Article Text

Beyond the medals: a cross-sectional study exploring retired elite female athletes’ health


Objectives Little is known about the impact of elite sport participation on long-term athlete health. We aimed to: (1) describe musculoskeletal, mental health, reproductive/endocrine and cardiovascular characteristics in retired elite female athletes and compare to the general population and (2) explore athletes’ perceptions of their elite sport participation and its impact on health.

Methods A 136-item online questionnaire was disseminated to Canadian elite female rowing and rugby athletes >18 years old, >2 years retired from elite competition. Matched general population data were obtained from Statistics Canada when available.

Results Seventy-four (24% response rate) athletes (average age 45 (±9) years; retired 15 (±9) years) completed the questionnaire (30 rowing, 44 rugby athletes). During their career, 63 athletes (85%) experienced a hip/groin, knee, foot/ankle injury, or low back pain, with 42 (67%) reporting ongoing symptoms. Athletes 35–54 years reported worse knee symptoms and quality of life compared with the general population (symptom: p=0.197; d=1.15 [0.66, 1.63]; quality of life: p=0.312 d=1.03 [0.54, 1.51]) while other hip, knee and foot/ankle outcome scores were similar. Retired athletes had lower odds of anxiety (OR=0.155 [95% CI0.062 to 0.384]), greater lifetime/ever odds of amenorrhea (OR=6.10 [95%CI 2.67 to 13.96]) and gave birth when older (p<0.05). Fifty-nine (79%) recalled witnessing or experiencing at least one form of harassment/abuse during their career. Sixty athletes (81%) rated their current health as above average or excellent and 61 (82%) would compete at the same level again if given the choice.

Conclusion These novel insights can inform future preventative efforts to promote positive elite sport-related outcomes for current, former and future female athletes.

  • female
  • athlete
  • elite performance
  • rowing
  • rugby

Data availability statement

Data are available upon reasonable request.

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See:

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

Supplementary materials

  • Supplementary Data

    This web only file has been produced by the BMJ Publishing Group from an electronic file supplied by the author(s) and has not been edited for content.