New scholarship to support ground-breaking research on female athletes' use of menstrual tracking apps

9 March 2021

Holly Thorpe

As the high-performance sporting world works to better understand the factors that influence female athletes’ health, a new doctoral scholarship at the University of Waikato will support research into female athletes’ use of menstrual tracking apps to better understand their influence on athletes’ health knowledge and behaviour.

Co-funded by the University of Waikato and US-based bio-analytics company Orreco, the full-fees scholarship is aimed at doctoral candidates wishing to study health, sport and human performance at the University. Applications are currently open and will close on 31 March.

Dr Holly Thorpe, who is a professor in Te Huataki Waiora - School of Health at the University of Waikato, says the scholarship will enable crucial research on the experiences of female athletes and coaches’ use of digital tracking technology, including the FitR Woman app – a free menstrual tracking app widely-used by sportswomen and their coaches.

“To date, no qualitative research has focused on women’s experiences of menstrual tracking technologies, and how such devices inform understandings of health, performance, and the menstrual cycle, and impact their everyday practices and behavioural change,” says Professor Thorpe.

Professor Thorpe is part of Healthy Women in Sport: A Performance Advantage (WHISPA), a multi-disciplinary collection of specialists formed by High Performance Sport NZ to ensure the best clinical advice reaches coaches and elite female athletes. The Orreco University of Waikato Doctoral Scholarship stems from the work of WHISPA, and findings from its research will contribute to wider work aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of female athletes.

“Elite female athletes and their coaches have been using menstrual tracking apps for athletic performance for a few years now, but little is known about the socio-cultural element of using these apps, and how their usage can affect thought patterns and behaviour in the athlete,” says Professor Thorpe.

“For example, if you have an athlete tracking her period on an app, and that’s also visible to her coach, what thoughts and feelings is she having when this information is available to her coach, and how is that affecting her behaviour, and subsequently, her athletic performance?

“We are also interested in how athletes in different sporting cultures - such as team, individual, strength, aesthetic – are using these technologies. Depending on the successful candidate, there is also a possibility of exploring how athletes from different cultural backgrounds are engaging with these technologies. There are exciting areas to investigate.”

Professor Thorpe says research findings will also contribute to the growing collection of knowledge around digital health sociology, menstrual tracking, coach-athlete relationships, body image, and the importance of sporting culture.

"The scholarship provides a great opportunity for a student to do interdisciplinary research on an understudied topic at the intersection of women's health, sport and digital technologies. It is unique in that will also provide the student with opportunities to engage in conversation with a national sports organisation and an international research company, and for their research to inform best practice for our female athletes going forward."

University of Waikato hand-picked for scholarship

charlie-pedlar-smilingOrreco is a small US-based company of scientists, physicians and applied practitioners, working to advance science with the aid of bio-analytics technology. Its work in the health space is driven by chief scientific officer Dr Charlie Pedlar and research scientist Dr Georgie Bruinvels (left).

CEO Dr Brian Moore says the motivation for helping fund a health scholarship in Aotearoa New Zealand was to partner with WHISPA and their multidisciplinary focus on female athlete health, with Professor Thorpe’s involvement with the group and long-standing, innovative research in the area also a drawcard.

georgie-bruinvels-smiling“Our goal is to co-invest in the next generation of PhD scientists to help them accelerate their research, and further advance female athlete research in general to address what has been a serious lack of investment in the past,” says Dr Moore.

“Over time, we hope this will create a ripple effect and grow a network of smart and motivated scientists determined to advance knowledge through research.”

Orecco is working with three other partners around the world to fund similar PhD scholarships -  FIFA, the English Football Association, and USA Swimming.

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