There are a lot of articles out there that help athletes determine what gear they may need to participate in the races in their respective sports. I’ve read a lot of these articles, and I’ve noticed that there is always an item missing for female athletes: feminine hygiene products.
Maybe these items are left off of gear lists because it’s considered a “taboo” subject. Maybe the authors assume that female athletes know what they’re doing when it comes to managing control of their menstrual flow. I find this subject to be exactly the opposite of taboo, and after many years of talking to and coaching female athletes, I can assure you that many women do NOT know how best to manage their menstrual flow when racing.
At face value, it seems like this should be relatively straightforward: if a female knows how to manage her menstrual flow in everyday life, then she knows how to manage it in racing. However, racing logistics can present challenges for females that aren’t necessarily factors in everyday life: lack of bathroom facilities; limited gear (and storage for feminine hygiene products); skin-tight clothing that, even if dark in color, leaves no secrets. All of these things can make it harder for a female to manage her flow in racing.
Most female athletes will not plan their race seasons around their 28-day menstrual cycle; in fact, I’ve yet to meet one who does. As such, it’s possible that they will end up racing when they have their period. Many women will actually confess that this is one of their biggest fears and is particularly true of female triathletes. The swim component of triathlon presents a bit of a challenge, especially since races shorter than 70.3 distance usually don’t have bathrooms available in Transition.
Some female athletes who use birth control pills have told me that they’ll actually skip their placebo week if it falls during a race week just so they can avoid getting their period on race day. Other female athletes have told me they just pray throughout the race that their period won’t be too heavy and that they’ll make it through without anyone being the wiser.
It’s time to stop fearing this! Here’s a rundown of each way to manage menstrual flow and the pros and cons of each when racing:
Probably the most well-known feminine hygiene product, these are also the toughest to navigate when racing. They’re bulky to store, and they feel bulky when worn. The risk of leaks is high due to increased movement. Pads are almost impossible to wear in triathlon due to the swim (the water makes it hard for this product to stick) and because athletes wear cycling shorts.
Perhaps the most popular feminine hygiene product, these are a solid option for female athletes. They’re relatively small, and therefore easier to store in a pocket or pouch (such as an SPI Belt). They also block a woman’s flow, so they’re a bit easier to use in triathlon; even if a short-course athlete doesn’t have the opportunity to change it due to a lack of facilities in Transition or on the course, the tampon will likely stop or reduce most of her flow throughout the race. Long-course athletes must be sure to change them out; wearing a tampon too long can increase the risk of contracting toxic shock syndrome, a very rare, but serious disease. As a result, the downside to tampons is that the need to change them does add time to the athlete’s race time.
This is a lesser-known option for managing menstrual flow. Besides being the most budget and eco-friendly of these options (it’s reusable, so it’s a one-time cost), it’s also the most race-friendly. A menstrual cup creates a seal, which virtually eliminates the risk of leaks. It can also be worn longer than a tampon can be before it needs to be emptied. And since it’s reusable and can be emptied, there isn’t any need to carry spares or additional gear. Finally, it is unobtrusive and can be worn for all three events in a triathlon without the athlete feeling anything out of the ordinary while she’s racing.
As mentioned previously, some females will choose to structure when they take their birth control pills in such a way that they know they will not have their period for a goal race. Other females chose to use an intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control; this is a reversible, long-term birth control solution that also has a side effect of reducing or eliminating menstrual periods. Both of these methods should be discussed with a doctor prior to attempting them to ensure long-term gynecological and overall health and wellness.
While racing is the focus here because there are more variables outside of the athlete’s control in a race, it’s important to note that figuring out the best products and way to manage menstrual flow in training is just as important. This is especially true if the athlete is spending a lot of time in the pool or in the saddle on the bike; the last thing any female athlete wants to be dealing with is a leak or discomfort.
Like anything in training and racing, each athlete needs to determine what works best for her. But after talking to so many female athletes over the years (and being a female athlete myself), I can say with confidence that some form of feminine hygiene product should be on every race gear list. I also firmly believe that finding the right product and testing it out in training can cause a female athlete’s fears of having her period on race day to subside.
There isn’t any need to fear the flow! With the right gear and plan, a female athlete’s period won’t rule the day; she will.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.