Let’s talk about periods: how research and apps help female footballers | Women’s football

Welcome to Moving the Goalposts, the Guardian’s free women’s football newsletter. Here’s an extract from this week’s edition. To receive the full version once a week, just pop your email in below:

Periods – almost 50% of the population experience them and yet, both in normal life and elite level sport, they have traditionally been something you don’t talk about out loud.

Young girls grow up not understanding what is really happening to their bodies, the increased self-consciousness that comes with it often pushing them away from sport. Until recently, this lack of knowledge has been similar for elite athletes. Their lives and careers depend on their bodies being able to reach optimum levels and remaining injury-free. The menstrual cycle can affect everything from mood to balance and the strength of your muscles and are, for many, accompanied by pain that drifts between uncomfortable to excruciating.

In women’s football – due to its relatively new professionalisation and the fact that most research is done around men’s bodies – conversations have only recently started around how to optimise training for players. Chelsea have been frontrunners, with the manager, Emma Hayes, a leading voice on the subject. Since 2020, the club have been using a tracking app, among other things, that allows them to design training and nutrition around their players’ individual needs.

Beth England has been one of those to benefit hugely from this forward thinking. The striker struggled with her periods to the point that it hampered her ability to train. “I used to suffer severely to the point I would be bed-bound, curled up in agony and constantly crying through the pain,” she tells Moving the Goalposts. “At times, I had to leave a session. It wasn’t until I was 21 that Chelsea helped me by sending me to a specialist who diagnosed me with endometriosis. From this, I’ve had two surgeries and had two Mirena coils fitted to help balance my period and the pain that comes with it.”

“Understanding the way my cycle works and the changes/impacts it has on my body is huge,” she continues. “Little things from knowing when your body is at its strongest or weakest point can help aid with training load/intensity to ensure you’re not putting any unnecessary risk on it. In terms of day-to-day, I know which foods help lower my pain or even why my sleep is affected so much.”

Several top-level clubs have implemented similar techniques, as have national teams including England and the USA. However, the same cannot be said for all levels of the women’s game. Recent research from Staffordshire University showed that periods and pregnancy were still taboo in the sport; 69% of the 1,100 players, coaches and managers interviewed from grassroots to elite level said that education on the menstrual cycle was “not at all” provided at their clubs. Additionally, talking to coaches, especially male staff, was found to be particularly challenging.

Emma Hayes with Sam Kerr after last season’s FA Cup final
Emma Hayes with Sam Kerr after last season’s FA Cup final. The Chelsea manager is a leading advocate for tracking apps. Photograph: Naomi Baker/The FA/Getty Images

It is, therefore, necessary to bring everyone at a club along on the educational process. At Chelsea, England says that all the coaching staff are involved and able to provide support. “I feel like with Emma [Hayes] at the forefront in helping us know our bodies more – and for myself, in particular, going through the same process Emma has with her endometriosis – the girls in our team have become accustomed to the male staff members knowing all about our individuals cycles and helping us,” she says. “The staff at Chelsea, both male and female, have been amazing for us in their understanding and willingness to help protect our bodies more. So for Chelsea there’s been huge impact for the girls, and we also have the same person helping with the England national team too.”

Increased research is needed to improve understanding. “More needs to be done across all sports for women to give them the support [they need],” says England. “Everyone’s bodies are different and react differently whether that’s pain, weight fluctuations, appetites and even sleeping patterns. Women’s football now is on a platform bigger than it’s ever been and … the importance of understanding our bodies is higher than ever.”

Things are changing and more research will surely come. In addition, conversations are expanding to how to generally improve the lives of athletes. This season in England, Manchester City, West Brom and Stoke are among the teams who have decided to no longer wear white shorts to make their players more comfortable and, therefore, increase their ability to perform. Many more will surely follow suit as knowledge increases around a topic that finally is no longer hidden in the shadows.

This week has served up some superb strikes around the world. The pick of the bunch was perhaps this brilliant solo effort from Tigres Unal’s Lizbeth Ovalle that saw her side take a 1-0 victory in the first leg final of the Liga MX Femenil.

Got a question for our writers – or want to suggest a topic to cover? Get in touch by emailing moving.goalposts@theguardian.com or adding a comment below.

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