Surfing the crimson tide: menstruation and sports

All the signs were there.  The bloating, the zits that sprouted overnight on my t-zone.  But it wasn’t until the next morning, when I started cramping and noticed red spots of blood that I realized I was about to start my period.

Normally, I take two naproxen, then use this as an excuse to cuddle up with my heating pad and a good book, but I’d already paid my race fees, and besides, I wasn’t about to bail on my first race of the season!  So instead, I popped my naproxen, took care of my business and went out the door.  (Sorry if I’m squicking anyone out.  Actually, no, I’m not.)

Fortunately for me, I started re-reading “The Frailty Myth” by Colette Dowling Saturday afternoon, and in her first chapter, she recounts the story of Uta Pippig and the 1996 Boston Marathon:

The race was a dramatic one to begin with, as Pippig was favored to win a third time, which would be a first. But adding to the drama was “the unprecedented obviousness” of her menstrual bleeding and pain, Elizabeth Kissling wrote in Sociology of Sport Journal. “The runner’s period began early in the race, and throughout it she suffered cramps and severe diarrhea.”

Dowling then goes on to talk about the bashful way in which the sports media addressed the fact that Pippig was running through the streets of Boston with blood and other effluvia running in rivulets down her legs.

Even the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, who never struck me as likely to pull punches in all the times I heard him on WEEI, was rather circumspect on the matter:

Little problems. There is no delicate way to put this. Pippig had female issues at the worst possible time. She was in pain. She was a mess. And she thought about dropping out of the race.

But what makes this story legendary is not that Pippig had her period during the race, or that she pooped on herself.  (I once ran behind a woman whose shorts were smeared with poo.  It happens.)  What makes it amazing is that she pushed through and won anyway, with a time of 2:27:12.

Here, check her out:

File under "Does Not Give a Fuck"

So rather than letting my anatomy defeat me psychologically, I thought of Uta Pippig as I warmed up.  I thought of her running like a gazelle with blood running down her legs, and I realized that, if she could run a marathon like that, there is no reason I couldn’t run a dinky 5k with some piddly little cramps.  And a curious thing happened as I jogged around the park and stretched – my cramps disappeared.  They stayed gone for the rest of my warm-up, during the 5K, which was a hilly little thing run on trails and boardwalks, all the way through my final sprint across the finish line.

It was only when I was filling out my timing card – and noticed my time of 23:26 was good enough for second in my age group! And the sixth woman overall! – that the cramps came back with a vengeance.  I grabbed a Diet Coke and scurried to the tennis court, where I sat down in the shade and tried hard not to visibly grimace.  Even so, I couldn’t help but feel like a little bit of a bad-ass.  I wondered what all of the guys I’d passed on those hills would think if they knew they’d been smoked by a lady who was on the rag.

I’m pretty lucky when it comes to this topic.  For instance, I’ve not been cursed with a condition like endometriosis or something similar, which has been known to leave sufferers curled up like potato bugs on the floors of their bathrooms.   For most of us who menstruate, our periods are little more an inconvenience and an irritation, but for some of us, it is a seriously major problem.

And then there is the not-insignificant matter of technology.  Playing sports is easy now with things like tampons, Divacups and sea sponges.  But can you imagine doing that with wadded up rags in your underwear?  Or even one of those ridiculous belt get-ups that look more like medical-fetish gear than something to be worn for practical purposes?  Or hell, even a thick maxipad?

It also helps that I live in a time when exercise physiologists, coaches and doctors no longer give the oh-so-helpful advice to back off athletics during menstruation, or even worse, to just give up on this whole sporting thing altogether less I destroy my fertility and hence my whole purpose for existing.

I grew up back in the early ’90s, and all of those little informational pamphlets from hygiene companies that came with my period starter kits stressed that having my period was not something that should keep me from playing sports or being active.  Of course, this didn’t prevent seemingly every girl I knew from trying to use her period as an excuse to get out of gym.  (I have to say, I rarely saw any of the girls on my sports teams cite their period as a reason for not playing or working hard during practice.)

And nowadays, even though you do see some researchers expressing concerns that people* who play sports while menstruating have a greater chance of tearing their ACL due to increased flexibility of tendons and ligaments, or that lowered levels of oestrogen, which affects perception of pain, could mean an athlete is more likely to report an injury, you rarely hear that these are things that should keep athletes off their feet.  Instead, coaches and athletes often work together to find ways to accommodate changes caused by biochemical fluctations, such as using oral contraceptives to regulate the cycle and even delay the period until after a major competition.

I’ve heard some say that this is just a form of concern-trolling, that researchers who put this information out there are trying to scare women away from sports by either saying they will risk their health or, in the case of athletes with amenorrhea, their fertility.  I don’t know if I agree with this, if only because the researchers rarely recommend stopping or even slowing down athletic activity.  Instead, they often offer suggestions to help avoid potential health issues, like bone density loss or torn tendons.  While it’s true that a lot of “health advice” is often offered in an attempt to preserve some kind of sociocultural status quo and that it should be considered with a healthy (ha!) dose of skepticism, I think it’s equally problematic to write off all health and fitness advice as politically suspect.

When you look at this in a longer-range historical view, it’s easy to see how far we’ve come over the past few decades in when it comes to discussions of menstruation and sports.  It’s a tremendous step forward from the days when women (well-to-do white women, of course – no one seemed to care much about the fertility of other women, except maybe how best to curtail it) were instructed to do nothing more strenuous than leisurely walks, a corset-restricted game of tennis or some housework.**

When I think about it in these terms, it becomes hard to complain about the so-called curse.  Sure, it can be totally annoying, and it would be excellent if it didn’t affect my body at all, but at the same time, I am grateful to live in a day and age when I can go out and bust a 23-minute 5K while cramping and bleeding, and no one is going to insist I do otherwise.

If anything, it’s not evidence of my frailty and my weakness as a woman.  It’s just further proof of how tough I can be.

*I’m using “people” in place of “women” because, hey, not all women menstruate and not all who menstruate are women.

** I’m going to write more about this when I start live-blogging “The Frailty Myth” at the end of this week.

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2 responses to “Surfing the crimson tide: menstruation and sports

  1. This post brought me back to highschool when I raced- and won- my mountain bike wearing a giant overnight maxi pad. I must have run out of normal pads and worn one of my mom’s jumbo overnighters that day. I was planning on changing to a tampon before the race, but we were late and so all the racers had to change in a crowded, co-ed van. Not exactly the best environment to swap out a pad for a tampon. So, I bit the bullet and threw my spandex on over my giant pad and went for it. I won by quite a bit that day! I also had fun talking to the other woman-racers about it after the race. Camaraderie!

    Just wanted to share. Love that picture of Pippig.

    • That is so rad! And a big, thick maxi pad, no less. I bow in awe.

      Come to think of it, did the extra padding end up helping with any crotch-related soreness from riding? I’ve heard female cyclists say they’ll wear pads when they ride, regardless of whether or not they are on their period, because the padding helps ease the pressure.

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