Georgie and Grainne bounce off each other with the enthusiasm of a pinball machine. It’s a safe bet to say that they are enjoying talking about their current project.
Sports and exercise physiologist, Georgie Bruinvels, picks up the story of FitrWoman, the revolutionary menstrual cycle-tracking app built specifically for female athletes.
‘I’ve been doing a PhD at UCL for the last two years researching iron deficiency,’ says Georgie.
‘It just happens to be one of the most common things we physiologists are questioned about. “Why are people, mainly women, iron deficient?” “How can we fix it?” I just didn’t feel that there was enough research into the diagnosis of iron deficiency and how best to treat it.’
As an athlete herself – in fact, she’s probably more well-known in the red, white and green of Aldershot than a white coat – Georgie well-knew the conversation round iron supplementation.
‘Female athletes especially seem to use iron as a go-to way of fixing things – “I’m tired therefore I must be low in iron,”’ explains Georgie.
During her research, it became clear that blood loss from the menstrual cycle was the biggest cause of iron deficiency. This was what ultimately set her along the period research pathway.
‘As a child growing up, I was traumatised by the idea of the menstrual cycle and periods,’ admits Georgie. ‘There are big gaps in the general understanding of female physiology. There simply weren’t many comprehensive studies in this area, especially not for athletes.
‘I ended up researching specifically about heavy menstrual bleeding in athletes. In the process, I found that over half of the elite athletes I spoke to said that periods had an effect on their performance.’
Enter Grainne Conefrey.
‘I met Georgie a couple of years ago through our collaboration together at Orecco while she was doing her PhD,’ she recalls.
Orreco is a sports science company founded by Dr. Brian Moore in 2010 in Galway, Ireland. It is a purely science-driven company which claims to find solutions for optimising athlete performance. With clients ranging from three-time world silver medallist, Sonia O’Sullivan, to cross country specialist, Fionnuala McCormack, and Mark Rowland, head coach at Nike Oregon Track Club Elite, it’s certainly well-established in the field.
‘I am a service and product design manager at Orreco,’ says Grainne. ‘This means I am involved with the development of products for Orecco. Georgie and I had been chatting about her research for a long time and one day, I just said to her: let’s turn this into an app!’
The FitrWoman app was dreamed up by Grainne and Georgie over a series of phone calls last year. The short version goes that they researched whether it would work and how, pitched it to the CEO and COO of Orreco – and they loved it.
‘They loved that it was a female-specific product, which is something quite unique to the sports market, and that it was research-based, aligning with Orreco’s principles. We then dreamed up the actual design and built the app with help from Tapadoo and support from Orreco, launching it last June in Boston,’ explains Grainne.
Things have been going well since then. The user base has grown strongly since the launch and FitrWoman have just unveiled their first ambassador. Not bad timing either given their new ambassador, Emelia Gorecka, recently won the British Athletics Cross Challenge and European trials in Liverpool.
‘FitrWoman and Orreco have actually been working with Emelia and her coaches Chris Thompson and Jemma Simpson for about a month. We provide sports science support and help them to make informed and research driven decisions,’ says Georgie.
Around the same time that Grainne and Georgie were concocting FitrWoman in an Orecco laboratory, several high-profile female athletes, including British tennis player Heather Watson and long jumper Jazmin Sawyer, had spoken out, identifying their menstrual cycle as a key contributing factor to underperforming at a major sporting event.
‘People are starting to listen and appreciate that the menstrual cycle does affect female performance. At the moment, though, it’s still very much about it having an adverse effect,’ says Grainne.
While it’s true that being on your period can have an adverse effect on performance, the idea is that through research and experience, the potential negative impact can be severely reduced.
Georgie agrees that ‘we’re at a good time for coverage of female issues in sport. People are becoming keener to discuss things. I suppose we’re also playing into that narrative of encouraging women to train smarter.’
FitrWoman is about starting to tackle the barriers women face in sport by providing the information that will help overcome those barriers.
‘I’m keen that we build a community around our app and research, focus on information sharing and improving the way women are perceived and can perform,’ says Grainne.
‘I have always been passionate about sport. But when I was growing up in my town in Ireland at the age of 12, all sports clubs pretty much stopped being accessible for girls. At the age of 12! I think we’ve moved on a lot since then – but there’s still a long way to go for women in sport.’
The aim of FitrWoman is to help female athletes perform to their best on any one day. It’s not just about how their period might affect them – the menstrual cycle aspect – it’s also about the broad idea of being a woman and the specifics of female physiology.
Georgie and Grainne are keen to highlight the positive aspect of the menstrual cycle and of being a woman.
‘We want to give females an understanding of the normal and natural physiological processes we go through every month,’ explains Georgie.
‘We want to make people see that periods are not all doom and gloom. They don’t only affect performance negatively but there are positives about hormonal fluctuation. Different aspects of training can really be put to best use at different stages of the menstrual cycle.’
The psychological impact of being told that “you may not feel as powerful today” or that “your breathing rate may be higher” is not lost on Georgie.
‘One of my worst nightmares as a physiologist is that an athlete will come to me and say that “my Olympic final is on day 26 of my cycle – and it’s on day 26 that I always feel really rubbish!”’ She says.
‘The idea is to do enough research and develop the app in such a way that we’re providing information that will limit the different feelings that are inevitable with hormonal fluctuation. We want to understand and help athletes adjust accordingly to limit any adverse effects.’
FitrWoman encourages female athletes to be more proactive and less reactive. The research is showing that, theoretically, there should be ways to solve the cramp or feeling of tiredness before it’s even hit.
‘The next step for FitrWoman is to make the app completely personalised.
‘We’re currently conducting a big study of female athletes to find out what is and isn’t working for different people,’ says Georgie, who now works full-time at Orreco
‘That’s the most exciting thing about this app. It’s 100% research-driven – both scientific research and also direct user experience.’
‘At the moment, though, we’re building the user base, building the community and conversation around the app, listening to users, and hearing about their goals and experiences. Our goal is to provide ways women can use their hormones to their advantage.’
Period power, indeed.
This article originally appeared in the tenth edition of Left Spike from December 2017.
Words by Hannah Viner
Image from Andrew Peat