When former India hockey captain Rani Rampal was a young girl growing up in a rural area, no one talked to her about menstrual cycles and how her body would react to it. And then one day the inevitable happened. Her mother hurriedly told her to use a cloth and that was the end of the discussion.
Having picked up a hockey stick at the age of 6 at the Shahbad hockey academy in Haryana, Rani suddenly realised that for anywhere between 3-6 days, her body would be affected in different ways and it would impact her sporting ambitions the most. The cycle of lack of information was one that she wanted to break as she grew older.
“In our families, I feel it is my responsibility to make sure that what I faced, my niece doesn’t have to face. Talking to them about periods, telling them that this is normal for a woman’s body, and making sure that they don’t suffer from a lack of information or feel out of place when periods start, is something I wanted to make sure,” Rani said at a session organised to promote awareness about menstruation health.
Sportswomen are affected during their menstrual cycles in various ways with little research done on the subject. At the Tokyo Olympics, the International Olympic Committee announced that gender parity was achieved at the Games in terms of participation numbers – a far cry from women making only 20 percent of the field at the 1976 Toronto Olympics.
And yet, women continue to be disenfranchised in sports research. Papers published in three sport medicine journals were examined and the result showed that sport science studies only had 37-39 percent of female participation, according to The Guardian. The under-representation of women in these studies has resulted in a lack of research, particularly in areas such as menstruation and its effects on the body.
Learning on the job
As an elite athlete, Rani has had years of experience to bank on when it comes to period discomfort. And the crux of her response relies on training for when it happens, rather than dealing with it during a crucial match or tournament.
“For me personally, periods can be quite painful. Sometimes, they are so painful I feel like I can’t breathe. But in my mind, I also tell myself that this is normal and that it happens to all women. I represent the country. In every training session, I go in with that mindset and always try to perform at the highest level.
“If in training, you start to take a step back during your periods, that becomes a mindset and eventually a habit. But that being said, it is tough. I have learnt to handle it after many years. It’s tougher on the first day, especially if there is an important match. In those cases, we take the guidance of a doctor and there are cases where painkillers – which don’t affect the periods – are taken to reduce the pain. At least that way we can perform at our highest levels,” said Rani.
It is a far cry from the early days of Rani’s career when she would have to rely on her senior teammates to guide her on how to manage her menstrual cycle during competitions.
“Our seniors used to help us out and talk about pads. Slowly we started to figure it out but the costs of pads were always restrictive. Sometimes we would take the help of our seniors to get pads because of how much they would cost. Now it’s a lot different but I think rural areas still need awareness,” she said.