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SmartHER: EIS prioritising female athlete health

Mark Jamieson | 08 March 2019

The English Institute of Sport (EIS) has prioritised opening up conversations amongst athletes, coaches and staff in high performance sport around female athletes’ menstrual cycle and its possible effects, as well as offering expertise to help elite British female athletes be healthy, happy and deliver world class performances.

On International Women’s Day 2019, the EIS is laying out its SmartHER campaign – a wide ranging approach to female athlete health – aimed at being smarter in how it supports female athletes from a performance perspective as well as general health and wellbeing.

SmartHER is far reaching but Emma Ross, EIS Co-Head of Physiology, explains why there’s a need for advancement.

She said: “Through education, innovation, research and collaboration, we want to enhance our understanding of important factors such as the menstrual cycle and how it can impact on training and performance, how we can improve breast support in sport, as well as understanding the injury and illness risk in female athletes and how the EIS can help create environments where female athletes can thrive.

“We think these are critical factors in allowing British female athletes to be healthy, happy and to deliver world class performance.”

Sport reflects wider society and Emma explains that a reluctance to talk about menstrual cycles shouldn’t be surprising.

“In general society we are uncomfortable talking about things like periods, the menstrual cycle symptoms and breasts, so it’s no wonder that when you walk into the sporting environment the discomfort in talking about these areas carries on,” she added.

“We know how important female specific factors are when we are trying to understand a female athlete’s training, her health and her ability to perform optimally.

“Therefore, we have to open up conversations to make it comfortable. It’s important when we’re unpicking a female athlete’s health, wellbeing and performance to incorporate talking about things like the menstrual cycle, breast health, pelvic floor health and the best communication styles that suits a certain female athlete.

“It’s really important that these are part of performance conversations so we can really help female athletes to thrive in pursuing world class performance.”

Stage one of opening up conversations came in a series of 2018 roadshow events, aimed at coaches and wider support staff in the UK high performance system. The four workshops saw over 120 people attend to learn more about the possible performance impact that can be achieved by adjusting support or training routines.

The work the EIS is undertaking, alongside experts in numerous fields, is aiming to additionally help address the imbalance in how sport science research has largely focused on men.

Emma added: “We are passionate about the work we’re doing to improve the health and performance of our female athletes, but we are also really excited about the wider benefits that SmartHER might bring.

“If we empower our athletes, coaches and support teams with the knowledge and insight to really optimise performance in female athletes, this will provide inspirational role models for all the young girls and women who are participating in sport and exercise. We know that participation in sport and exercise contributes to healthier, happier and longer lives.”

Emma is leading SmartHER as part of an approach encompassing all support staff who work with athletes. She has delivered at the roadshow events alongside EIS colleagues Anita Biswas (Senior Sports Physician) and Richard Burden (Senior Physiologist), as well as world leading academics.

This month a roadshow series began for elite female athletes in the high performance system. Again, the series is designed to give athletes a space to talk openly and to learn.

What is the EIS doing?

• Specific roadshow events – for staff and athletes – to provide information on female physiology, menstrual health, hormonal contraception, RED-S, menstrual cycle monitoring and managing menstrual cycle symptoms
• Education for female athletes on optimal breast support during sport, and bespoke work with athletes and sports to find optimal sports bra solutions
• Additionally, the EIS is also undertaking athlete research projects, investigating the effects of the menstrual cycle, identifying new tech to monitor female hormones, and the optimal environment for female athletes to thrive