Bridging the gender gap in sports science research
In August 2022, when world-class runner Dina Asher-Smith spectacularly slowed down halfway into the women’s 100-metre final at the European Championships, she revealed that cramps related to her period caused her to stop running. She went on to highlight the fact that menstrual cycles have a huge impact on the performance of female athletes, and yet, very little research has been conducted to examine its influence.
“More people need to research it from a sports science perspective, because it’s absolutely huge,” explained Asher-Smith, who was later praised for shattering the “taboo” around periods in sport. “I feel like if it was a men’s issue, there would be a million different ways to combat things, but with women I just think there needs to be more funding in this area.”
Around the same time, a group of Australia’s leading sports scientists were gathered in Canberra for the Female Athlete Research Camp, a collaboration between ACU and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) aimed at exploring the interplay between periods and physical performance in athletes. Participants in the program tracked their menstrual cycles while researchers analysed their performance, as well as sleep, nutrition, recovery and strength.
Among the 12 researchers involved in the program was ACU’s Dr Jonathon Weakley. Studies exploring the link between the menstrual cycle and performance are rare, he says, because they’re inherently difficult, with many variables to account for.
“When research is this hard, people just don’t do it,” says Dr Weakley, a lecturer at the Sports Performance, Recovery, Injury and New Technologies (SPRINT) Research Centre.
“We tend to say, ‘Oh, it’s too challenging. It costs too much. We can’t control this or that.’ So what we’ve done historically is apply the male research to females and say, ‘Oh, we’ll just forget the differences in physiological characteristics or anatomy, and we’ll just use the male-based research across the board.’ We’ve essentially put females into the too-hard basket.”
The fact that women are underrepresented in exercise science studies is well-established, and research on the effect of the menstrual cycle is particularly scant.
What we do know is that hormonal changes experienced through different phases of the cycle can affect a range of health variables, manifesting in symptoms that can potentially impact performance and general wellbeing.
PhD students Gabriella Munteanu and Madison Pearson.
That said, the variation between individuals is huge, and researchers also have to account for issues like the use of hormonal contraceptives. To quote ACU’s Professor Louise Burke, a leading sports nutrition expert, “For every female that says, ‘I don’t perform so well when I have my period’, there will be one who says, ‘That’s when I perform best or that’s when I won my gold medal’.”
When all of these hurdles are considered, it is easy to see why so few studies have delved into this subject. However, a group of exercise scientists at the SPRINT Research Centre have taken the challenge upon themselves, aiming to shed new light on the effects of the menstrual cycle on the physical performance of female athletes.
“At some point, somebody has to stand up and say, ‘This needs to be studied, and if not us, then who?’” says Dr Weakley, who is the supervisor of two PhD candidates currently engaged in research on this topic.
“We know that women are different – they’re not just smaller men – so we want to lead from the front and say, ‘We’re going to do the research and we’re going for the gold standard, the pinnacle of sports science research in females. We’re going to use proper hormonal verification, do world-class training and testing, and analyse the responses, and by doing all of that, we’re already doing the things that most other researchers haven’t done.”
Among those on the frontline of this endeavour is Gabriella Munteanu, a PhD student who was nearing the end of her online Master of High Performance Sport when she started to explore potential topics for future study.
Having already engaged in research on resistance training, a major area of both professional and personal interest, she started to explore the literature on the menstrual cycle. This, along with her own experiences, led her to ask deeper questions about the gaps in the research.
“When I looked into the existing studies on how the menstrual cycle might affect exercise performance and adaptive responses to resistance training, it became really clear that the research was either non-existent or of low quality,” says Ms Munteanu, who also has a Bachelor of Biomedical Science and a Graduate Certificate in High Performance Sport under her belt.
“It’s a challenging area of study but it’s also really exciting to put my hand up and start exploring those links. Not only is it an interesting topic and one that I’m really passionate about, it’s also hugely important because the menstrual cycle is such a fundamental part of being a woman.”
Gabriella’s PhD research will investigate the effects of three distinct resistance training methods on a range of variables like performance, sleep, recovery, wellbeing, and adaptation.
“We know that the natural hormone fluctuations that occur across the menstrual cycle can influence a range of physiological systems like metabolism and neuromuscular performance, and can also cause a range of symptoms like fatigue or cramps which can influence a woman’s willingness or ability to train,” says Ms Munteanu, who is currently seeking further participants for the program. “The question is, how can we account for these factors within our training prescription and potentially optimise results for physically-active females and female-athlete populations?”
Participants in the program will likely see short-term health and performance benefits, she adds, simply through the extra information gained by tracking their menstrual cycle and associated symptoms, and monitoring performance, sleep and overall wellbeing.
In the long term, the project will provide insights on whether modifying training according to menstrual cycle phase or symptoms can improve physical performance, and will be the first-ever to assess whether these methods of training prescription can be of benefit.
“That’s where this research is really spectacular, because we are going into much greater detail than previous studies,” says Dr Weakley, who is supervising the research alongside Professor Shona Halson, Deputy Director at SPRINT and a leading researcher in sleep and recovery.
“We are going into the detail of monitoring changes in participant hormones and properly assessing when ovulation occurs, and that means we can manipulate the training with greater certainty. On top of that, we’re looking at the whole athlete and assessing all these different variables in the context of a real-world training program.”
Along with Ms Munteanu’s research, Dr Weakley and Professor Halson are supervising similarly ground-breaking research by PhD candidate Madison Pearson, whose project will explore the variations in sleep, performance and recovery that can be expected across the menstrual cycle. The project’s overall aim is to enable female athletes to make better informed decisions in relation to their performance and overall health.
“This is world-class research that Madi and Gabbi are engaged in, and even to get to this point has taken years of preparation,” says Dr Weakley, who has more than 100 peer-reviewed publications on the topics of strength and conditioning and sports science. “It’s incredibly complex, so to see female athletes come through the doors of the lab in Brisbane for testing, that’s hugely exciting and we look forward to sharing the results.”
On paper, these two projects and ACU’s collaboration with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) are all about expanding the knowledge base on the links between the menstrual cycle and physical performance. More broadly, however, the goal of these researchers is to play a role in bridging the gender gap in exercise science research.
“We’re playing catch-up,” Dr Weakley says, “and if we really want to address the wide gender disparity in sports science research, we need to take females out of the too-hard basket and finally start tackling some of the questions that have for too long been avoided.”
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Find out more about the SPRINT Research Centre’s projects and programs.