Women athletes and their constant fight with menstrual cramps

Periods are a natural occurrence for women, and athletes representing their countries have to fight a bigger battle – bear the pain while playing.

Last Updated on July 12, 2022 by Team THIP

A woman’s body is a magic castle. It can bear the menstrual cramps every month, the severe labour pain, and once it gives birth, the breast provides natural nourishment for the infant. All the man versus woman debates seem insignificant amid such conversations as no man undergoes hormonal changes that can affect mood, mobility and agility.

Imagine if the woman is an athlete representing her country. She may get her periods during a race or a bout; very few athletes withdraw from such situations, and most of the time they fight with a smile on their faces.

Menstruation or the monthly shedding of the uterus lining can occur every 21 to 35 days. The blood flows from the uterus through the cervix to pass out of the body via the vagina. It usually lasts two to six days. The impact can vary, but the pain usually spreads from the stomach to the lower back region. 

Discussing periods was considered a taboo back in the day, especially in India. Not many athletes spoke about their predicament. Women worldwide have become vocal today. Chinese tennis player Zheng Qinwen, who had taken a set off Iga Swiatek in their French Open 2022 clash, blamed her periods for the eventual loss against the World No.1. 

The 19-year-old had to take a medical time out after being 3-0 down in the second. Following the 7-6, 0-6, 2-6 loss, she said, “I cannot play my tennis, (my) stomach was too painful. It’s just girls’ things, you know. The first day is always so tough, and then I have to do sport, and I always have so much pain on the first day. And I couldn’t go against my nature.

“I wish I could be a man on the court, but I cannot at that moment…I wish I could be a man (so) that I don’t have to suffer from this.”

THIP contacted a few Indian athletes to understand how they dealt with period pain while on their job. 

Camouflaged suit and strong mind

Alisha Abdullah

Chennai-based racer Alisha Abdullah remembered a race where she started to bleed in her car. Her mental strength got the better of the pain. “In racing, fatigue can cause pain too. So I was not sure which pain was it until I saw blood stains. Thank god my racing suit was red. It got completely stained. It was red and red. I didn’t even have a pad to control the bleeding. I know a lot of women who race and stain their suits. And there is nothing to feel bad about it. Somebody even asked what was on my suit. When I said blood, he thought I was joking,” she said.

Alisha stressed the importance of the mind to win the period battle. “It is all about the mind, and how much you can control it. I have been racing since I was eight. I think I did well in controlling the pain. It is painful because you are dealing with heavy gears.

“I bleed a lot, but you become strong in your body once you have a strong mind. If a woman can overcome this, she will not give up on anything in life,” she added.

Say no to tablets

Alisha highlighted how several athletes try to delay their periods by taking medicines. “That should be the last resort. I don’t prefer doing it unless it gets very stressful. Ninety per cent of the time I don’t do it. I feel it is not safe. I feel periods should be kept natural.”

Manna Patel

Swimmer Maana Patel echoed Alisha. The 22-year-old, who was part of the Indian contingent at the Tokyo Olympics, said period pain does affect performance. One has to accept it. “It is natural for women, and it will happen. I don’t believe in taking pills. It is part of me, and I will have to work around it. No situation is going to be ideal. You have to find a way. If you have a coach who can understand your problem, he can be a good moral support, but it is your battle at the end of the day,” she reasoned.

Maana underlined that menstrual cramps work differently in different people. “Every woman has a different tendency. The reactions can be different. Unfortunately, I have had periods during tournaments. I am used to it now. In May this year, I set the best Indian time at Canet (01:03.69) in the women’s 100m backstroke event despite period pain.”

Paddler Sutirtha Mukherjee does not mind painkillers for temporary relief to last an international game. It is difficult to focus on a ball that is smashed at you at lightning speed if under pain.

“All players will have injuries and niggles. You can pull a muscle or feel heavy on your hamstring during a game. I have started to treat period pains the same way. I am used to it. At times, you have no choice but to play. We try not to overthink the pain while playing because there is no time for it. We have to manage our minds,” said the table tennis star who was also part of the Games last year.

Yoga and other remedies

Manu Bhaker

Shooter Manu Bhaker highlighted the role of yoga and how moral support from her parents have helped. “I do regular yoga and meditation. It helps me tackle these problems, and my mother also gives me tips,” said the youngster, who was earlier into martial arts.

“It used to be difficult for me when I was in martial arts, a contact sport. But even then, I used to call my parents for a conversation, and that was it. They used to solve the problem,” said Manu.

Renowned strength and conditioning coach Ramji Srinivasan advises athletes to exercise, including yoga, to alleviate pain and cramps during periods. “If you exercise, you release happy hormones to counter the cramp-producing chemicals. It is a mood elevator through the production of endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine,” said Srinivasan, the former trainer of the Indian cricket team.

Srinivasan believes that dietary changes can relieve pain too. “Dark chocolates can be handy, along with anti-inflammatory food like cherries, blueberries, tomatoes, bell pepper, etc.”

From the footballer’s perspective

Indian Midfielder Dalima Chhibber says, “Football is a very physically demanding game. During periods and cramps it gets really hard to put in 100 per cent effort. So if I have training sessions that aren’t too important, I take it slow and light but I make sure to work out because that prepares me to be able to play games during my periods as I can’t escape those. But coaches, whether men or women, have now become very open to understanding and discussing the conditions of female athletes during menstruation and they try to give you rest, or let you take it easy for a day or two if the pain is too much.

My cramps are very painful in which my body feels exhausted, and out of energy. My stomach, lower back and hip flexors hurt a lot when I’m on my periods. For me, strength comes from my willingness to play, I prepare myself mentally to push through the pain for 90 minutes on the field.”

From days of keeping mum to gaining benefits such as light-training during period days is good progress for Indian athletes. It is fair to have expectations from sportspersons, but one must remember that they are human beings too. And they believe in the mantra of no pain, no gain. 

Try being a woman for a day, and you will forget the superheroes.

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