From tarmac to tampon – Alisha Abdullah’s race against menstrual taboo

Alisha Abdullah never says no to a challenge, but among the few things she doesn’t look forward to is getting her period on a race day.

Alisha Abdullah

Alisha Abdullah, who is India’s first female national racing champion, is not surprised the taboo surrounding periods still exists.   -  Instagram

Alisha Abdullah’s life in the fast lane has taken her to many corners of the globe and she enjoys being the outlier.

The 30-year-old never says no to a challenge, but among the few things she doesn’t look forward to is getting her period on a race day.

“Racing on your period is extremely uncomfortable. Once, before a race, I took a pill to delay my period because it is very difficult to give your best on the track when you have really bad abdominal cramps and you’re bleeding. I did this once or twice but it’s not a good practice,” Alisha told Sportstar.

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Conversations surrounding menstruation are difficult to have in a testosterone-filled environment. Alisha, who is India’s first female national racing champion, is not surprised the taboo still exists.

“We should have doctors or maybe a gynaecologist to handle questions or concerns for women, in addition to the medicos who treat injuries. Because the number of women racing or in racing roles is less, the attention to them is also unfortunately proportional,” the Chennai-based racer explained.

“You become one of the boys. They don’t see the difference and overlook issues that come with the physicality of a woman,” she added.

“Women also hesitate to discuss these details with a male doctor or professional. Blocks need to be overcome on either end to facilitate conversations,” she said.

May 28 is observed as World Menstrual Hygiene Day, seeking to draw attention to appropriate period hygiene, using the right sanitary products, learning best disposal practices and staying disease-free. This is a vital discussion to have for an athlete who spends much of her time in a tight, high-temperature bodysuit. Extreme dehydration, drastic weight loss and loss of stamina are par for the course for any racer, but for women racers like Alisha, the choice of product to use if her cycle clashes with a fixture is also a big worry.

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“Many racers I know prefer using tampons. I prefer sanitary pads. Tampons do move about a bit depending on how you’ve placed them or how long they’ve been there, so for me a flat napkin is a better option. Pads aren’t an upgrade either. When racing, it’s still an extra thing down there and we wear really tight clothes to fit into the suit, so it’s not ideal at all,” she added.

Of late, conversations surrounding menstrual cycles and athletes' performance metrics – stamina, endurance, hemoglobin levels, hormonal levels – are slowly, yet steadily becoming the norm. While science allows athletes to track menstrual impact on their performance in several aspects, the basics two elements are static – diet and exercise.

“While food that is nutrient-rich, especially in elements like protein and iron, is key, exercise carries equal, if not more, importance. I eat anything and everything. I don’t believe in the calorie-per-day food intake. I eat what I feel like and work it out,” she said.

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Alisha also trains women racing enthusiasts looking to seriously kick-start their careers in the arena. A thumb rule when dealing with them, Alisha says, is to give athletes the option of missing training on the first two days of their cycle.

“When I started off there were so many euphemisms to convey the simple process of bleeding once a month. Conversations were secondary – the main thing was training when on your period.

"Sometimes, coaches make us train even on our first and second days, which I don’t think is advisable in all cases. Everyone’s body is different - their diets, metabolisms, and pain thresholds are different. So giving athletes those two days to sit back, rest, and then come back when a little more comfortable is something I try to do,” Alisha said.

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