Nov 9, 2023
UNC researcher explores how menstrual cycles affect strength training

Research from a University of North Carolina professor has revealed key differences in the health needs of female athletes—particularly surrounding menstrual cycles and hormonal contraceptives.

Abbie Smith-Ryan is the director of UNC’s Applied Physiology Laboratory and currently researches practical applications for exercise, performance, recovery, and nutritional strategies for women and men.

menstrual cyclesSmith-Ryan suggested there should be more investment into understanding and applying gender differences in athletics.

A recent story from The Daily Tar Heel detailed a conversation with Smith-Ryan about her research. Below is an excerpt from The Daily Tar Heel.

According to the National Library of Medicine, there are major gaps in research dedicated to women’s health in sports. And according to a 2021 study in the Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, Six percent of sports and exercise science research published between 2014 and 2020 centered on women specifically.

“If you think about coaching and education and support, there’s not a lot of conversations or people are afraid to talk about periods, which is not a good thing,” she said.

Smith-Ryan was selected alongside colleague Anthony Hackney, professor of exercise physiology and nutrition, to participate in the FIFA Female Health Project as part of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup this past summer, where she helped develop a framework for combating inequalities in women’s health in sports.

“It’s always pretty incredible when your research can have some sort of impact. And the most exciting part is that this is just the beginning,” she said.

Sam Moore, a third-year doctoral student in UNC’s Human Movement Science curriculum and a student of Smith-Ryan’s, said she has enjoyed the opportunity to present similar findings to different strength and conditioning staff and other sports exercise professionals.

However, she said she has been surprised by the responses her work has received.

“I think what was really shocking to me is there’s actually quite a bit of resistance against changing training across the menstrual cycle for female athletes or changing it based on different birth controls,” Moore said.

She said she has observed discomfort from male strength coaches who must adapt to gendered training, in addition to the larger research community. Despite the reactions Moore received, she said female athletes have responded to her efforts “incredibly positively.”

Before coming to UNC in 2021, Moore worked at NC State as an assistant strength and conditioning coach where she helped design training programs around aspects of the female hormonal landscape regarding factors like birth control and the menstrual cycle.

She said for many of her athletes, it was their first time having a female strength coach, which she suspected was a source of doubt at first.

To read the full story from The Daily Tar Heel, click here. 

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