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6 Things Athletes Should Know About Menstrual Cups

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    Why Menstrual Cups Are So Popular

    Menstrual cups have actually been around since the 1930s, but only recently began flying off shelves. Why? Buying a box of tampons or pads every month, and tossing each one in the trash after four to five hours of wear isn't exactly great for the environment. Menstrual cups are reusable, hygienic, and only have to be dealt with every six to 12 hours (depending on how heavy your flow is, of course). "It's great for endurance athletes, or people who like to be out all day hiking or biking, where there might not be easy access to a bathroom ... you can use it, remove it, rinse it in a sink or with bottled water, and then reinsert it," says Maria Sophocles, MD, a board-certified gynecologist in Princeton, New Jersey. Still not convinced? Think of it this way: "A normal period consists of about 80cc's of blood loss, and these cups can hold about 30cc's at a time," explains Sophocles. "That's almost half of your entire period in one cup." No more need for a pit stop at the porta-potty during a marathon.

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    What They Are and How They Work

    Even if you've never heard of a menstrual cup, you've likely seen them in stores. Sophocles describes it as a flexible plastic cup, usually made of silicone, that resembles a diaphragm. "To insert it, squeeze it like a taco, then push it into the vagina as if you're putting a tampon in, giving it a little twist so that it settles snugly against the cervix," she explains. "Then, give it a tiny tug outward to create a bit of suction in the back side of it, which holds the cup in place." You're all set! It does take some practice to get the fit just right, say Justin Shelton, DO, an ob-gyn at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. "They're sold in different sizes, and it's tough to tell right away which size will be right for you without putting it in first," says Shelton. If you've given birth vaginally, you're likely going to need a larger size, while women who haven't may need a smaller one. That said, if the cup causes discomfort while inserted, it's probably too big and you should try a different size or a different brand entirely as they can vary slightly.

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    Practice, Practice, Practice

    "Learning how to use a menstrual cup properly isn't unlike learning to insert a tampon or a diaphragm when you're first starting out," says Sophocles. "It's something that can be awkward at first, so don't try it once and give up if you find it uncomfortable. Experiment when you don't have something big (like a race) coming up." Her recommendation: Give it a dry run (as in, when you don't have your period). Use a vaginal moisturizer or lubricant gel to avoid any tiny cuts, abrasions, or discomfort, and practice putting it in and taking it out. You'll have a better idea how it's done when your period is back in the picture. And yes, you can find how-to videos on YouTube, or simply ask your gynecologist to show you at your next visit.

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    They May Be Safer Than Tampons

    Tampons are very safe when used appropriately, according to the package instructions, and worn for no longer than eight hours, says Shelton. But they're no stranger to scrutiny, including recent news of one woman losing a leg and another dying because they contracted toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare but life-threatening complication caused by certain bacterial infections. TSS is commonly associated with leaving tampons in for too long or choosing the wrong absorbency. (It's more common with super-absorbent varieties.) Using mentstrual cups has a drastically reduced risk for TSS because they don't absorb blood, but collect it instead. It's still important to follow proper guidelines for menstrual cups, though. Sophocles warns that although TSS is still a possibility with menstrual cups, in the few cases where it occurred the product was left in for more than 30 hours. So play it safe and be sure to remove and rinse your cup after no more than 12 hours of continual use.

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    They're Great for Workouts

    Stopping mid-race to switch out a tampon isn't exactly fun, nor is needing to find a bathroom in the middle of a long-distance bike ride. Longtime runner Caitlin Boyle, founder of, says there are a myriad of other benefits for athletes. "The nicest thing is that, because there is no string (like with a tampon), I don't have to worry about chafing during a long run," she says. Even with strength workouts like a HIIT boot camp routine, there aren't typically any leakage issues if you have the proper size, thanks to the suction that happens when you insert it.

    Boyle does warn against wearing one during yoga, though, and admits she uses a tampon for those zen sessions. "With a lot of stretching movements, you can feel the cup shifting." If that's the case, Shelton also says it may be best to experiment with a different size cup, or just switch to tampons if that makes you more comfortable. If that's the only time you're using a tampon, you'll still be cutting down on your cost significantly.

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    But Don't Use It During Sex

    Yes, sex is considered a workout, but that doesn't mean you should leave your menstrual cup in place when you're ready to get busy. Even though some websites tout it as a mess-free option during period sex, Shelton says the risk for injury is just not worth it. "If you have a plastic object in your vagina, you could cause internal damage," says Shelton. "Having sexual intercourse with foreign objects already in there is asking for increased trauma. And remember, it's not an FDA-approved form of contraception, so you should still be using your standard methods of approved birth control."