Menstruation is a highly delicate, hormonally dependent process in the female body — kind of like a tightrope walk. Everything from diet to exercise to mood can affect a woman's period, which is why so many athletes can potentially have problems with their menstrual cycle when training gets particularly intense. If you've ever wondered how training affects an Olympic athlete's period, the answer is relatively simple: Any type of excessive cardio or activity can absolutely affect your menstrual cycle.
While the Olympics always take place every four years, your period's schedule can be far less predictable, especially if you're putting a ton of stress on your body with multiple training sessions and workouts every day. When you're a highly competitive athlete (even if you're not necessarily on the Olympic level), your body can change its hormonal output, among other things, as a response to your level of training.
There's no official data on just how many female Olympic athletes have irregular periods (or no periods whatsoever) while they're training, but the history of athletics interfering with menstrual cycles is well-documented, and in some cases, the inconsistencies in a woman's menstrual cycle persist even after they're done training. The specific condition that can affect such athletes is called amenorrhea, which is defined as the absence of a period, or when you have no more than three consecutive period cycles in a row.
Female athletes prone to amenorrhea include gymnasts, ballerinas, and long-distance runners.
There are three specific factors that can contribute to the loss of a period for intensive athletes: inadequate nutrition, excessive exercise, and emotional stress. Keep in mind, you don't need to experience all three factors at the same time for your period to stop.
When you place a ton of stress on your body, the female hormones estrogen and progesterone can trickle to a halt, and as a result, your period may simply stop coming each month. Moreover, estrogen is also responsible for the formation of your breasts, butt, and other curvy areas, while testosterone encourages a lean, muscular physique. So, when female athletes lose estrogen production, their bodies can become less curvy and more flat overall.
Look, I know the idea of not having to deal with a period sounds fantastic in theory. But the reality is that it's not a good thing at all, because losing your period is often a sign that you're placing way too much stress on your body.
Another cause of menstruation loss in athletes is an unhealthy amount of weight loss. Many sports encourage athletes to have as close to zero body fat as possible, which can, of course, lead to massive, negative side effects for your health in the long-term.
Of course, plenty of Olympic athletes have no problem at all with their period — that is, except for the stigma.
Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui is one athlete who was amazingly honest about the realities of competing while on her period. After completing the 4x100 relay with her team, she lamented her performance. Her period had started the night before, and she told reporters, "I'm feeling pretty weak and really tired. But this isn't an excuse. At the end of the day I just didn't swim very well."
It's important to note that Olympic athletes are constantly paying attention to their bodies as a way to enhance performance. They generally have a full medical staff to make sure that they're as healthy as possible while they pursue their passion, so if they're having inconsistencies with their period, they're (hopefully) staying on top of that problem and doing as much as possible to ensure that they're getting the proper nutrition and care for their bodies.
If your period is inconsistent, though, that doesn't necessarily mean something is seriously wrong.
Menstrual cycles don't always follow a fixed 28-day clock. They can be affected by travel, emotional stress, lifestyle changes, and more, so there's no reason to ring the alarm if you notice small changes in your period.
However, if your period disappears altogether, or is extremely erratic for several months, you should definitely contact your doctor to make sure that you're getting the proper nutrients and that you're not putting an excessive amount of stress on your body.
It's not just Olympic athletes who have to pay attention to their menstrual cycle. You should always be on top of what's going on with your body, and advocate for yourself when you notice a change.