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by Elaine K Howley

February 5, 2021

Everything you ever wanted to know about menstruation and swimming but were afraid to ask

It’s a fact of life: Females of childbearing age typically menstruate for an average of four to eight days on a regular cycle of roughly every 28 days.

It’s part of the reproductive cycle, The Office on Women’s Health within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services explains: “When you menstruate, your body discards the monthly buildup of the lining of your uterus (womb). Menstrual blood and tissue flow from your uterus through the small opening in your cervix and pass out of your body through your vagina.”

This happens like clockwork for some, less consistently for others, depending on a range of health and environmental factors. Every woman’s cycle is different.

For some, they bleed for three days every 21 days. For others, an eight-day period that occurs every 38 days is normal. Still others may have periods that fluctuate, and hormonal birth control pills can be used to skip periods for months on end.

For most women, it’s just part of being female and something they get used to managing. The OWH reports that women can usually expect to have a period nearly every month or so for an average of about 40 years. Most girls can expect their period to begin during puberty, usually sometime between 11 and 16 years of age, and last until menopause, which typically arrives somewhere between the ages of 45 and 55.

Again, there’s a lot of variability here depending on genetics, medications being used, health conditions, and environmental factors. But the point is, periods are a near universal and regular experience for teens and women for many years.

Misconceptions About Menstruation and Swimming

Having your period can be a real pain sometimes, but it doesn’t have to curtail your swimming. Misconceptions about periods and swimming abound, so let’s take a look at some of the most common.

You can’t swim with your period

This is a straight-up myth. You absolutely can swim while having your period. I successfully swam solo across the English Channel on the heaviest day of my flow in August 2009, in fact.

Most other female swimmers have similar stories. Fu Yuanhui’s charming candor during a post-race interview poolside at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics—she’d gotten her period the night before the race and wasn’t feeling great—is a great example of how this normal and natural bodily function doesn’t have to hold you back from pursuing your aquatic goals.

The key to swimming while you’re having your period is to make friends with tampons or another type internal menstruation product, such as a menstrual cup or disc, that can catch the flow.

Your period stops in water

Not quite. Although it’s true that the pressure of being immersed in water can slow the flow, your period will carry on to some degree, even if you can’t see evidence of it in your swimsuit. This is why it’s important to always wear a tampon or use a menstrual cup to collect the blood and keep it from entering the pool.

You should wear a pad, even when swimming

This is false. Pads may be your preferred feminine hygiene option on land, but they’re ill-suited for in-water use and shouldn’t be worn in the pool. These devices are designed to soak up liquid, and wearing one in the pool will render it ineffective, messy, and probably quite obvious to other pool-goers. Instead, opt for a menstrual cup or tampon that goes inside the vagina to catch the blood before it exits the body.

You should avoid open water when you have your period because it’ll attract sharks

Not true. That fake Russian Tampax ad (two women enter the water at the beach, and the one who isn’t using the leak-proof tampon gets gobbled up by a hungry shark) put into video form this common fear to outrageous effect. Mercifully, there’s no foundation to the notion that sharks will smell that you have your period and attack.

It’s an understandable worry, given that we know sharks can smell blood. But as the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum reports, there’s zero “positive evidence that menstruation is a factor in shark attacks.”

Sharks have a powerful sense of smell—it’s not just blood that they can sense. They can smell urine and other bodily fluids, too. And they’re just not that into you, so don’t worry about your period being a beacon for sharks. If sharks are a concern, you’re better served by staying well away from their preferred foods—fish, seals, and other marine mammals—so you aren’t the victim of mistaken identity.

Everyone will know I have my period

Nope. No one will know unless you tell them. Tampons and menstrual cups are in no way visible when properly inserted (be sure to tuck the string inside your suit). There’s no obvious outward sign that you’re menstruating, so carry on like usual and none of your lanemates will be the wiser unless you want them to be.

My period will contaminate the pool

Highly unlikely. A functional filtration system and chlorine and other sanitizers that are used to keep the water clear and swimmable neutralize any organic contaminants you might introduce to the pool such as period blood. Still, always wear a tampon or use a menstrual cup or disc to cut down on what gets into the water.

Swimming will make my cramps worse

This is backward. Sure, menstrual cramps can be excruciating, and you might not want to swim if you’re dealing with them. Talk to your doctor if you’re struggling with intense cramps as they can be a sign of a problem such as endometriosis. But for many women, exercise helps ease the pain of garden-variety menstrual cramps rather than intensifying it. Gentle aerobic exercise, such as going for a walk or taking an easy swim, might be just the thing you need to find relief.


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