Does the contraceptive pill alter a female athlete’s performance? This is the question posed by new research at Griffith University.

“Already it is well known that the combined contraceptive pill changes female physiology by increasing the core body temperature across the whole of the menstrual cycle and altering the ability to regulate heat,” says research co-leader Associate Professor Clare Minahan from Griffith’s Menzies Health Institute Queensland.

“The pill also delays the blood flow to the skin, therefore decreasing a woman’s ability to cool down quickly.

“Thermoregulation is therefore extremely important when it comes to elite athletes and their performance, especially when it takes place in hot climates such as that in Queensland.

“This preliminary study is aiming to investigate more about how the contraceptive pill can alter this elite athlete performance and inform the sporting community of the scientific evidence and the potential pros and cons for female athletes.”

40 elite athletes

The study which is supported by funding from the Queensland Academy of Sport and the Australian Institute of Sport, is set to take place with a group of 40 elite athletes from a range of team sports including soccer and hockey.

20 of the athletes are current users of the combined oral contraceptive pill and the other 20 are not taking any drug-based contraceptives.

“We will be splitting the two groups into smaller groups and placing them in environment chambers for a period of three hours over two consecutive days and there they will experience varying levels of temperatures and humidities,” says Associate Professor Minahan. “During this time, we will ask them to undergo varying levels of activity which will reflect the work commonly performed in team sports, such as high speed sprints and moderate treadmill work.

“We will be analysing physiological measures such as core and skin temperature, sweat rate, skin blood flow and heart flow, with a view to working out what kind of supports may be required to aid in a woman’s thermoregulation during times of extreme endurance.

“For example, dietary supports for increased hydration could be helpful or pre-cooling support with ice, prior to starting exercise.
“There are of course, many well-known advantages to being on the pill for women, and we are certainly not advocating that anyone come off of the contraceptive pill – however there is definitely the requirement to manage the potential consequences for the elite athlete who may find that their performance is altered by the varying hormones contained in it.”

Associate Professor Minahan says that the research results will ultimately be able to inform new advice for athletes in the build up to the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020.