The following is a book excerpt from Daughters of Distance: Stories of Women in Endurance Sports. Get the full book or download a sample on Amazon. Remember to leave an Amazon review.
One thing that hasn’t changed after all these years is the implication that there’s something filthy about the vagina and the blood that comes out of it. In fact, menstrual blood is no different or dirtier than any other blood and a healthy vagina is one of the cleanest spots on the body. (If you’re looking for something filthy, check your mouth, which is statistically dirtier than your anus.)
Still, the difficulties of getting your period as an athlete are very real. Out of all the negatives mentioned by female endurance athletes about being a woman in sport, these monthly visits were the #1 downfall.
When I spoke to women about their periods, many would guide the conversation to one sub-topic: bleeding responsibly.
What were the effects of menstruation products on the environment, and what could they do to eliminate or reduce this footprint? It was a serious concern for females who felt passionate about the outdoors and spent as much time as they could in the wilderness. One woman even went off the Pill when she started trail running because she didn’t want to pollute the wilds with the hormones in her pee. Instead, she would plan her runs around her periods and reported it was a small price to pay to keep the wilderness healthy.
Here are some of the tips I gathered from women on the trails with the goal of leaving no trace:
- Mind the wrappers.
A large portion of the waste we send to landfills is made up of packaging. You can do your part by choosing products with minimum packaging. (Do this with everything else you buy, too.) Since feminine care products aren’t sterile they don’t require extra wrapping. You can find pads that aren’t individually wrapped or tampons that don’t include the plastic applicators. Buying in bulk may also help reduce extra waste.
- Choose menstrual cups.
The environmental superhero of period protection seems to be the menstrual cup. Moon Cup is popular but there are several other brands such as Diva Cup and the Keeper. The cups are inserted like a tampon, removed and emptied when full, then reinserted. You can use the same cup for years and they’ve been around since the 1930s. One runner reported wearing it comfortably for up to 12 hours without needing to rinse it off. They are easy to clean, hold fluid well and feel comfortable. Several women reported training and racing with menstrual cups successfully, although it may require a learning curve as far as insertion. You can buy versions made of natural latex or silicon.
- Try reusable pads.
Soft, reusable pads like Tree Hugger, Lunapads and GladRags are all machine-washable fabric maxi pads. Remember to use an energy-efficient washing regimen.
- Use a baggie.
What’s the best way to pack out a tampon in the wilderness? One woman I spoke to reported carrying doggie bags to tie up her used tampons. Another mentioned Ziploc bags. The last suggestion was a surgical glove trick: put on the glove, take out your tampon, then remove the glove by turning it inside out with the tampon inside. Tie up the end of the glove and toss it in your pack for later disposal. No mess, no blood on your hands, and no trash on the trails.
Not every woman will be comfortable with all these options, but the point is that we have options. Make the best choice you can to protect the wild places you train and play.
Every woman is affected differently by her period, but a wide variety of side effects can be inconvenient for endurance training. The women I spoke to reported everything from intense pain and negative self-talk to feeling light-headed and passing out on the trails.
Although it’s a myth that women should avoid strenuous activity during their periods, some side effects make it difficult to get out there. Over the years, women have developed their own period hacks to make their lives just a little bit more manageable. Here are a few that were shared with me:
- Pill Manipulation
If you’re due to get your period on race day and you’d rather not, you can push your cycle back a week (or several weeks) if you’re on birth control pills. Simply skip the fourth week of pills (when you typically get your period) and start right into the next month’s cycle. As long as you do this, your period can be held off indefinitely. Women have reported doing this for long runs, races or vacation time. Since women on the Pill do not experience uterine build-up, they technically don’t need to have a period to shed the lining. The bleeding that does occur while on the pill is not a “real” period. Some basic research or a chat with your health care provider can offer more insight into the biology behind this trick.
IUDs are a favorite option for endurance females. This small device inserted directly into the uterus can provide up to 12 years of birth control. Once inserted, you can forget about it. The biggest selling feature mentioned to me: no periods. Many women stop getting them.
Blood and Bears and Sharks! How Not to Get Killed by Your Period
“Special precautions apply to women! For their protection, women should refrain from wilderness travel during their menstrual periods! Bears and other large carnivores have attacked women in this physiological condition!”
That quote is from an old U.S. Parks Department flyer distributed for years to campers. The fear was based on the idea that hungry bears could pick up the scent of a woman menstruating, putting her at a higher risk of attack. Although there was no direct link between bear attacks and menstruating females, women were warned just in case—for their own protection, of course.
This myth—yes, it is definitely a myth—originated on the evening of August 13, 1967. Two women were killed by grizzly bears in Glacier National Park. When no causes were found for the attack, it was speculated that perhaps both women had been on their periods. Years passed without any legitimate investigation and the period-fears morphed into an unfounded but generally accepted warning.
Some feminists argue that this is a perfect example of how women are discriminated against in the outdoors. In general, they are seen as weaker in the wilderness, less able to handle themselves and in need of careful protection.
It wasn’t until 1991 that the bear myth was finally put to rest in a National Park Service study involving grizzly bears, black bears, polar bears and used tampons collected from 26 different women. Then NSP also considered data from various different studies and couldn’t find a single incident of menstruation-induced bear attacks. They also failed to find a single situation in which black bears or grizzly bears were even attracted to used tampons.
Polar bears, however, presented a bit of an exception. A 1983 study found that four captive polar bears responded to menstrual odors. Wild polar bears were also found to consume used tampons while ignoring unused ones.
The bear myth is still prevalent today. A 1997 pamphlet titled Backcountry Bear Basics out of Glacier National Park read: “Although the evidence is inconclusive, menstrual odors and human sexual activity may attract bears.”
A similar and equally prevalent myth is that menstruating women shouldn’t go into the ocean because of the risk of a shark attack. While it’s true that sharks are capable of detecting blood, they can also detect any other human excretion such as sweat or urine. Menstrual blood doesn’t put women at any additional risk.
Ralph S. Collier is a shark behavior expert who has been documenting shark attacks since 1963. In the late 1960s, he conducted a study with fellow shark expert H. David Bladridge. They introduced several human body fluids to wild sharks in open ocean pens and examined the response. The only fluid that was found to cause a reaction was peritoneal fluid, a liquid found in the human abdominal cavity.
Marie Levine, founder and executive director for the Shark Research Institute, claims she has been diving for decades and even got her period while underwater with a school of hammerhead sharks. The sharks did not show the least bit of interest. On the contrary, she claims she had to work hard to get close to them. Interestingly, 90 percent of recorded shark attacks involve men.
This was a book excerpt from Daughters of Distance: Stories of Women in Endurance Sports. Get the full book or download a sample on Amazon.
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