From conversations with male coaches to more crucial research, Zoe Smith explains how she wants attitudes towards periods to change.
Zoe Smith started weightlifting when she was 12 years old. Then, she was one of two girls in her club and had no female coaches. Now, she’s a two-time Olympian and British Weightlifting reports a membership split of 48% women to 52% men.
“It’s come so far since I started,” Smith tells Strong Women. With a more equal gender balance, there’s also been an increase in discussions around what it means to be a woman on the lifting platform. More specifically, what it means to have a period when you’re trying to press a barbell that weighs over double your bodyweight overhead.
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“Menstrual cycles were just never really spoken about for years,” Smith says. Having noticed the impact of her period on the sport, she’s on a mission to normalise the conversation around female hormones, performance and pain.
How does PMS impact weightlifting?
“As I’ve gotten older, I have found that my menstrual cycle has impacted my training a lot,” says Smith. She deals with the classic symptoms, including a stiff back and a lack of coordination before and during her period. “Back pain in a sport that is literally just about picking heavy stuff off the floor can be really painful,” she says.
“When I’m trying to snatch – which is lifting the bar from the floor above your head – I’ll often just be landing all over the place and asking, ‘what is going on? Why can I not do this?’ Then my period turns up three days later and it all makes sense.”
Interestingly, Smith also points out that sore hands are a problem when she’s lifting around her period: “When I’m gripping the bar, I am just a bit more aware of how sharp it is. It can feel even more rough on my hands than usual. I think it’s because we’re more sensitive and our pain threshold is lower. I don’t know if it’s a real thing or just in our head, but all the girls I train with experience it.”
Notably, the science around this is confusing: some studies suggest pain thresholds are lower during the late luteal phase of our periods, while others find that’s not true. Take that as proof as to how limited the research around female hormones is.
While Smith says she’s luckily never had a competition performance impacted by her time of the month, there are other considerations around getting ready to take the platform. “It’s a sport with weight categories and I have to cut weight quite severely to make [her category of] 59 kilos. Combine period cravings, a really bad session and an influx of hormones, and oh my god, it can be a complete nightmare,” she says.
How to weightlift around your period
Unlike a regular gym-goer, Smith can’t just decide not to train. While she doesn’t insist on specific deload weeks around certain times of the month, she has the flexibility to listen to her body as and when she needs. “My coach will write my programme a few weeks in advance, but if my period comes and I’m struggling I can tell him I need to dial it back,” Smith says.
“He might take down the top end weights and tell me to focus on core work and stability – the stuff that doesn’t require a lot of coordination. If it was supposed to be a heavy week, we’ll move that on to the next week. He knows how I work and we have a great relationship where we can talk about these things.”
The importance of conversations
It hasn’t always been that way. Periods were always a “silent secret” and there was an unspoken agreement to not talk about them with her male coaches when she was younger, something she deems a fair and mutual decision from both sides. “It never would have been something I would have wanted to be super open about as I was so young,” Smith says. “I guess I just would have assumed that I was being crap and I couldn’t do it. The older you get, the more you realise that your hormones and performance are so closely tied.”
One throwaway comment by teammate Emily Muskett changed Smith’s attitude towards talking about her cycle. “It must have been just after the 2012 Olympics, and Emily and I were both struggling to make our lifts during training. She was like: ‘OK, well I think it’s my period’. And I was like: ‘Oh my god, no way. Do you get that too?’ The more I was around women in the squad, the more obvious it became.
“Now, whenever we’re together, it’s almost the main topic of conversation. I guess that kind of comes with the territory when you’ve grown up with these people and you have been lifting on the same floor for over 10 years. We’ve seen each other in every sort of state imaginable.”
It’s why Smith wants to reduce the stigma associated with periods in sport. She’s an ambassador for Equal Play, Sports Direct’s campaign to keep girls in sport, as puberty is a key reason to avoid exercise. “It can still be very awkward to talk about periods, but I hope that by talking about it we can encourage other people to talk too. I always try to set a precedent with the young female athletes that it’s just a thing that we’re open about so if they’re around on campus they’ll just hear it and know it doesn’t have to be a big thing,” she says.
Conversation alone isn’t enough, though. Smith wants to see more research and support for all women – athletes or not – so they know how to better support their bodies throughout their cycle.
“We know vague things like when our performance might be down and when we might feel great. That’s all well and good, but I just feel like there needs to be more knowledge on whether there is anything we can do to counteract the impact of that,” she says.
“At the moment I just feel like we’re all kind of winging it. Yet it affects so many of us, probably around half of the population, and I just feel like we deserve to know why. I just think it’s ludicrous in 2021 that we’re still guessing.”
Images: Getty / Sports Direct
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).