Niamh Mallon: A sporting life

Down camogie star Niamh Mallon explains her involvement in a pioneering App that is benefitting female athletes at every level. Niall Gartland writes…

A WEEK ago Niamh Mallon delivered an attacking masterclass in the Ulster Senior Championship final, scoring 10 points in Down’s provincial final triumph against Antrim, and she’s no slouch off the pitch either.

Currently pursuing an industry-based PHD via her employment with Galway-based firm Orreco, Mallon is a performance nutrition scientist and she is heavily involved with the firm’s drive to tailor bio-analytics for sports performers.

The cutting-edge firm has developed an App (FitrWoman) which provides personalised training and nutritional suggestions for female athletes in line with their menstrual cycle and it has been endorsed by none other than Chelsea’s Women’s soccer team right through to Olympic athletes.

Mallon, who has had an interest in elite sporting performance from a young age, hopes that the LGFA and Camogie Association will come to appreciate that this is far from a niche subject matter.

Proffering a general outline to her area of expertise, Mallon said: “Historically research around females, and in particular female athletes, was pretty scary.

“Female athletes had always been treated like males which doesn’t make sense given the physiology is completely different.

“Our lead researcher saw a gap in the market to try to benefit females and get them to appreciate that their physiology is different and to use that to their advantage, and out of that came the FitrWoman application.

“It allows women to track their cycle and in particular provides nutritional recommendations relating to their fluctuating hormones across the cycle. It applies to the recreational athlete right through to elite athletes competing on the world stage.”

“I was always intrigued by physiology and performance and I was also on top of my own nutrition and looking after all aspects of performance.

“But to be honest I was completely ignorant to the menstrual cycle aspect and how hormone fluctuations affect your performance before I got involved with the Orreco company so I’m trying to practice what I preach. We see on the ground and in our research that it’s definitely helping in practice.”

Mallon, who is particularly invested in the nutritional aspect of the App, explains that it aims to mitigate negative symptoms that could interface with a player’s ability to play or train.

“It equips the athlete with practical recommendations. It’s not about eating better per se, it’s more about the type of food you’re taking in at points in the cycle.

“More generally, we would never suggest pulling back in training or massively tailoring training. It’s more about optimising the player based on their phase of the cycle to be in the best possible state on the day.

“It looks at the player as an individual and what they’re experiencing symptom wise and how we can mitigate against it. The recommendations itself are fairly basic.

She continued: “We’ve done a lot of research and around two-thirds of athletes we work with feel symptoms affect their cycle so it’s very prevalent.

“To give you an example, the most common symptoms for a player in phase four, which is the pre-menstrual window, are stomach cramps. So we try to put in place symptom management strategies to offset these cramps around big games because it’s the last thing a girl will want to think about. Whether it’s putting in stretching or a mobility protocol or trying to be really proactive regards nutrition, it’s massively important and hopefully beneficial to the athletes.”

Through her work Mallon gets to work with a wide range of athletes, including those at the peak of their elite sport.

“We do a lot of work across professional team sports and individual athletes. We do a lot of work with Chelsea Women who are probably the leading team in the WSL (Women’s Super League) as well as medal-winning Olympic Athletes. We do a lot of work with Hailey Batten, a really exciting mountain biker who competed in the Toyko Olympics and has big hopes for Paris. There’s a really broad range of athletes and you can see the media traction improving week by week.”

Closer to home, the LGFA and Camogie Association have started to become more mindful of the issue. A host of women’s intercounty teams have moved away from wearing white shorts to alleviate concerns over periods for players, while the Camogie Association recently carried out a player welfare survey to identify areas of concern.

Mallon commented: “You can definitely see a shift but in my opinion the LGFA are slightly ahead of the Camogie Association in terms of getting initiatives off the ground. But it was good to see the Camogie Association conduct that baseline influence and begin to generate a bit of influence in space. Hopefully they’ll put in initiatives to help educate players and coaches to be fully aware of what’s going on and that ultimately will further drive the standard of the game generally.”

Asked if managers spanning her own playing career with Portaferry and Down have shown an understanding of the topic, she could only answer in the negative.

“No, to be honest with you. There’s still a lot of old school thinking out there and I get that. It’s middle aged men who take the majority of coaching in my own personal experience.

“I don’t hold it against them, you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s up to the powers-that-be to run educational courses and workshops to educate men in particular about what female athletes are experiencing. I think the onus is on the LGFA and Camogie Association to do that and to open people’s eyes.”

Mallon recognises that it’s a sensitive subject, and only that isn’t always easily approached, but ultimately an awareness of the matter will benefit all involved.

“Without doubt it’s a sensitive subject, it’s been taboo and I think what people in our space are trying to do is to ensure that coaching teams treat the menstrual cycle the same way as strength and conditioning or the psychological side of the game.

“It’s another facet of the game that must be considered to allow players to be the best they can be. There’s a lot of work to be done but hopefully the research that the Camogie Association has started is going to get the ball rolling.”

Onwards and upwards then and on the field of play Mallon is looking forward to getting stuck into the upcoming All-Ireland Championships. Work has been full throttle but working from home has been a life-safer for the Portaferry native.

“It’s been massive to be honest. I was based in Galway and I’d a three-and-a-half or four-hour trip to training on Thursday nights before coming back down the road on a Sunday evening after spending the weekend at home. From my own training perspective it has been night and day and from a preparation and performance-based stand-out it couldn’t have worked out any better to be honest.”

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