Close to a year ago I accepted a position as a Women in Sports Tech (WiST) Fellow working for Wild.AI as a Research Development Intern. In that time I have learned quite a few things about business and tech, more than many of you care to hear about. So, rather than listing all of the opportunities I have received, and the lessons I’ve learned, I’m going to share what, I believe, to be the most important. Consider it my departing present!
My first assignment at Wild.AI was to research the Gender Data Gap and how we, as a company, fit in. However, I got so engulfed in how little is done for the female athlete, that I instead wrote a long-winded article about the women as the undervalued athlete and research participant. The following 11 months I spent reading hundreds of articles about everything from ovulation to perimenopause. And here’s what I learned from all of my reading: we still know very little about the female body.
The truth is, there’s not a lot of research conducted on women. In fact, you’ve probably heard Natalie (Wild.AI’s Head of marketing ) or Helene (Wild.AI’s Founder and CEO) saying “only 3-6% of sports research is conducted on women” (1). Although I could list all of the reasons this statistic infuriates me as an athlete, a researcher, and a woman, instead I’m going to focus on what that means for our understanding of the female body in sport.
Unfortunately the little amount of research that is conducted on a female-only cohort is often not of high quality. Because of the time and monetary commitment required to track participant cycles, some less than ideal strategies are employed. Think assuming that every participant’s menstrual cycle is a textbook 28-days, that they have a regularly occurring cycle, or simply conducting the study in the early follicular phase (when hormone levels are the lowest) (2). In fact, and bear with me nerding out for a second, a 2020 review found that of the 78 studies reviewed, only 8% received a rating of “high” quality, while 68% received a rating of “low” or “very low” quality (2).
In essence, what we’ve learned so far is that there’s not a lot of research done on women, and the research that is done isn’t very good. Most of what we, as researchers, know about how our fluctuating hormones affect us throughout the month is based on our understanding of the physiologic effects of estrogen and progesterone. For example, we know that estrogen increases the reliance on fat and decreases the reliance on carbohydrates (3). This would lead us to believe that higher estrogen levels are probably better for endurance exercises! However, there haven’t been many high quality studies that have actually looked how the menstrual cycle phase affects participants during endurance activities.
So should you actually believe what people say about training with the menstrual cycle?
At this point, you’re probably questioning everything you’ve ever been told by anyone about your menstrual cycle, but you shouldn’t! The good news is that many researchers (including yours truly) are dedicated to increasing the quality of research on women because of how poor the current state is. The other good news is that Wild.AI is committed to supporting those researchers. We are just as frustrated as all of you about the lack of focus on badass female athletes. And the final good news is that we are all (at least I hope) passionate about learning and growing together.
So, before you write off all of the resources about the effect that your menstrual cycle has on x y and z, you should know that we fully acknowledge the shortcomings in science thus far. And we are all dedicated to changing the percentage of research conducted on women, but it’s going to take some time (because research is a long process, let me tell you). In the meantime, we will continue to grow and learn right alongside you.
Time for me to say goodbye
As for me, I have loved the past year at Wild.AI, and am truly honored for the experience to learn how to write more conversationally, to have had the experience to speak on two professional panels, and to have spent my work hours reading about the topics I love (female athletes!). For now, I am continuing my search for answers by going all in to my education.
If there’s one thing I hope you learn from all of this it's that research is really cool (and researchers are even cooler). But for real, science is amazing, and Wild.AI is fully dedicated to supporting researchers in search of uncovering the unknowns about the female body. You can always help in this endeavor by serving as a participant (it’s very fun). And if you’re a researcher, collaborating with Wild.AI, and using the app can help track participant cycles and ask personalized questions for your study. We can all further our knowledge of the female body together!
Originally published: 20.03.2023
- Cowley, Emma S., et al. “‘Invisible Sportswomen’: The Sex Data Gap in Sport and Exercise Science Research.” Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, vol. 29, no. 2, Oct. 2021, pp. 146–51, https://doi.org/10.1123/wspaj.2021-0028.
- McNulty, Kelly Lee, et al. “The Effects of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Exercise Performance in Eumenorrheic Women: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Sports Medicine, vol. 50, no. 10, 2020, pp. 1813–27, https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-020-01319-3.
- Hackney, Anthony C. “Menstrual Cycle Hormonal Changes and Energy Substrate Metabolism in Exercising Women: A Perspective.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 18, no. 19, Sept. 2021, p. 10024, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph181910024.