Nike's Leak Defense Shorts Are Revolutionary For Menstruating Athletes. But Why Did It Take So Long?

For menstruating athletes, worrying about potential leaks during activity can be distracting and stressful, but the latest release from Nike thankfully aims to stop that.The sportswear giant recently launched their first-ever period shorts called the Nike One Leak Protection, specifically designed to offer extra protection during menstruation. Lisa Gibson, senior apparel innovation project manager for the Nike Advanced Innovation Collective, told PopSugar, "We really wanted to design for the body in motion and as a backup, so that people could continue to make sport a daily habit knowing that Nike's got their back." To achieve this, Nike created a liner made from a "two-layer laminate gusset" to absorb blood, plus an added anti-leakage barrier. Although it's still recommended to wear another period product with these shorts, the added absorption is likely to be a game changer for many. 

The launch of this product is revolutionary news for those who don't want to skip working out while menstruating, especially professional athletes, and is certainly worth celebrating. However the introduction of a period product in 2023 does leave us wondering how did it take this long to get here? Why are periods just now getting acknowledged in the sporting world?

Sports has failed to support menstruating athletes

The sporting world hasn't had the best track record with supporting the needs of those who menstruate. Back in 2016, after Chinese athlete Fu Yuanhui shared on camera that their period impacted their Olympic swimming performance, the internet flooded with comments expressing shock over the fact that a person could swim and menstruate. That same year, another athlete told HelloFlo that cis-male coaches often don't acknowledge menstruation exists at all, let alone how it impacts players. "I would never let my period stop me from doing my best out there (on the field), but it would be easier to do my best if I didn't have to be ashamed of something I can't control, especially with someone I'm supposed to put my trust in," she said of her coach, noting that many athletes secretly pass tampons around. Not much has changed since then, either. It was only in 2022 that Wimbledon allowed female players to wear darker shorts under the required white skirts or shorts. 

But while professionals have found ways to support their own needs, pretending periods don't exist has created a culture of silence around the issue, so people don't get the support they need. What's worse is the lack of athletic-specific menstrual products, combined with a lack of education, has discouraged young menstruating athletes from participating in activities. According to the Women's Sports Foundation, by age 14, girls drop out at two times the rate that boys drop out of sports. Business Wire further notes that one out of every two teen girls skip sports because of period cramps, fear of leakage, and the shame of speaking about menstruation. 

Ending period stigma in sports is long overdue

Much of the stigma has also made studying menstruation less of a priority in sports research. In 2021, Olympian bobsledder Lolo Jones told Dr. Natalie Brown on NBC's "On Her Turf at the Olympics" that in all of her years as an athlete, her period has never come up. "I've been to three Olympic Games, I've competed for over 15 years, and I have no clue the effect of my period on my practice or performance," Jones said. Brown said that female athletes rarely speak about their periods.

That lack of discussion around menstruation in sports has had real-life consequences that go beyond worries about leaks. The menstrual cycle can take a toll physically on the body, even for professional athletes. Hormone cycles, particularly spikes in progesterone, can lead to fatigue and pain, which may impact performance. Some studies show that athletes are more likely to experience injury during different phases of their cycles. Along with the fact that the menstrual cycle takes a physical toll on the body, many menstruating athletes deal with health issues like amenorrhea, the absence of periods, National Library of Medicine noted. But because of the shame and taboo around the subject, many don't feel comfortable speaking up with anyone about it, let alone their coaches.

That said, Nike's leak defense shorts may be viewed as a step in the right direction by reminding us all that periods do in fact, exist. Let's just hope the conversation doesn't end there.