The Girl Beta Series: Periods

Seven Spanish Angels, Bishop CA. Photo: The RV Project

Let’s start by getting something out of the way…

In case you haven’t heard, starting at puberty and lasting until menopause, some humans discharge blood and tissue from the lining of their uterus via their vaginas. This usually lasts around six days and occurs in intervals that roughly equate to one lunar month (28 days).

In other words, people with vaginas have periods.

Despite the fact that periods are a essential to human life, our society has veiled this energy cycle in shame and secrecy. Because of this, many people with periods have complicated and cynical relationships with their cycle. Menstruating athletes (especially those of us that cling to the side of cliffs for hours/days at a time) tend to view their periods as annoying, inconvenient, and downright maddening. However, with some simple knowledge, our cycles can become our source of intuitive, creative, and athletic power.

Oh and just one more thing to clear up before I go on:

This article is for people who don’t have periods, too.

Why? Even if you don’t menstruate, I’m assuming that you probably have a climbing partner, romantic partner, coworker, family member, or friend that menstruates. If that’s the case, your knowledge and openness with this subject can help them feel really supported in a society that likes to pretend that they don’t bleed out of their vagina every month. So if you’re into helping people and stuff, read on!

This information is especially crucial if you are a climbing guide, coach, mentor, or gym owner. In fact, even if you don’t menstruate, you could store a few tampons in your car or daypack just in case your client starts their period unexpectedly or they run out of hygiene products. Even if you aren’t a coach but simply have climbing partners/friends that get periods, I encourage you to have some tampons handy. Believe me, they will be psyched and grateful!

You can climb during your period (if you want to)

Friends of mine have bailed on climbing trips of their dreams simply because they were menstruating. Let me tell you right now that it is totally possible to go climbing on your period, given that you’re feeling up for it. Sometimes we feel really strong and fiery during our period, but other times it can leave us feeling drained and sensitive. Feeling strong is not “better” than feeling tired — these sensations are just ways for our bodies to give us feedback about what it needs. The cool thing is that you can choose what kind of routes you climb according to the personality of your period. If you’re feeling fierce, go work on a hard project. If you’re subdued but still want to get off the ground, take the day to climb an easy classic. The key is to listen to your body so you can sync your climbing choices with your cycle.

Don’t pressure yourself to climb, especially if your body is begging for rest with symptoms like cramps, nausea, or a headache. But if you’re up for it…go climb rocks!

Having your period on a climbing trip

If you are menstruating on a climbing trip, the first thing you need to know is how to protect yourself. There are a lot of different options out there, so I’ve compared four popular types of period protection below from a climber’s perspective. You can use your unique needs and values to select a product that works for you.

*I know that the term “period protection” makes it seem as if your period is some sort of deadly illness, I just don’t know what else to call it besides feminine hygiene which is also weird…let me know if you can think of something better!

Tampons

Let’s start with ever-popular tampon. Many of us have used tampons since we started menstruating, and it’s no wonder — they are easy to use and can be purchased almost anywhere, including gas stations. However, there are a few things to consider when using tampons on a climbing trip.

Pros: Easy to use

Cons: Creates landfill waste, must be “packed out” while camping or climbing, expensive, can only be worn safely for up to 8 hours, takes up more space in a pack than other feminine hygiene products, can strip your vagina of its naturally occurring bacteria and cause pH imbalances, can cause Toxic Shock Syndrome (although this is very rare).

Tips: Purchase tampons without applicators (OB brand is cheap and classic, or Natracare if you want organic/no bleach) for your climbing trips. Not only do these take up less space, but you’ll also have less material to pack out.

Another useful tip is to pack out your tampons using a plastic glove. Put the glove on your hand, take out the tampon, then flip the glove inside out and tie it off. This is a great option if you don’t have access to water to wash your hands.

Menstrual Cups

Menstrual cups are worn inside of the vagina during your period to catch menstrual blood. It took me a few cycles to get the hang of my cup, but now that I’m comfortable with it, it’s by far the best option for handling my period while rock climbing. Most people who are comfortable with tampons can learn to use cups easily. You can also purchase disposable cups if you’re in an area without easy access to clean water (you need water to clean the non-disposable cups at least every 12 hours) or doing a multi-day push on a big wall.

Pros: Can be worn for up to 12 hours, saves money, eliminates waste, holds almost five times as much blood as a tampon, lightweight and easy to pack, can be worn on any day of your period (or even if you suspect you may start your period), comes in two sizes (before and after childbirth), keeps you cleaner than pads or tampons.

Cons: Requires practice to use correctly.

Tips: Practice inserting your cup before you use it on a climbing trip. Here is my favorite brand. Make sure to select the correct size.

