In this blog series we look at Orreco’s involvement in different areas of research being done around the topic of the menstrual cycle and the female athlete.
First up is PhD student Andy McGeever who is looking into sleep and its impact on the menstrual cycle and performance. Andy is just over a year in studying at the Atlantic Technological University (ATU) Donegal, in Ireland. His research is being funded via a collaboration between Orreco and the university.
Firstly, we asked Andy what fuelled his interest in the female athlete and the menstrual cycle.
“I’ve been coaching basketball since I was 15 and it’s always been on the female side of things. I always had an interest in the female athlete and when this opportunity came up to get into research and add to this area I thought it was super interesting and looking at the impact you can have, not only on performance but on the health and wellbeing of female athletes was really attractive to me.”
So why the area of sleep?
“Sleep has been shown to have performance implications, and more severe menstrual cycle symptoms have been shown to impact sleep. However, very few studies of female athletes' sleep have taken the menstrual cycle into account.
“Looking at sleep and performance through the lens of the menstrual cycle phases will hopefully enable us to identify methods in which we can minimise sleep disruption and enable our athletes to be available to perform at their best.”
Despite the research showing that sleep has performance implications, Andy acknowledges that getting good sleep can be a more difficult task for athletes than the general population.
“Athletes have more blockages to achieving optimal sleep and therefore recovery, especially if you think of things at the elite end for example, travel schedules and competition, early mornings and late night training sessions, and if you look at female athletes who are underfunded, they might have to work alongside their training and competition- there’s a lot of stressors there so it’s important we take a real deep dive into female athletes and sleep and how that changes across the menstrual cycle.”
In his proposed methodology, Andy will be attempting to examine sleep using Oura rings, looking at the amount of sleep, how long it takes subjects to fall asleep and whether athletes wake up in the night, while combining this data with sleep diaries.
“They will also track their cycle using the Fitr app, including their symptoms and when their period comes over the course of three cycles so we can start to get an idea of their menstrual regularity. We’ll also test for ovulation by measuring hormones in urine samples.”
However, as preached often by the Fitr and Female AthleteConsultancy team at Orreco, every athlete and every cycle is highly individualised so drawing conclusions from findings has to be done with care, as Andy suggests:
“It’s hugely individual when it comes to symptoms and one month someone could have all of these symptoms, impacted by life stressors and environmental factors but it’s important to try and correlate something to see what might bring these symptoms on. Through this research I hope to see if there are different trends within the phases.
“From a practical implications point of view, ideally you want to track and monitor an athlete over a certain amount of time to be able to correlate different things with the sleep disruptions such as an impact on their recovery and their menstrual cycle. If you collected enough data from an athlete, you can then put strategies in place such as telling an athlete to need to spend 11 hours in bed, or other physical recovery strategies or nutrition.”
With the knock-on effect sleep has on performance, Andy explains how performance will be measured in his research.
“Performance is split into four areas- sport specific, cognitive, physical readiness/availability, and mood/well-being- they’re all linked and not only important to the ability to perform optimally but quality of life in general.”