Women in Sport – Abnormal Menstrual Cycles

The majority of women may never encounter any problem with their menstrual cycle whilst training for their sport. But with the escalating levels of more competition and pressure to succeed especially with the monetary rewards we are seeing more and more women suffering from “abnormal periods” or “dysfunctional cycles”.

Factors affecting menstrual cycle:

  • Exercise intensity
  • Energy imbalances
  • Training practices
  • Body weight & composition
  • Eating disorder behaviours
  • Physical and emotional stress

Signs of menstrual dysfunction:

Low Iron Levels – Women and girls may suffer decreased levels of iron due to heavy blood loss (even if nutritional intake is okay), symptoms of tiredness and performance levels drop.

Oligomenorrhoea – infrequent or light menstruation occurring at intervals at over 35 days and varying between 4 – 9 cycles per year.

Amenorrhoea – periods stops altogether for 6 months or longer. This may be due to stress, over training, malnutrition, or illness. It is also generally related to low body fat levels and in turn low female hormone levels.

Risks of menstrual dysfunction:

  • Fatigue
  • Frequent injuries particular risk to bones
  • Irritability and poor athletic performance
  • Increased psychological and emotional stress
  • Long term risk to immune function
  • Probable link to long term cardiovascular disease.

Studies show that the majority of elite sportswomen are unaware of the extend of the influence of their menstrual cycle and how it will and can effect their performance. If an athlete experiences a cessation of menstruation, she would need to examine (with her coach) the reasons why. One or a number of factors can lead to the irregular menstrual cycle and it is important for the long term health of the female athlete that these signs not be ignored.