Period panties

Period panties have become really popular recently, and for good reason. They have all the benefits of a traditional pad without the potential health dangers and hassle. Period panties do require you to wash them after every use, so these are best used on a climbing trip if you’re close to running water or a washing machine. I use my period panties for rock climbing on the light days of my period, but they can be used on heavier days as well. I use this brand in the “sport style” and I love them. (PS: that link will give you $10 off)!

Pros: Don’t contribute to landfill waste, don’t require you to pack anything out, most brands are antimicrobial and prevent infections, no chance of TSS, does not alter the pH of your vagina.

Cons: Must be washed at the end of every day, does not move freely with you while climbing — if they shift to the side, a leak could happen (although that has never happened to me).

Pads

Many of us use pads or panty liners, but they are not always the best option for rock climbing.

Pros: Easy to use.

Cons: Must be packed out, does not move freely, contributes to landfill waste, some brands use harmful chemicals that can alter the pH of your vagina and cause infections, cannot be worn for long periods of time.

Tips: There are reusable pads, but require a washing machine to clean. Also, some women like to use disposable panty liners while climbing big walls to keep their underwear clean, but I have never done this.

Having your period on a multipitch route or big wall

If you’re feeling up to it, it’s totally possible to climb a big wall or multi-pitch route while on your period. I would recommend using a menstrual cup for long routes, because you don’t have to change it every eight hours (or sooner). On days of heavy flow, I wear a menstrual cup as well as my period panties just in case. If you choose to wear tampons or pads, make sure that you’re changing them often. This will require you to climb with a partner that you’re not shy around, because you may have to change your period protection on the wall. You can always kindly ask them to look away. This also means that you must bring a plastic baggie on the wall so you can pack out your trash.

The Climber’s Period Kit

Create your own climbing period kit by putting these items in an old toiletries bag or climbing harness bag:

  • Preferred means of period protection
  • Baby wipes
  • Toilet paper
  • Plastic baggies, doggie bags, or plastic gloves
  • Ibuprofen or other pain relief
  • Disposable heat packs (the ones for your lower back can be used on your tummy, too)
  • Hand sanitizer or soap
  • Chocolate (kidding but not really)

Again, make sure you pack out all of your trash. You cannot bury pads, tampons, or disposable menstrual cups. Here is some great info about this from Leave No Trace.

Your hormones and athletic performance

Most of us have experienced how our energy levels, moods, food cravings, weight, sociability, and libido can vary greatly throughout their monthly cycle. But have you ever noticed that your strength, power, endurance, and overall athletic performance are influenced by your hormones as well? To learn more about how the our energy cycle affects our climbing performance and how we can use our hormones to help us send, check out this article I wrote a while back (this article was written as if only cis-gender women have periods, but that is false and dumb and I apologize to anyone left out of this).

Changing our relationship with our cycles

As mentioned earlier, many of our cycles are sources of pain, annoyance, and emotional discomfort. But when we educate ourselves about protection options and the science/wisdom of our bodies, we can learn to honor and appreciate the natural fluctuations that occur every month.

To learn about your unique cycle, start by asking yourself a few questions. How do I view my period? What are some words I associate with my period? Do I wish I didn’t have periods? If these questions bring up feelings of resentment or shame, it’s totally normal. However, you can shift your view of your cycle fairly easily. One way to do this is by using a period tracker app or journal. This is a powerful way to become familiar with your body and heal the relationship you have with your cycle. You can also use this information to plan climbing trips, your training schedule, or even social events.

Even if you are on hormonal birth control (stay tuned for an article on the best kinds of birth control for climbers!), your body still goes through hormonal fluctuations throughout the month, although there is very little literature on this subject. It’s best to track your own cycle and compare it month-to-month to check for any common patterns.

I hope that the information in this article is helpful and empowering to you. My goal is to dissolve the shame surrounding these issues and provide education so that climbers can make their own informed choices regarding their bodies and training. Please feel free to contact me with any questions, and don’t be shy! gleeabel@gmail.com

Additional resources

Here are some other resources for further education:

  • Woman Code, a great book by Alisa Vitti.
  • This awesome Australian website (overall, they are really far ahead of the US on this subject).
  • This article about how it’s not normal for athletes to stop menstruating, plus nutritional tips for preventing this.
  • This important website about the “Female Athlete Triad” (energy deficiency with or without disordered eating, menstrual disturbances/amenorrhea, and bone loss/osteoporosis).

What did I miss? What tips do you have for handling your period on climbing trips? Tell me in the comments section and share with your friends! I encourage coaches, guides, and gym owners to use this as an educational resource for your clients. If you do so, please consider donating to my writing. Donations of any amount are greatly appreciated! Thank you!

Disclaimer: This information is to be used for educational purposes only. Talk with your doctor if you have medical concerns.