A new chapter is set to begin for Wales as they enter their first Six Nations with women’s players on full-time contracts, but a new type of kegel training also promises to give the team a fresh edge
Wales ‘ prospects have rarely looked higher over the past decade or so as they approach this year’s Women’s Six Nations, their first tournament since introducing the country’s first wave of full-time players.
That’s not all that’s new around the camp ahead of the 2022 competition, however, as the team has been using Kegel training as a means of combating one of the major taboos associated with women’s sports. Specifically, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) has partnered with femtech brand Elvie in an effort to fight urinary incontinence.
A study of female university rugby players found 54 per cent had experienced incontinence at some point, growing to 79 per cent accounting for women in general aged 18 to 35. Of those, 68 per cent said they leak “at least once per week,” underlining just how common the issue is.
Those involved in high-impact sports like running and gymnastics have returned even higher numbers (up to 80 per cent), but pelvic floor issues are rarely spoken about. As a result, many women feel too ashamed to seek help and ultimately give up certain sports altogether for fear of embarrassment or a lack of understanding.
The WRU is hoping to change that, however, after using the Elvie Trainer to focus more heavily on Kegel exercises and help players tackle the negative connotations surrounding ‘leakage’. Jo Perkins, the head physio for Wales’ women’s team, told Mirror Sport incontinence stems as a symptom of “pelvic floor dysfunction,” highlighting the important role the squad’s new tool can play in identifying weaknesses in that area.
The internal device gives “real-time feedback” to determine whether an athlete is contracting their pelvic floor effectively. “That’s the real beauty of it,” said Perkins. “Up to 70 per cent of women are not tightening the muscles effectively. Because we can’t see them—it’s not like a bicep tightening or releasing—it’s really hard for some women to know if they’re doing it right.
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“That’s where the Elvie [Trainer] is fantastic, because it links to an app on their phone and [tells them] ‘Right, you’re squeezing’ or ‘You’re not tightening enough or releasing effectively.'”
Each member of the Wales squad has been given their own Elvie device, although Perkins highlighted not every player will have to persevere with the Kegel training unless their feedback suggests it’s necessary. She believes pelvic floor training isn’t talked about enough in the male sector, either, although the difference in anatomies, hormones and childbirth makes women far more susceptible to problems like incontinence.
Research has also shown mothers can experience greater difficulty with urinary incontinence when they attempted to run following childbirth. Results published by the Journal of Women’s Health Physical Therapy in January showed pelvic floor concerns were “prevalent throughout pregnancy and postpartum.”
“High impact and intensity sports can cause high intra-abdominal pressures, which can result in pelvic floor dysfunction, including abdominal pain and incontinence,” added pelvic health specialist Perkins. “In turn, these can affect an athlete’s ability to move effectively, generate force and ultimately perform at their best.
“The symptoms can also impact the psychological well-being of players, causing anxiety, fear and embarrassment. Athletes, and women more broadly, should never have to suffer in silence with the physical or emotional impact of these conditions.”
The issue isn’t exclusive to contact-heavy sports like rugby, either, as Team GB Olympic gymnast Laura Gallagher Cox recently told the Telegraph how urinary incontinence affects those in her field: “I’ve been at competitions where I’ve seen girls pee as they take off – when they do a double back somersault you’ll genuinely see urine flying through the air.”
It’s often the case in male-dominated sports that the training methods and general format of the women’s game tends to take inspiration from their gender counterparts. However, the incorporation of Elvie’s technology and Kegel training in general is an example of the women’s game breaking necessary boundaries of its own.
As is to be expected among a group of elite-level athletes, Wales and Bristol Bears winger Jasmine ‘Jazz’ Joyce detailed the kind of new contests that have sprouted since the equipment was introduced. “One of the girls came in the other day and was like ‘I got a PB (personal best) on my Elvie!’ So, stuff like that, it’s massive for us.
“It’s something new, it’s something different that all of us are willing to try and see if things like that work,” she told the Mirror, speaking on behalf of Guinness for the Never Settle campaign.
. “So it’s brilliant that they’re thinking about us, and that’s obviously female-specific as well, so it’s not just something they’ve taken off the back of the man. It’s something that is there to help us as female athletes.”
Joyce was one of the initial batch of 12 Wales players to be awarded a 12-month full-time contract at the beginning of 2022, while another 15 players have been given ‘retainer’ contracts. Gloucester-Hartpury centre Hannah Jones is another among that new full-time corps and echoed a similar sentiment that it felt good to be treated “like woman athletes, not just a little man.”
“We’ve been educated on periods and the Elvie Trainer, which is something new we haven’t thought about before,” added Jones. “So little things like this maybe could help with our core, our tackle technique—bracing before the tackle—and jumping, stuff like that. So that’s been introduced to my training programme, and so far you can see little gains every week, which we’ll see in the [Six Nations] games if it’s helping.”
Jones described one “really cool” feature of the linked app in regards to nutrition advice, such as suggesting a player eats more red meat if their levels showed they are lacking iron. It’s rare that the men’s side may feel envious of the resources on offer elsewhere, but Elvie’s functionality may begin to turn that tide.
The timing couldn’t be better given Wales are soon set to embark on a Six Nations campaign backed by the first influx of players who are able to train and play without the need for other employment. The delayed 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup will also take place later this year in New Zealand, presenting a further testing ground to see what impact the Elvie Trainer might have.
Wales are scheduled to kick off their 2022 Six Nations campaign away to two-time champions Ireland on March 26, hoping to move on from last year’s Wooden Spoon finish in a daunting first fixture. Regardless of that result at the RDS Arena in Dublin, however, head coach Ioan Cunningham’s side are already breaking new ground in their quest to reach rugby’s pinnacle.