Mastering the menstrual cycle: How rugby is learning to use period power to improve performance

Wales players lined up during their national anthem before the Women's Six Nations match against Scotland
The Wales rugby union team uses an app to monitor players' menstrual cycle data - Reuters/Andrew Boyers

There is a reason why Eloise Hayward meticulously tracks her menstrual cycle. Four years ago, the Great Britain sevens player suffered extensive ankle ligament damage on the rugby pitch a couple of days before her period was due.

“In the warm-up I remember feeling a bit loose,” says Hayward. “There’s a fine line between feeling loose and primed and game-ready. During the match my ankle went.”

While Hayward admits her training load might have contributed to the injury – at the time she was flitting between rugby league in the summer and union in the winter – she is convinced the timing of her injury was more than coincidental.

Hayward, who recently signed with Leicester Tigers, was in the luteal phase of her menstrual cycle, the fourth and final stage of a woman’s cycle when levels of relaxin, a hormone known to increase ligamentous laxity, start to increase. While female athletes remain woefully understudied in sports science, there is a growing body of literature to suggest that the hormone heightens the risk of ligament injuries.

Hayward’s own injury was enough to pique her interest into how menstrual cycles impact athletic performance. The 24-year-old’s university dissertation, published earlier this year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, explored how elite women’s rugby players perceive menstrual cycle risk.

Fear of losing place if take time off

Of 150 elite rugby players from the two top English rugby divisions, the RFL Women’s Super League and Premiership Women’s Rugby in union, 90 per cent considered the menstrual cycle to negatively impact performance. On top of that, 86 per cent did not feel comfortable taking time off training because of their menstrual cycle for fear of losing their place in the squad or being affected by opinions from others.

Decreased appetite, nausea, fatigue, strength declines, heightened emotions and poorer focus were all experienced by players on their period.

“If you’re going into a tackle and you’re not fully committed to it because you’re in pain or have symptoms, or you’re psychologically not present, you’re more likely to get injured,” says Hayward, who described some of the anonymous comments from players as “mindblowing”.

One player said: “My coordination, power and endurance are worse and I’m more anxious and fearful of contact situations [when on her period].”

Anxiety around leaking through kit was also a prominent concern, with one player reporting: “White shorts can have a big impact as there is always a fear of leaking through clothes, but this fear is maximised when wearing white shorts. Also, the feeling of being unhygienic, having to go to the toilet several times before kick-off, it can be stressful to cope with on top of match day.”

Monitoring cycles in elite sport is a relatively new phenomenon but the practice is being increasingly linked to success on the field. The United States women’s football team made global headlines for implementing an innovative period tracking system, which was widely credited for their 2019 World Cup triumph.

England’s Lionesses harnessed the powers and pitfalls of periods during their victorious European Championship run in 2022, using the well-known FitrWoman app. The period tracking app is used by thousands of professional female athletes all around the world, from LPGA Tour players to athletes in America’s WNBA to Chelsea footballers.

In rugby, there has barely been the same forensic approach when it comes to monitoring menstrual cycles, but it is an area where the Welsh Rugby Union has invested. Last year, the union partnered with Vodafone and the mobile network giant provided landmark technology to the women’s team, allowing players’ menstrual cycle data to be monitored in granular detail.

‘It’s been massive for this player’

Unlike standard period tracking apps, Player Connect allows different variables such as mood and sleep levels to be cross-referenced with where a player is in her menstrual cycle. “The app has been brilliant in terms of correlating mood, energy and sleep alongside the phase so it gives us these brilliant graphs and output that we can see straight away to assess trends,” explains Jo Perkins, the WRU head women’s physio.

The app is only beneficial for players who are not on a contraceptive pill, which means, on the balance of probability, not every member of Wales’ 37-player Six Nations squad is benefiting from it. A quarter of 150 women surveyed in the BBC’s Elite British Sportswomen Study – published earlier this week – said they take a contraceptive pill specifically to control the impact their period has on their performance.

The app has nevertheless been transformative for some. Perkins told Telegraph Sport of one player who was reporting fatigue, illness, low mood and low energy at the same point during her cycle for four to five months.

“The app allowed us to intervene in that phase with an increase in carbohydrates and cooling strategies, such as ice towels, cooler drinks and cooler rooms to help sleep,” says Perkins. “This resulted in a player feeling better and most importantly their wellness in that moment. It’s been massive for this player.”

The use of such fem tech is not yet common across the game and Hayward is adamant more can be done at domestic level to empower women with knowledge about their menstrual cycle so they can tailor their training accordingly.

“At clubs I’ve been at, there have been questions about if we’re on our period or having symptoms,” says Hayward. “That’s really good, but what are clubs doing with that information? It’s only two questions. Could they fund a year’s subscription to a menstrual cycle app?”

Rugby is starting to harness period power, but there is still a way to go across the game.