Jazmin Sawyers: GB athlete on the need for more women-specific sport science research

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Jazmin Sawyers - BBC Sport columnist

Great Britain’s Jazmin Sawyers, who won her first major long jump title at the European indoors in March, will feature in a series of BBC Sport columns in the build-up to August’s World Athletics Championships in Budapest.

In her second piece, Jazz discusses the need for more women-specific sport science research, which could prove career-altering for elite athletes – and prevent young girls from giving up sport altogether.

Women’s sport is growing rapidly in popularity but the science is still lagging behind – only about 6% of sports science research is conducted exclusively on female athletes.

As athletes, we automatically jump to the decision that we’re not good enough after a poor performance, rather than stopping to consider what is going on inside our own bodies.

The public do the same thing, because that’s the norm. It’s the way we treat sportspeople in general. The conversation is often around how an athlete failed to handle the occasion when, sometimes, there’s a physiological issue.

For me, managing your body is easily one of the hardest aspects of being a female athlete. But this is a conversation for everyone.

After pulling up with cramps at last year’s European Championships, 2019 200m world champion Dina Asher-Smith called for more research into the effect of periods on performance.

It would be career-altering for sportswomen if we knew more.

I would love to see more research about the affects of the menstrual cycle, which could inform how we train, help us to avoid preventable injuries, and teach us how to optimise our performances at major championships.

Women can track their own symptoms, monitor how they feel, try to predict where in the month they can push themselves and when they need to hold back.

But these are things we, as women in the world of professional sport, are still having to figure out for ourselves.

As elite athletes, although we can’t influence the level of research being undertaken, what we can do is talk openly about the topic and do our bit to normalise the conversation.

‘Pain and panic filled the hours before my Olympic debut’

In 2017 I was forced to pull out of a competition in Boston because my period pain was so severe. I talked a little bit about it and I was shocked when it became a news story.

It clicked then that this was a conversation we need to have because it shouldn’t be a big deal.

To me, it was an important piece of the puzzle to figure out, because I didn’t feel like I should be that far into my professional career and still have such little knowledge about my cycle.

I wasn’t supposed to be coming on my period that day and I physically wasn’t able to compete. With better education, I may have been prepared for that situation.

A year earlier, four hours before qualifying began at my first Olympic Games, I was in the doctor’s room screaming in pain.

Jazmin Sawyers in action at the 2016 Olympic Games
After struggling with period pain prior to qualification at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Sawyers managed to progress in the 12th and final place

Despite putting a plan in place, testing medication throughout the year to delay my period and allow me to compete unhindered, it had started. I was immobile from the pain and I didn’t know what the solution was.

It was pure panic. I thought my Olympic debut was over because I simply couldn’t move from the bed.

Eventually I ended up just having a lot of painkillers and I scraped through to the final.

That really shouldn’t be the solution.

I now have much better strategies but it has taken seven years since that day for me to have a fully comprehensive plan to handle the issues my period brings.

By having these conversations with young athletes, making sure they get to know their cycle and that they feel comfortable speaking to coaches and sports doctors, hopefully incidents like that will occur less frequently in elite sport.

‘Let’s normalise the conversation and end the shame’

Another disappointing statistic is that period pain and shame is a key reason why 64% of schoolgirls will drop out of sport.

When I was a teenager I wouldn’t have dared to speak to my male coaches about my period, that was a shame thing and it was to my detriment. It meant I didn’t get the help I needed for so much longer.

It was preventable. We should be able to have those conversations. If more than half of young girls are dropping out because of period issues then, clearly, we have a problem.

We’re still not comfortable enough in speaking about it. It needs to become as normal as discussing an injury.

Sport is such a force for good and if something is proving such a barrier to young women staying in sport, we need to consider it a serious issue.

In families, in coaching situations, let’s normalise talking about periods and how your menstrual cycle affects you and your training.

For women my age, we can be making more of an effort to learn about our own cycles. There’s only so much we can talk about it if we don’t understand ourselves.

A little more education can go a long way. Even at a recreational level, we could prevent someone who is trying to improve their 5k each week becoming disheartened, simply because they can’t appreciate that their body isn’t capable of a certain time that week.

The fact that periods have an effect on training, and on our lives, is something we must talk about as though it’s normal.

Why? Because it is normal.

Jazmin Sawyers was talking to BBC Sport’s Harry Poole.

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