ACU researchers study how menstrual cycle influences elite sport performance

An ACU research team, led by leading sports nutrition expert Professor Louise Burke, is part of a world-first research camp focused on the impact of periods and hormonal contraceptives on female athletes.

A five-week Female Athlete Research Camp has kicked off at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra with 26 members of the NRL Indigenous Women’s Academy.

They will train full-time at the AIS while being monitored and supported daily by 12 researchers conducting 10 different studies.

Over the next five weeks, researchers will study correlations between sport performance and female health, including the influence of the menstrual cycle and hormonal contraceptives on injury prevention, energy-levels, recovery and sleep.

The first research camp of its kind is a collaboration between ACU’s Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research, the NRL’s Indigenous Women’s Academy, the AIS’s Female Performance and Health Initiative, and the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance’s Female Athlete Program. 

The squad will work with researchers from ACU’s Exercise and Nutrition Research Program and the Sports Performance, Recovery, Injury and New Technologies (SPRINT) Research Centre to examine the impacts of a woman’s menstrual cycle on elite sport in what could be a crucial breakthrough for elite female sport training programs.

The ACU team includes Professor Shona Halson, Drs Alannah McKay, Rachel McCormick, Suzanna Russell, and PhD candidates Ella Smith, Megan Kuikman and Madi Pearson. Dr Nicolin Tee and Dr Jonathan Weakley are also involved.

Participants have already spent two months tracking their menstrual cycles, while the research team have been analysing their performance, sleep, nutrition, recovery and strength.

Professor Burke said the findings will help athletes and other researchers better understand the impact of menstruation and how to use that knowledge to optimise performance.

“We are following these rugby league players over a menstrual cycle to see if and how a number of different attributes of health and performance change over the different phases,” she said

“This is important to know – for each player to understand their own experiences and for the bigger picture of investigating whether any changes are systematic. 

“It helps us to know whether we need to change our guidelines for various strategies over menstrual cycles or for hormonal contraceptive users, but also how important it is to control for these issues when we do other research on female athletes. 

“It is challenging to take all these themes into account when doing any sports science research, which explains why females tend to be under-represented in our work.”

Professor Burke said quality research into the menstrual cycle and its effects on performance was limited while myths and beliefs about how menstrual cycles affected women’s physical abilities were common.

The reality, she said, is that there is a huge variation between individuals.

“Even within the same sport, we will find that each woman has their own reaction or changes according to their menstrual phase or whether they are on contraceptives,” she said.

“For every female that says ‘I don’t perform so well when I have my period’ there will be one who says ‘That’s when I perform best or that’s when I won my gold medal’.”

Media Contact: Elisabeth Tarica, Australian Catholic University on 0418 756 941 or

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