We can all go online and search for articles on exercise performance or how to optimize training as an athlete. What most people don't know is that a lot of these studies have been done on male athletes, as it's much easier to determine results based on male physiology than it is to try and decode the female physiology. It is not impossible though - so let’s jump into how these differences can affect female athletes and how to optimize training to work with the female's unique physiology!
Women were made for endurance sports. From muscle type to sweat rate, females were built to go the distance. That does not mean women cannot train to be weightlifters and power athletes though, it's just a longer process.
Women tend to be smaller, lighter, and have a higher body fat percentage. All of which make females better suited for endurance sports.
Women typically have larger type 1 (slow twitch) fibers and men have larger type 2 (fast twitch) fibers. This is why men tend to be more powerful.
Women start with smaller engines. Smaller heart, less heart volume, 25-30% smaller lung capacity, and lower diastolic pressure causing lower max heart rates and greater dehydration in the heat.
Women pump out less oxygenated blood (30% less) then men, meaning women have to breathe more, which uses more energy.
Higher testosterone levels increase the production of red blood cells, leaving men with 6% more RBC and 10-15% more hemoglobin.
We're all familiar with the running joke that "it must be her time of the month, ec." but a woman's menstrual cycle does have a great effect on the female body. Estrogen and Progesterone fluctuations can cause a lot of stress on the body throughout the month. The added stress changes how a female athlete's body performs week to week.
High estrogen levels cause women to spare glycogen when exercising and use fat for fuel, which can make hard efforts feel a lot harder.
High progesterone delays sweat response and increases core temp, sodium loss, and muscle breakdown because of its catabolic qualities.
High estrogen and progesterone (7-10 days before starting your period) causes more fluid to move to the cells, which causes decreased plasma volume making exercise feel harder.
Women’s nutrition (pre, during, and post workout) needs to be different from male athletes, especially if they are in a high hormone phase.
Men have a higher glycolytic capacity then women meaning their ability to burn through glucose in the absence of oxygen is higher.
Women rely on fat more than carbs, making it harder to hit high intensities. If stores are low, women are more likely to hit the brakes than the gas on high intensity intervals.
Women are more likely to sweat out sodium. So do not skip out on the salt at dinner!
It is harder for women to build muscle. Estrogen turns down anabolic properties of muscle and progesterone turns up catabolic making it difficult to access amino acids.
It is important for women to take in protein high in leucine (muscle building amino acid) or BCAA before exercise and replace within 30min.
Female metabolism and cravings change. Women burn more calories during the high hormone phase, a 5-10% uptick in metabolism equivalent to 100-200 extra calories per day.
It is better for women to separate fuel from hydration during exercise in order to decrease chances of GI issues and dehydration.
Women need protein immediately after exercise. Female athletes should be taking in 25-30g of protein with 5-7g BCAA within 30min of a hard workout. The recovery window for females is much smaller than males.
When we break the month down into 4 week phases, a somewhat typical training cycle, we can see how to optimize training for a female athlete a bit more clearly.
Week 1 (period start)- Good to hit high intensities. Hormones are low and similar to men during this time.
Week 2- Good to still hit intensity with a focus on proper joint alignment because of a greater injury risk.
Week 3- This is a good week to incorporate longer steady state work. Endurance levels are high and adaptations to those are good, but ability to do high intensity will be lacking. Increase simple carbohydrates pre training and leucine rich protein immediately after training.
Week 4- This would ideally be a recovery week. This is the 5-7 days before the period starts. Athletes should increase protein pre-training and increase starchy carbs and leucine rich protein post training.
If you want more information, I highly recommend reading Stacy Sims book, Roar or signing up for one of her courses. There is a lot more information to be discussed and I hope to dive deeper into the topics in future blog posts, but this is a good introduction to the topic as a whole! Hope this helped fellow female athletes better understand their bodies and how to ultimately optimize training.