Women’s specific bikes. Women’s specific magazines. Women’s specific clothing. Women’s specific races. So what about Women’s specific training and coaching?
As a female athlete or a coach that looks after female athletes it’s important to understand the key gender differences between men and women and why your training should look different to your male counter-parts. From hormone levels, to hydration needs, participation motivations, competition mindset, biomechanics, injury susceptibility and race day logistics during a menstrual cycle there are a number of key differences to be noted.
Top 3 key differences that we, as women or coaches of women, should factor into our training programs:
1. Hormone levels & hormonal changes
Seems obvious, that males and females have different hormone levels. But have you thought about how this affects monthly training or racing at certain times of the month for females? or even post-menopausal? What if you could embrace these varying hormone levels to reach optimal performance at certain times of the month?
To give you a brief lesson of Hormones 101, for menstruating women, there are two distinct phases and key sex hormones; progesterone and estrogen. [See Figure 1]
a. The low hormone phase: Known as the Follicular phase, is from Day 1 of the bleed through to Ovulation (~ Day 14). During this phase estrogen is low through to Day 5, at which time it begins to slowly rise and peak around Day 14 for ovulation and then decrease again during ovulation. Progesterone remains low throughout this phase.
b. The high hormone phase: Luteal phase, post ovulation (~Day 15) through to the end of cycle, in text book terms is day 28-30 for a normal cycle. After ovulation progesterone and oestrogen both begin to rise, reaching their peak around Day 22-25, often noted by pre-menstrual symptoms.
Figure 1: Menstrual Cycle
A note on the oral contraceptive pill (OCP): If you take an OCP, your body is receiving synthetic hormones throughout the entire month, the type of OCP you consume will determine if these levels fluctuate (bi or tri phasic) or remain stable (monophasic) (4). I have included recommended reading at the end of this article regarding the affect of OCP’s for athletic performance.
Pre and post menopause: Our key sex hormones, progesterone, testosterone and estrogen begin to decrease in perimenopause , causing a myriad of symptoms as the body begins to adapt to lower levels of hormones. Post menopause, women still have levels of estrogen, testosterone and progesterone, but in lesser amounts, and do not follow a fluctuating monthly cycle.
Why this is important to know: Lets face it, training for long endurance events is not a “normal” process that our bodies are designed to adapt to long term. This is why your program should be periodised with specific periods of rest for adaptation.
I find athletes, and women, inherently hard on themselves. Setting high standards for what they “should” be able to achieve. Often this drives athletes, and more specifically “wanna-be super-women” into burn-out. The female body simply cannot be in prime position to complete high intensity, strength or speed work everyday. And beyond training, varying hormone levels also mean that sometimes women will want to be a social butterfly and other times find peace in solace. Why fight it when you could accept it, embrace it and utilise it?
How this works:
Within hours of a period starting, ovulation begins to rise, helping to dissipate the pre-menstrual symptoms. Come Day 3 of the cycle, hormones begin to work synergistically. Testosterone increases through to ovulation, libido, concentration, motivation and a natural drive for life kicks in. Combine this with the estrogen rise and you have a recipe for solid training (1). During ovulation, with such large shifts in hormone levels, this can leave some women feeling flat and low on energy. After ovulation progesterone and oestrogen are on the rise together, creating energy with a sense of calm. However, for some women with hormonal imbalance, low progesterone symptoms such as low moods, headaches, excessive fatigue and low libido can occur.
From around Day 24 both estrogen and progesterone begin their gradual decline from, leading to premenstrual symptoms for many women.
What to do about it:
Rather than bust your guts for a key training session when your body is not deigned to push strength or speed efforts, adjust your program with your hormones in-mind, allowing you to adapt during periods not suitable to harder sessions. Male or female, athletes need recovery weeks for adaptation.
1. Adjust your training program to embrace your hormones
• Program your recovery week 4 days out from when you are due for your period and continue into Day 2 or 3 of the bleed, depending on your symptoms.
• Allow a rest day or recovery session around Ovulation, as many women experience exacerbated fatigue at this time
• Between Days 8 & 12 (or a ~4 days prior to ovulation if you have an irregular cycle) is when you can utilise your hormones to your advantage with intensity sessions or some higher volume.
• Likewise, between Day 16 (or post ovulation if your cycle is irregular) and ~Day 24 is a great time to program your key sessions.
To learn more about this full protocol and in depth program changes to embrace your hormones, check out my E-toolkit – Healing The Grumpy Athlete.
2. Changes in thermoregulation
Thermoregulation is the process of maintaining optimal core temperature and dictates your ability to adapt to heat stress in training and racing. Thermoregulation is also impacted by hormone levels, and since women have different hormone levels to men, sweat rates and even on-set is later. However, you can train your bodies ability to deal with heat stress.
