The last great sporting taboo

Heather Watson broke the silence. Is elite athletes’ menstruation coming out of the closet?

The last great sporting taboo
Photo: All Over Press

“I think it’s just one of these things that I have – girl things.”
Those was the words that came out of British tennis player Heather Watson’s mouth when she crashed out of the Australian Open in 2015.
“Girl things.”
A rather vague formulation. Or as Karen Houppert, the author of “The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo, Menstruation”, puts it:
“It could have been something else, but we presume it’s her period. Periods are wrapped up in myth and magic and sexuality.”


And that’s a taboo, especially in the sporting world. Or as the British World Record holder in the marathon, Paula Radcliffe, tells Sport Executive: “Sport has not learned how to deal with elite athletes’ periods.”
Paula Radcliffe herself broke the world record in the marathon back 13 October 2002 while having her period:
“I tried to put it out of my head and not let it become an issue. It’s one of those things that can become a bigger issue if you let it,” Paula Radcliffe says.
“I broke the world record so it can’t be that much of a hindrance, but undoubtedly that’s why I had a cramped stomach in the final third of the race and didn’t feel as comfortable as I could’ve done.”

Doctors are men

According to Paula Radcliffe there is a lack of knowledge about elite athletes’ periods:
“Too often in sport, doctors are men and they don’t understand. You need more women who understand to give more evidence,” she says to Sport Executive.
She calls for more studies to be done on the impact of the menstrual cycle on female’s performances – drawing on the experience of elite athletes like herself. That is because the research in that area is quite limited, and even this limited research differs as to the impact menstruation has on sportswomen’s performances. In 2011, a study of female rowers tested their heart rates, oxygen consumption, power output, blood lactate levels and other measures of endurance, and found no variation in the results, regardless of where a woman was in her menstrual cycle. But Women in Sport commissioned its own research in 2010 and found “that in some circumstances, reduction in aerobic capacity and strength were exhibited”. And a study in Italy indicates that female football players may have a greater injury risk during their menstrual periods.


“There’s no conclusive evidence that it has a massive impact on performance but, at the same time, anecdotal evidence would suggest if you lose a significant amount of iron and you become anaemic your endurance performance will suffer,” professor of applied sport science at St. Mary’s University, John Brewer, explains to international media.
“But there is an issue that you might be slightly prone to injury because oestrogen is at peak level around the time of ovulation and that causes the tendons and ligaments to become lax and elastic,” John Brewer continues.
Therefore, St. Mary’s University has put a research team together to look at the impact of anaemia and iron deficiency non-anaemia on human performance. That study started in 2015.




British tennis player from Guernsey.

Turned pro 2010.

Current Ranking 64.

2 WTA titles: Hobart International in January 2015 and Japan Open in October 2012.


Born 17 December 1973 in Davenham, Cheshire, England.

Joined the Bedford and County Athletics Club at the age of 11.

World Record in Marathon and 10 Kilometres.

Has won the World Marathon Championships, World Half Marathon Championships, London Marathon, New York Marathon, Chicago Marathon and World Cross Country Championships long course.