“We’re fighting for the female athlete to be heard. This is largely reflective of the lack of funding, and the daunting nature of the whole area.”
One thing is very clear when talking to Georgie Bruinvels: she is a pioneer in a field that receives very little attention, even within the female sports science industry, and is spearheading the movement to change that.
At bio-analytics giant Orreco, she leads research on the female athlete side, focusing on female physiology, investigating the menstrual cycle symptoms, the effect of exercise on inflammation, and even the impact of COVID-19 on the menstrual cycle. Georgie also does research in male sport, and highlights that it’s important to do both, as “research is much further ahead in male athletes – there’s a lot we can learn from it.”
Female Athlete Program
Georgie’s career highlight has been helping launch Orreco’s female athlete platforms: FitrWoman and FitrCoach. FitrWoman is the world’s first app to provide daily training and nutrition suggestions tailored to the menstrual cycle. “It was finally getting what we believe in so strongly out there. Getting people talking about it, and it being comfortable for people to discuss. That was a big achievement.”
Orreco’s female athlete program names the WTA, USA Swimming, recent FIFA Women’s Football World Cup Champions the USA, and UK Women’s Super League champions Chelsea, amongst its users.
With the number and calibre of teams using the program rising, it’s about providing education on the impact that the menstrual cycle has on female performance. “Helping both male and female practitioners see the value of analysing the menstrual cycle, and normalising it, is key to it being part of a standard conversation.”
“I get a real buzz when I get positive feedback from female athletes. It’s so rewarding when they feel better from coming off the pill, from regulating their cycles, when they can perform better on the first day of their periods.”
When touching upon the buy-in from coaches and practitioners, Georgie praises the practitioners she’s worked with for their willingness and keenness to learn – males, in particular. The challenges, however, come from the lack of funding in women’s sport.
“To come in and drop a bombshell, such as an impact that a player’s menstrual cycle has on their performance, is daunting, and can be overwhelming for practitioners.” Georgie highlights that puts performance staff in a tricky position of what to prioritise: “They might not even have nutritional support – never mind support for hormonal issues and specialist female physiology.”
Combining research and applied science
Before Georgie’s role at Orreco, she worked for UK Anti-Doping for three years and cites working at the 2012 London Olympics as part of her role as a major moment in her career history. However, Georgie said she struggled with the routine and doing the same thing every day, and under the guidance of Dr. Charlie Pedlar at UCL, began a Ph.D. that was 50% research and 50% applied. Since then, her applied work has been extremely varied, working with sports from football and basketball to track and field, swimming, and snow-sports.
Her research informs her practice and vice versa. Georgie concentrates on assessing the injury risk through an individual athlete process, profiling when they are experiencing symptoms, and helping performance staff to tailor training programs around this. Specifically, she states “it’s important to work with hormones as opposed to fighting them.”
Georgie highlights that when discussing barriers, “gender has to be acknowledged.” She recalls when she started at Orreco, six months into her Ph.D., they were releasing a promo video which was praised widely, “but I was the only person to point out that there were no female athletes in the video. I was one of only four women in the company, and was fighting battles every day for recognition for female athletes.”
Since then, Georgie is glad to see that within Orreco, there’s been a drastic shift. Georgie praises Orreco CEO Dr Brian Moore, and Chief Scientific Officer Charlie Pedlar, as being strong advocates for gender equality, having worked with so many female athletes in their career.
When touching on personal battles, Georgie indicates that her relatively youthful looks mean that she can often be seen as young and inexperienced, even though she’s been working in elite sport for ten years. “This just fuels my fire to prove a point.”
It’s clear that there is somewhat of a blocker for females entering the sports industry, but Georgie remains hopeful “the more we can highlight career pathways, the more we can encourage females to think of this as a viable career choice. Having women included in things should not be a box-ticking exercise, but highlighting STEM pathways is important.”
Georgie notes that when she left UK Anti-Doping and was weighing up whether to do a Masters or Ph.D., after a fair bit of personal research, she concluded that as a woman in the sports science area, she needed to have a Ph.D. in order to truly succeed in the particular industry sector. “I don’t think this is reflected as much in men in the sector, but it’s something that we are trying to change.”
What the future holds
“Increasingly, we’re seeing people jump on the female research bandwagon, which can only be a positive thing.” As a result of this, in the next ten years, Georgie hopes that we’ll see a significant improvement in the effect of the menstrual cycle on female performance, such as fewer females dropping out of events as a result of their period. Georgie thinks there will also be more research to unearth the management of symptoms for athletes, as well as looking at how hormones affect changes in their cycle and the impact of contraceptive use.
“But, research is forever ongoing. The more we highlight the issues, and demonstrate what the status is now, the more we can act for the future.”