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Supporting female performance in sport and fitness
Supporting female performance in sport and fitness

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4 How does the menstrual cycle impact performance?

As you’ve seen, the primary functions of oestrogen and progesterone are to support reproduction. However, the changing levels of these two hormones across the menstrual cycle have a complex range of effects on the cardiovascular, respiratory, metabolic and muscular systems (McNulty et al., 2020). All these systems play important roles in athletic performance.

Before you look at the research into the impact of these fluctuating hormones on athletic performance, it is useful to explore athlete’s individual experiences. In Activity 4 you’ll hear from 2022 Commonwealth Games 10,000m champion, Eilish McColgan, who is coached by her mother, Liz McColgan-Nuttall, who herself was 10,000m Commonwealth Games champion in 1986 and 1990.

Activity 4 I honestly thought I was dying!

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Listen to an extract from the Female Athlete Podcast at the link below where Eilish McColgan explains how her performance can be affected by the different stages of her menstrual cycle. Then answer the following questions:

  1. How has Eilish’s performance been affected by her menstrual cycle?
  2. What symptoms did she experience?

Eilish McColgan [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] : listen from 24:38 (‘So also on this podcast we like to talk about the menstrual cycle...’) to 30:16 (‘… I can’t do this anymore’).

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  1. Eilish talks about how her performance dropped significantly when her period was delayed; she recorded times up to 9 seconds slower during this time. In addition to her decrement in performance Eilish also says that the only times she has dropped out of races was due to menstrual symptoms and this has happened twice.
  2. Eilish clarifies that symptoms can change from one day to the next and on bad days these include heavy legs, stomach cramps and lower back pain.

In addition to the symptoms Eilish experiences, Sims (2016) identifies bloating, muscle cramps, feeling hotter, stomach upsets, headaches and changes in mood as symptoms that can occur at different stages of the menstrual cycle. Following her success at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships in 2022, Eilish spoke out about how the menstrual cycle should be discussed more: Why is menstruation still a taboo subject?