Natoya Goule at the Birmingham Diamond League (© Getty Images)
by Natoya Goule
As a runner it’s something we get used to, sometimes it’s something we even enjoy, that feeling of being totally drained after a hard session or race, knowing you’ve given it your all.
But there are also times when it goes too far, when the body is running on empty and all the willpower in the world won’t make it go any faster.
For us women, that can happen as often as once a month, when your physical and mental state is dictated by your period. And it’s hard to explain that to strangers, to fans, the media, who might wonder why we’re suddenly running so much slower.
Believe me, I’ve been there.
The difficult thing is, it’s different for all women. Some get short, relatively painless periods, and it has little effect on their performances. Some experience long, agonising periods, when even the thought of going for an easy run is enough to make you exhausted.
There is no magic formula, no agreed approach in our sport about how to deal with menstruation, so the first step should be for us to talk about it.
When you run a bad race there are times you know, deep down, it was because of your period but often, as athletes, we are afraid to admit that. It’s still such a big taboo in the world of sport.
You’ll see people on social media discuss a performance, who assume you must be out of form, that maybe you gave up in the race or you’re not being professional enough in training. But that’s often far from the truth.
Some women have such strong periods, they suffer from bad pain for up to 10 days a month. I’m lucky to have mine for only five days, but even then it can be a big challenge.
As runners, we are so much more susceptible to things like anemia than the general population. Distance runners lose iron from the repetitive pounding of our footstrike in training, and that can be compounded by the onset of your period and the blood loss that comes with it.
That’s why, as a woman, it’s so important to speak to your doctor about things like iron levels and birth control, and it’s key that they have a good background working with athletes, because our needs are different to those of most people. A lot of athletes I know take birth control. I did, too, for a while when I was having bad periods, but I came off it when I realised what it was doing to my body.
Back during the 2015 indoor season I had been in really good form. That year I ran 2:01.64 to break the NCAA indoor championship record, but shortly after nationals my period pains got worse and it started to impact my training. It got so bad, I had to sit out reps at practice so I decided to go on birth control in order to try and keep the pains at bay.
It helped with the pain and although I could train properly again, gradually I felt my form deteriorating. I’d run 2:01 indoors and suddenly I was struggling to get near 2:03. At NCAAs outdoors I ran really bad. People said at the time it was because I went out hard, running the first lap in 56, but when I broke the indoor record I went out in 56 and still ran 2:01. So I looked at what changed during those few months and the one thing I kept coming back to was birth control.
It was June, about two weeks before the Jamaican Trials that I decided I had to get off it. I went to Kingston, ran 1:59.63 – a personal best – won the national title, and most importantly, finally felt like my old self again. That’s how big a difference it can make.
The following year I developed anemia from the loss of blood associated with my periods and it was the worst time. I was extremely tired every day. I would go to bed at my regular time and wake up at midday.
I used to always love doing 200s in training, but even they would leave me completely drained. I struggled on with it, and went to the World Indoor Championships in Portland hoping for the best. Instead I got the worst, finishing last in my heat in 2:08.
We did some blood testing soon after which showed that my iron was really, really low. At least then I had an answer. I started taking liquid iron and the impact it had was amazing: within a few weeks I was no longer tired the whole time and running really fast in my workouts.
However, while I managed to make sure my iron stores stay topped up – especially at that time of the month – I found my period still affected my performance and I’m still figuring out the best way to cope with it. For now, as soon as I feel my period is coming, I take a painkiller to limit the pain. It still affects me a bit after I run, but I’d rather that than what I had to deal with before.
There are a lot of other female athletes who have the same issues and when I see someone struggling, I always suggest to them to look into it more. Before it’s happened to you, you just do not know how much it affects you.
Unfortunately, a lot of coaches also still don’t talk to their athletes about the effects menstruation can have on training and performance – especially at high school and collegiate level. A lot of the time as a young woman it is difficult to talk about the changes in your body anyway, so to be faced with this unspoken problem can impact not only the way you feel about yourself, but also the way you feel about the sport and performance.
What helps a lot is when the men in your life can – or at least try – to understand. That’s not always easy for them to do, but I think they should try to be more sensitive about it. We don’t enjoy the mood swings or the pain, and for many of us women it’s really hard to go through, but fact is, we do go through it – every month.
I know the topic ’periods’ generally isn’t something men like to talk about, but if it has to do with women and sport, it is necessary to bring it up. We, as female athletes, see stuff brought up about us all the time that has nothing to do with our performance – our body shape, weight, size – and we have to deal with it. So when it comes to something that really does affect our performance, we need to bring it up, too – for every woman’s sake.
The first step to breaking a taboo, to make what’s perfectly normal seem just that, is that we talk about it.