spoken to have stopped taking the hormonal pill after several years. They want to feel more in control of their bodies and to track their natural cycle.

If an individual is over-training or under-fuelling, the menstrual cycle is often the first thing to disappear. At least by taking a period, as much as I hate it, it gives some reassurance that the body is healthy and in a good energy balance.

That is one of the most important messages I want to get across to younger athletes.

One of the best things I ever did was open up the conversation – not only between other professional athletes but also online, to a larger community of women. Sharing experiences, listening to others and taking advice.

There is still a lot of trial and error in finding what works for each individual, but I personally feel much more educated on the subject than ever before.

I still don’t have all the answers I need, but I’ll continue to keep that conversation open for the next generation of young female athletes, in the hope that one day we do.

  • Eilish McColgan is a famous middle and long distance runner
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