A note for post menopausal athletes; as your levels of estrogen drop, so does the signal to your autonomic nervous system regulate to your fight or flight system, leaving you with a racy heart and rapid temperature changes. As a result of this change in hormone levels, sweat rate is reduced, and therefore so is thirst, leading to poor hydration and ineffective cooling of the core temperature.
Why this is important to know: Dehydration can wreak havoc on your general health, mineral absorption, training and racing performance. As a female athlete your hydration and cooling needs will change over the course of your menstrual cycle due to changes in sex hormones.
For post menopausal women, more attention to hydration day to day and for racing is required, even though sweat rate and thirst may be low, core temperature may still be high and needs to be controlled.
How this works:
In the high hormone phase, skin temperature and blood flow are lower as a result of lower blood plasma volume, and thus heat tolerance is impaired. The increase of progesterone in this phase also impacts sodium levels, increasing vulnerability of hyponetremia.(6)
What to do about it:
1. During periods when you are prone to dehydration, whether it’s hot, your hormone levels have dropped or you’re post menopausal, plain-ol water ain’t gonna cut it. I recommend consuming natural electrolytes daily and in-training. Fresh lemon juice with a pinch of pink Himalayan salt is a great option.
2. Train it. Your ability to manage heat stress is completely in your control and ‘train-able’. Generally allow two weeks for your body to adapt to heat stress by improving your sweat rate and thermoregulation. You can do this by completing sessions in a heat chamber, training in a hot climate or visiting a sauna regularly.
3. Be aware of the change in hydration needs, especially if you are racing, and adjust them accordingly.
3. Peak Performance Age
There have been a number of studies(3,5) conducted comparing gender peak performance age for Triathletes, across short and long distance events. The common outcome of these studies is that females will reach the start of their peak performance window about 5 years later (~25 years) than male athletes (~19 years), however the end of that peak performance window will close around the same age as male athletes, ~39 years.
Studies have also noted that performance differences between male and female athletes remain stable from 25 years of age until 55 years, at which time the difference increases significantly, noted by the average age of post menopausal women in high performance events.
Why this is important to know:
The introduction of menstruation and puberty to a female athlete is a dramatic change. Their body shape, biomechanics, moods, motivation and metabolism will all start to change. These changes may increase injury susceptibility or poor performance in training and racing. During this time, balanced training, nutrition and recovery are imperative to ensure longevity. Similarly, for post menopausal women, this is a big change to adjust to, impacting strength, speed, motivation, body composition, metabolism and mood.
What to do about it:
For athletes and coaches of female under the age of 25, planning for longevity in sport is critical to allow the female athlete to develop during their teen years, trying not to rush their peak performance and helping them set realistic expectations for their Triathlon journey. To support the young female athlete I encourage education to help them understand their body, it’s changes and the impact on performance. Female specific training adaptations are also a key element to ensure a smooth transition.
The post menopausal athlete also needs specific training adaptations that focus on speed and power, with less emphasis on pure endurance. I recommend consulting with a holistic practitioner to make this transition less tumultuous, with the assistance of acupuncture, nutrition for gut health and optimal metabolism.
I have highlighted just 3 of the gender differences I see as crucial to address when considering a female athlete. There are also differences in participation motivations, competition mindset, biomechanics, injury susceptibility and race day logistics.
As a female athlete you might be thinking “we are so hard done by!” and as a coach of female athletes you may be thinking “how on earth do I manage these differences?”.
The point here of highlighting differences between male and female athletes is not to point them as better, worse, good, bad, advantageous or down right sucky. It’s about awareness of knowledge and tools at your disposal to make gender specific training and racing adaptations. With the ultimate goal to work towards balanced hormones in aid of longevity, wellness, fertility and optimal performance in sport.
Katee Pedicini B.Exi.Sci
Healing The Grumpy Athlete: Katee Pedicini
ROAR: Stacy T. Sims
The Hormone effect: Sarah Joyce
The Woman Code: Alisa Vitti
1. Arena B, Maffulli N, Maffulli F & Morleo M (1995). Reproductive Hormones and Menstrual Changes with Exercise in Female Athletes. Sports Medicine 19, 278-287.
2. Chopra A & Tanaka H (2003). AGE AND GENDER INTERACTIONS IN PHYSIOLOGICAL FUNCTIONAL CAPACITY. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 35, S245.
3. Jankowski C (2011). Age and Gender Interactions in Ultraendurance Performance: Insight from the Triathlon. Yearbook of Sports Medicine 2011, 373-374.
4. Joyce S, Sabapathy S, Bulmer A & Minahan C (2013). Effect of Long-Term Oral Contraceptive Use on Determinants of Endurance Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 27, 1891-1896.
5. Knechtle B, Rüst, Rosemann T & Lepers R (2012). Age and gender differences in half-Ironman triathlon performances – the Ironman 70.3 Switzerland from 2007 to 2010. OAJSM59.
6. Sims S (n.d.). Roar.