It was early in 2020 when Chelsea FC Women revealed the club were using Orreco’s FitrWoman app to monitor their players’ menstrual cycles to help enhance performance and reduce injuries.
Over two years on, the club’s relationship with Orreco and their Female Athlete Lead, Dr Georgie Bruinvels, continues to grow.
Forwards Erin Cuthbert and Jessie Fleming have both been on journeys of discovery when it comes to their female health. Their approach towards how they manage their menstrual cycles has changed and with Orreco’s expertise, the club continue to lead the way with their investment in this space.
‘Female athlete health was not necessarily an area that I was super well versed in before coming to Chelsea and working with Orreco,’ said Fleming. ‘It was interesting to get to know myself better, learn what my cycle looks like and how I can optimise what recovery strategies I use to allow me to be at my best regardless of what day of the month it is.’
Menstrual cycle symptoms are commonly experienced by women and athletes are no different, with Cuthbert explaining her own experience.
‘I used to suffer with a lot of symptoms around phase 4 (the phase leading up to your period) and phase 1 (during menstruation) every single month, and I just thought it was normal, that those are the cards you’ve been dealt and that’s what women have to deal.
‘But after speaking with Orreco and after a lot of consultations with Georgie, I realise now that it doesn’t have to be like that. I’ve been able to understand my body and what it needs at certain times, because we’re female but we’re all different.’
Orreco advocate for an individualised approach with each and every athlete, and although this may not be the most scalable approach, the benefits are there to see.
‘There are 23/24 players in this squad who are all different and have different needs. To categorise us in just one bracket was what we did before, but now we’re reinventing ourselves and becoming more individualised,’ added Cuthbert.
‘I’ve really benefitted from that individual element because I’ve seen a drastic reduction in my symptoms and I’m able to manage my body better on a day-to-day basis.
‘It’s about having an action because if you keep leaving things without the knowledge or awareness, then it can fester and end up in an injury but with Orreco it’s proactive.’
Fleming agreed saying, ‘For a long time, females in sport have been viewed as smaller males but I think we’re very different. To be able to recognise and appreciate those things and build the dialogue and find solutions is really important. I now appreciate that these things are natural and it’s not about working against myself or getting frustrated but recognising that it’s normal and it’s something to work with.’
With this approach in mind, Orreco’s Dr Bruinvels explains how she deals with each player as an individual.
‘My role at the club is trying to understand everyone’s unique cycles, where they are in their cycle and how this can affect the players' mental readiness or physical readiness.
‘The menstrual cycle underpins all aspects of how you feel; your fuelling, your recovery and for me it’s working with each individual to empower them with that knowledge but also working with the multidisciplinary, coaching and medical team at Chelsea, to inform them as best I can about what each phase means for an individual and what can be done about it.
‘I will also inform them what is coming up for the players over the next week in terms of which phases they are in.’
Dr Bruinvels has been spreading this message with the club since the relationship began and reiterated how unique the culture and approach is at Chelsea and why sharing details of a players’ menstrual cycle with the coaching and support team can only be a good thing.
‘We know so many athletes are limited by their cycle and the symptoms they experience but they just don’t talk to people or practitioners about it which is why the situation at Chelsea is so unique. It’s brilliant to discuss it and be proactive around it.
‘When it comes to the cycle and symptoms players experience, it’s not an excuse or a red flag to miss training, it’s about what can we do about it?
'Hormones drive everything, they are inside us as women. If you’re mentally struggling one day, the likelihood is there is a hormonal involvement or if you don’t feel your physical readiness is great, then it’s likely the same thing. These have for too long been the unanswered questions and through asking the players to monitor their cycles and log their symptoms with the FitrWoman app, it serves as a great tool for understanding.’
Chelsea were one of the first football clubs in the world to introduce a menstrual and female health expert through Orreco and Cuthbert reinforces how privileged she feels that her club is resourcing this area and leading the way.
‘I certainly think Chelsea are the driving force in this space in Europe at the moment. I feel immense pride, that Chelsea is one of the first clubs to be investing in this and believing in our health and seeing that this is what we as women need to perform and recognising its importance.
‘I’ll be the first person to say I was quite sceptical at the start as all this information comes at once when this world becomes unlocked, and when you’re growing up nobody talks about this, it was all new to me, at the age of 19 or 20!
‘But my advice would be to try it. It’s just a case of using the app and being diligent with it and over time you get used to it. It’s like making your coffee in the morning, you wake up and log your symptoms and it becomes habitual and part of your routine. Plus, if you believe in something you will do it.’
Dr Bruinvels agrees and went on to add. ‘It’s a two-way street with the players and they have to be comfortable to communicate with me but over time there needs to be a Female Health Lead on the ground for every team and to have someone to communicate with players and interpret this area. It’s very important that it’s not a siloed area, you need to tie in everyone.
‘I feel hugely privileged working with a team like Chelsea, when we first started working together it was a disruption to the norm. They’re a progressive group of people and are so focused on it being about female athletes first and foremost.
‘At Orreco, our Female Athlete Consultancy programme and the FitrWoman app is a huge passion of ours, and it’s been great to see the progress the club have made through working with us over the past two years.’