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Q&A: Exercise & Your Period with Kelly McNulty

Posted by Kitty Sutherland on

Q&A: Exercise & Your Period with Kelly McNulty

Chatting to Kelly from her home in Newcastle, UK you instantly feel energised (even through the phone) by her passion for women's health and wellbeing - absolutely owning her area of interest which is the future of the female athlete. Her Instagram posts are constantly in our saved section and her support for female athletes and menstruators has us feeling proud to be in control of our cycle should we choose to be. There's loads to learn so we went for the basics. Jumping on her Instagram is a must if this is an area of interest for you.

Over to Kelly!

How did you start your educational and empowering platform period of the period and how has it been received? Have female athletes and recreational exercisers reached out openly? 

I'm a PHD student and my interests are mainly in the area of the female athlete. My research specifically is based around looking at the menstrual cycle and other aligning factors but the platform period of the period actually came about, as many new ventures did - as a result of the pandemic. I was running a big study - a beast of a study - it was looking at recovering from training within the menstrual cycle, it involved lots of face to face lab work so unfortunately came to a crushing end with covid. So my focus shifted! I realised that I wanted to be involved in making information accessible to the general population and translate some of the research that is already there. I've always felt a personal need to know more about my body and cycle and how it affects my performance and felt from my research that both female athletes and those that support them deserved to know more about the area. 

Exercising whilst on your period has long been almost discouraged when really it can often be beneficial? What is the consensus on exercise during menstruation and to the opposite scale - we menstruators must be able to perform better at a certain time during our cycle also? 

This is a great question. Obviously professional athletes can't take days off in accordance with their period but yes there is truth behind training better around your cycle. A bit of physiology first - so day one of your cycle begins on the first day of your period, and that's the result of shedding of the endometrial lining, that typically lasts 2-8 days. During this time our hormone levels (oestrogen and progesterone) are at their lowest. In some women, period symptoms appear like cramping, nausea, diarrhoea and exercise might not be on your to-do list but there are studies that favour the benefits of exercise on these symptoms so the general consensus is this: moving in some way can help with both mental and physical symptoms of menstruation. But there is no right or wrong way and again it's about listening to your body and your symptoms and then adapting your exercise as needed. 

I think it's also important to look at the fact that due to a lack of education in this area, we zone into the negative part of the cycle but we often forget that it's not just the period to look at, there's superpowers to unlock within the cycle - times where you can build more muscle, smash personal bests - it's just that we haven't been taught to recognise the good stuff! So I would like to bring awareness to that and also to encourage people to track their cycle in order to inform their decisions. 

For professional female athletes, how is research and new knowledge changing how they train? 

So for a long time sport has largely been designed for men, so the support applied for performance, training, nutrition has been based on what has successfully worked for men. We have now seen a massive rise in participation in sport from women, the problem is female-focused research is lacking. In fact there is a study that we all tend to cite that states of all the papers in the top three science, sports and medicine journals only 4% were done exclusively on women. So basically there's still not enough research but thankfully there is interest and more and more recognition for the female athlete. 

While there's still not enough support to answer that properly, we are getting there. It is encouraged that each athlete take responsibility personally of tracking their cycle and building their own data bank in which to maximise performance. 

You talk about hormonal contraceptives and their effect on performance. Are you able to sum up briefly what you feel needs to be talked about when it comes to contraceptives? 

One thing to note first is that there are so many contraceptives out there, and it's easy to get clouded into thinking they all do the same thing and have the same hormones however they have different hormonal profiles and even within the same type there's different hormonal profiles between brands. And because this hormonal profile is different from naturally menstruating females they have the potential to influence performance. Majority of work in this area is focused on the combined monobasic contraceptive pill as that's the most common amongst female athletes - which is a shame because the research just isn't broadly there. The effects on performance of contraceptives are still not understood however do appear to be very minor. Again it comes down to an individual response. 

Pelvic floor weakness is also one we have been asked to talk about more within the Tsuno community, obviously childbirth is the most well-known but still not talked about contributor but there are so many more reasons, as for athletes it can be an issue especially? Can you talk about your experience researching this and any advice you would share for those experiencing this issue? 

This isn't directly my area of expertise however I will be interviewing Umi Health (Dr. Helen Keeble, Dr, Amal Hassan and Elizabeth) on my podcast about pelvic floor dysfunction. Issues of dysfunction are commonly seen in female athletes, for instance there's a paper that I think roughly 40% of female athletes suffer from some form of dysfunction which highlights how important it is to be educating people on it, it needs for attention and conversation. In terms of advice I would absolutely recommend Umi Health - an amazing group of three women shining a light onto that area. 

Whilst these issues are common they're not normal so they do need to be treated - and treatment is usually easier than you think it will be. 

We loved your top five inspirational sports women of 2020, can you share one of your personal favourites? 

So every Wednesday we actually highlight more women in sport and their stories. There are so many but for me personally, one I grew up watching and is an all-time favourite is Jessica Ennis. She is someone who is both relatable while also being an incredible performer and athlete. She's just a great role model for both girls and women as well as for boys and men - who also need to be a big part of these conversations. 

You’re about to launch a podcast! What can listeners expect to get out of it and is it just for professional athletes?

Yes! It's been something I've been working on for about a year. It's required a lot of research but finally we have 10 episodes ready to launch this March - talking about everything from the menstrual cycle, breast support, pelvic floor health, female specific injury and nutrition. So many amazing episodes, I've been really lucky to have so many incredible guests and hope you all tune it ;)

Once again, follow Kelly on Instagram for content that has us hittin' that save on repeat. One of our favourites...


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