The English team no longer plays in white shorts and the Irish are adapting their training accordingly. The menstrual cycle is also regularly referred to in injuries, but research into its influence has only started in recent years.
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Beth Mead, the best player and top scorer of the European Championship in 2022, had had enough. The English went to clothing sponsor Nike last year and asked for a color change of the outfit. “It’s nice to play all in white,” she explained. ”But sometimes, when it’s the time of the month, it’s not practical.” The action, supported by her teammates, had an effect: the English play in blue shorts at this World Cup.
But there’s another reason why it’s been more about menstruation and football players lately: injuries. Many players are missing from the World Cup due to torn cruciate ligaments, something that usually keeps them sidelined for almost an entire season. It happened to Beth Mead, as did her partner Vivianne Miedema. It is regularly associated with menstruation.
“The idea is that women are more susceptible to injuries in a certain phase of the cycle,” says Edwin Goedhart, KNVB’s federal physician. Before menstruation, muscle tension would be lower due to changes in the hormone system. The production of estrogen would also soften the tires themselves.
Vera Pauw, active as national coach of Ireland at the World Cup, is one of the forerunners in this field in women’s football. Her own serious injuries and those of players were the reason to delve into it. Often an injury occurred just before their period. But there is no hard evidence for a connection (yet).
“There is some research that is not very high quality,” Katrine Okholm Kryger, a lecturer in sports medicine at St Mary’s University in London, told the BBC. You should actually measure hormone levels and that is complicated, because saliva or blood must be examined for this.
Goedhart doubts whether a relationship will ever be proven, because so many other factors play a role. ”The construction, stress, fatigue, physical and mental, the attitude someone had,” he sums up. Or just a bad field.
Keep track of cycle
The American star Megan Rapinoe already pointed it out in a tweet in 2019: ”We had better know everything about it to maximize performance.” The Americans used the then new FitrWoman app, which tracked the cycle. Based on this, the training schedule and the nutrition of the players could be adjusted, among other things. Chelsea football club has been working with this since 2020.
The KNVB does not do that, even if the players have been with the national team for a long time, such as at this World Cup. ”We don’t see the added value of that,” explains Goedhart. Requests to the KNVB to speak to players about this subject were rejected, because they want to “concentrate on football”.
The national doctor is not in Australia and New Zealand himself, but he knows how the football players and staff deal with it. ”We monitor how the players feel every day, we do that with the women just like with the men. We take it into account, adjust training if necessary, but we do not explicitly look at the cycle, it is about whether someone has complaints.”
Structurally adapting the training to the phases in the cycles does not happen. With a group of 23 players, who are all different, who have many or few complaints during their menstruation, who do not all have their periods at the same time, who do or do not use contraception, that is also difficult to organize.
An additional problem, according to the Australian federal physician Jack Sharkey, is that the four different phases cannot always be distinguished precisely. The ‘phase-based training’, he says, is a buzzword and is ‘very difficult to apply in practice in a team’, says Sharkey in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Good for everyone
Athletes and trainers who do take this into account, such as Vera Pauw, point to the usefulness of additional exercises aimed at stability and coordination. ”But isn’t that just good for everyone?”, says Goedhart. ”I’m not against it, you just have to ask yourself: is it only in those few days? We actually already do those exercises as standard.”
The KNVB therefore takes menstruation into account, without putting a stamp on it. That may change if more is known about the influence of menstruation on performance and injuries. Research has only started in recent years, and in this area too, women have to catch up with men.
“It is good that there is more attention for it,” says Goedhart. On the other hand, there are also voices coming from women’s football to stop portraying women as vulnerable types, with increased chances of cruciate ligament injuries, concussions, menstruating that would make them perform less. It’s a lot about the limitations, while the footballers themselves have often already found a mode to deal with it.”
At the same time, football player Beth Mead’s demand for non-white trousers shows that the subject is still taboo. The fear of leakage is distracting. According to research from Nike, players around their period spend an average of the first nine minutes of a game on this.
”The Dutch football players have been playing at a high level for some time,” says Goedhart. According to him, there is no taboo on the subject in the Dutch team. They know when to adapt or not. And that it will eventually work against them if they don’t and don’t report it.”