Eilish McColgan column: “Why is menstruation still a taboo subject?”

Considering that nearly half of the population menstruates every month, it strikes me as odd that it’s still such a taboo topic in 2022.

Even more in the context of sport. As a professional athlete, performance is our number one task. But what if our own body is working against us that day?

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

Before Oslo earlier this season, I had only dropped out of two competitions. The dreaded DNF. And in both cases, the rules were the aggressor.

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

Some months it is manageable. The other months, it’s unbearable. We don’t know which Eilish you’re going to have that day. Trying to run, or at least doing to the best of my abilities, is an almost impossible task.

And after a bad result, I get devoured on social media by salon critics, giving their theories on why I am failure…

“I felt like Shamu the whale”

When I was young, I used to suffer excruciating cramps every month to the point that my body had a fever and started vomiting.

Going from hot to cold, I spent an entire day in bed feeling like death, before waking up the next morning as if nothing had happened.

I went to the doctors and they prescribed me the pill. It made me feel rotten. I cried almost every day and broke down at the slightest argument.

Considering I was rarely emotional, it felt like a big personality change and I didn’t like the way I felt, or the person the hormones were manipulating me. I quickly stopped the drug.

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

In 2019, while meeting in California, I posted on Instagram how my period got me to DNF. I couldn’t believe the overwhelmingly positive response from other women. Many felt alone in the face of this problem. And since it wasn’t something Olympic athletes talked about, most assumed it didn’t affect us.

I remember the race very well because I had paid a lot of money to attend – international flights, accommodation and race registration. All this amounted to a pretty sum. But it would be worth it to try to qualify for the next world championships.

My period was delayed a bit due to long-haul travel (another factor female athletes need to consider). So of course he decided to announce his arrival in good time while I was warming up for the race.

I took a dose of ibuprofen to calm my stomach cramps and raced to the start line. I felt like Shamu the whale and gave up after just five laps of a 25 lap race. I remember thinking “what a waste of money” and really fighting.

These qualifying races in the United States are notoriously late. Too late for the restaurants to be open. But we walked a few miles to the nearest McDonalds. We literally said a prayer when we arrived, but reality hit when they wouldn’t serve us without a car.

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

Luckily on the way back we found a 24 hour convenience store. I bought a family cake and it was worth every penny of the $8.99 it cost me.

“Should I just call the Olympics and ask them to postpone?”

It still fascinates me that a large majority of women struggle with their menstrual cycles every month, yet no one seems to have the answers. Even now, research regarding sports, in particular, is scarce.

I suspect it would be covered in much more detail if it were about men – especially our top male athletes. Can you imagine how many Premier League footballers would remain on the bench? Curled up in a ball, just waiting for the full-time whistle to go off so they could go home and sleep.

Periods can also be an additional injury risk. Muscle and tendon injuries are much more prevalent and this is the reason why many women’s teams in sports like hockey and soccer are now incorporating their athletes’ cycles into their training programs.

I know some sprinters, like Dina, avoid indoor work altogether because of this. In an event where power is king, I imagine it’s extremely frustrating to have to adapt your schedule. All. Only. 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 hamstrings. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way, but I hope the younger generation can learn from it.

In 2019, when I mentioned 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 was my time of the month and just schedule another race.

Like I could just call the Olympics and ask them to move my event to the next week to fit my cycle. The mind gets confused sometimes… but it also shows me the total lack of awareness that some people have.

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

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

If a person overtrains or runs out of fuel, the menstrual cycle is often the first thing to go. At least taking your period, even if I hate it, it gives some assurance that the body is healthy and in good energy balance.

This is one of the most important messages I want to pass on to young athletes.

One of the best things I’ve ever done was open up the conversation – not just between other professional athletes, but also online, to a larger community of women. Share experiences, listen to others and take advice.

There is still a lot of trial and error to find 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 will continue to keep this conversation open for the next generation of young female athletes, in the hope that one day we will get there.

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