Female Aspects of Training – “No, you’re not a short man!”

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An excellent article was published last month in the journal Sports Medicine. This is an opinion piece titled “The Menstrual Cycle: The Importance of Phases and Transitions Between Phases on Training and Performance.”

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What strikes me about this article is that while it highlights the differences between male and female physiology and the potential effects this may have on performance, there really isn’t a whole lot of published work. in this domain. Although this area of ​​research is still in its infancy, I think it’s fair to say that more and more coaches and doctors are recognizing that the menstrual cycle has significant and real effects on physical performance.

Let’s find out some of the issues here and possibly offer some solutions. I have absolutely no doubt that, if you’re a female athlete reading this, you can make your unique physiology work to your advantage. To give an example, Paula Radcliffe broke the marathon world record in Chicago while suffering from menstrual cramps, and when she spoke about it, it raised a lot of eyebrows in elite coaching circles.

It’s clear that unfortunately many male trainers still don’t consider female physiology when developing their training plans and I think that does a great disservice to many women. In the ultra-endurance world of late, ultra-runners have given the best men a hard time, and it’s not uncommon now for women to challenge men for the overall victory.

I saw Cochrane’s Ailsa MacDonald destroy the men’s field at the Sinister 7 100 miler in Blairmore a few years ago. Minnesota’s Courtney Dauwalter won the Moab 240 race in 2017, and she’s still a contender for the top step of the podium every time she races. Ann Trason, the most decorated ultra distance runner of all time, usually had the top men looking nervously over their shoulders as they raced to the finish of the Western States 100 and Leadville track races 100.

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When we think of the nuts and bolts – it all comes down to hormones – it’s your body’s messenger molecules that regulate just about everything. Men generally have small fluctuations in their hormonal profiles, while the fluctuations are often much more pronounced in women.

Testosterone, the dominant male sex hormone, fluctuates quite a bit throughout the day, but this becomes insignificant when you consider that sex hormone levels in women can fluctuate up to 100% within a window of 24 hour time. These dramatic fluctuations have a myriad of downstream effects. This is not the right forum for

describe the menstrual cycle in detail, but suffice it to say that in general most eumenorrheic (normally menstruating) women have a phase of low hormone levels that occurs right after menstruation, when your physiology is more similar to your male counterparts, and a high hormone phase that begins after ovulation, during which your physiology is quite different.

The predominant female sex hormones are estrogen and progesterone. These have many effects, signaling your body when you need to eat, sleep, and even build and repair damaged muscles. Estrogen in particular can inhibit anabolic stimuli, making it harder to grow muscle after weightlifting; estrogen also increases the activity of the enzyme lipoprotein lipase, resulting in more overall fat deposition.

This is one of the main reasons why biological women tend to have naturally higher body fat percentages. Progesterone increases core body temperature and promotes fluid retention, while promoting greater sodium loss in sweat. This obviously has implications for exercise in hot weather. This all sounds rather negative, but there are also many benefits, especially for the endurance athlete, and there are various strategies that can offset these negative effects.

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On the positive side, women have a higher proportion of Type I muscle fibers. These are the fatigue-resistant, slow-twitch, and endurance muscle fibers that are essential for longer endurance efforts. Females are also better fat burners – they have adapted to metabolize more “fat for fuel”, which is, again, a big bonus for endurance performance. It’s also why a ketogenic diet or fasted runs, which seem to be all the rage these days, aren’t generally recommended for performance-minded women.

There are also days in your cycle where you will simply feel on fire, performance-wise. This comes out from some research, and it varies from woman to woman, but the trick is to know when these days are likely to occur. I’m sure many women reading this will have experienced this. These are the days when you will see big gains in the gym or on your run. In my experience as a trainer, these often occur in the days surrounding ovulation.

Coaches I’ve listened to report that in team training camps, on the third or fourth day, the men often struggle, but in many cases the women excel. I suspect the above factors play a big part in this. Female athletes are probably better equipped for long back-to-back training days, especially in this early “low hormone” phase of the menstrual cycle. This early phase is when recovery is easier, and the hardest efforts will feel easier.

In the second half of your cycle, when hormones are at their peak, research shows recovery takes longer and muscle repair is diminished. You can help counteract these effects by trying to get more sleep during this phase, training a little less intense, and increasing your post-workout protein intake. Also, if you must run or train during this time, consuming extra carbohydrates before training can help you achieve these higher intensities.

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If you are prone to menstrual cramps or feel inflamed, anecdotal evidence suggests that dietary interventions such as curcumin or omega-3 supplements may be helpful. This is probably a better approach than reaching for ibuprofen which can have side effects.

There are many additional factors that can impact athletic performance throughout the menstrual cycle, too numerous to discuss here, and many of them are not well studied, although fortunately this trend appears to be changing. The best advice I can give you is to follow things.

There are a variety of apps that can help (the Fitr Woman app is a good one). Track when you feel good and when getting out the door feels like a struggle. If you have a coach, talk to them about scheduling, as there are definitely considerations that can make a difference.

You are your own n=1 experience, and as an individual your unique physiology is likely very different from that of the next person. Whether you’re looking for peak performance or just want to get the most out of your daily workouts, I hope this is helpful and maybe gives you some things to consider. (Note: I stole the title of Stacy Sims’ book – “Roar” – a great resource for more on this topic!)

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