Training for women
Females have always been part of any social activity requiring athletic prowess, even Vikings and the Huns had female warriors among their ranks. Unfortunately, in modern times of western civilization, there was a weird regression where women couldn't take part of athletics and were somehow considered as "the weaker sex", which is an incredibly limited view on our differences and has even spawned out a lot of social stupidity as a result. Fortunately, things have been changing for a while and now and women's athletics are back in the spotlight.
It is important, however, to understand male and female bodies are different, and some considerations need to be taken when making a program or participating in a team sport.
> Most common injuries for female athletes
Generally speaking, a female body will be built in a way that is not always bio-mechanically efficient for some physical activities. Child-bearing hips which angle the legs towards the middle of the body make running less efficient for women and even some elite athletes will "run like girls", meaning their knees will seem to swing towards the inside. These frame differences give rise to a higher proportion of injuries among women for the following:
Knee injuries (especially ACL)
Most of these problems will be solved by adding a good strengthening program which focuses on the core, hamstrings, and leg stabilizer muscles. Additionally working on movement technique and using some orthotics to help with better alignment should be of help.
The POSE method of running will help reduce the impact on knees and ligaments and a good brace on the feet can help with fasciitis while strength is developed. Also, overweight athletes will be better off by dropping some pounds, but this is true for both genders.
"The female athlete triad"
This is a well-documented syndrome consisting of three usually correlated conditions affecting a female athlete and which are usually linked with body image or an unhealthy relationship with body weight.
Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, limiting the number of calories and energy for performance. Other disorders would include the use of diet pills, purging, or simply not eating enough to cover for the energy expenditure
Amenorrhea, or stopping the menstrual cycle due to severe weight fluctuation, excessive exercise, or body fat under 13%.
Osteoporosis, or fragile bones due to low density. This is caused by low levels of estrogen, calcium, and vitamin D usually as a result of bad eating habits.
The second and third conditions are usually a result of the first, and they are most likely triggered by body image issues in the female athlete. These can be treated with support, good coaching, and ensuring the athlete understands the needs of her training regime as well as setting realistic expectations in terms of body image, performance, and weight management.
On a personal note, the female triad makes me a bit angry. No one should do sports and torture their body just to conform to an aesthetic norm. Getting a six-pack, or losing weight right before bikini season is not only futile but also a stupid reason why to do anything. Sports are about self-discovery and maintaining a body that works and will help you enjoy the time you have alive. Setting unrealistic expectations on anyone about how they should look is equally irresponsible on both extremes; no one needs to look like a supermodel and it is also not ok to allow your body to suffer and have to deal with the results of excess and vice.
> Iron Deficiency
Because of menstruation and poor dietary choices, usually stupid emergency diets or poor understanding of weight management, about 30% of adult female athletes show signs of iron deficiency.
If you go pale and feel fatigue, headaches, or tachycardia (fast heartbeats) while training it is possible you may be iron-deficient.
Female athletes should be careful to add leafy greens, cruciferous veggies (like broccoli), and red meat (if not vegetarian) to their diet as well as an iron supplement (especially vegetarians) to their diets.
> Difference in strength
Female athletes are weaker than males on average, but the proportion is not spread equally. Females are usually 50% weaker than men in the upper body and only 30% weaker in the lower body, so it is important to consider this when making a weight lifting program for female athletes. To get the most out of a leg-strengthening session, a female athlete will have to use equipment which does not require a lot of upper body strength to support the weight.
Upper body strength exercises will also have to consider this and be adapted; often times pull-ups and push-ups need to be adjusted, especially for beginner athletes.
> Hyper-flexible joints
Women ten do be way more flexible than men, some will even have this mutant power called a double joint. Don't believe me? Take a look around your next yoga class and it will be very self-evident.
While this is advantageous for stretching and doing some amazing Instagram posts doing the standing splits in front of the Eiffel Tower, excessive flexibility can also leave a female athlete exposed to injury. Also, because of the way muscles produce power, hyper-flexible athletes will normally produce less force unless otherwise conditioned.
It is important for most female athletes, but especially for the double-jointed ones to develop good joint strength and muscle strengthening. Also, stretching has gotten an amazing reputation, but it is not always such a good idea, ultra-flexible athletes will be better served getting myofascial release massages and foam-rolling instead of static stretching.
Actual female superpowers
There are some sports where female athletes have a physical advantage over males. Not everything in life is power and speed, which testosterone creates, there are other athletic abilities which are better developed in the female body:
Energy efficiency. Women are much better than men at converting fat into energy. This is why ultra-endurance events often have women and men competing very closely together. Over long distances, women tend to be more efficient machines.
Flexibility. While it can be a source of injury if abused, good flexibility offers a better range of motion and helps a cleaner technique when used appropriately
> Making a plan around the menstrual cycle
Female athletes need to take into consideration a month-long hormonal cycle which does have an impact in their physical and mental performance. The advantage of the female cycle is that it tends to be predictable in the majority of cases. On average the cycle will last 28 days, but it is important that every athlete gets to know herself and not generalize; the hormonal changes are very marked and 2 days difference can mean a lot.
Let's look at the average female cycle:
You can divide the hormone cycle into the follicular and luteal stages. The first half is estrogen-dominant and the second half is characterized by a rise in progesterone; these changes translate into higher insulin-sensitivity during the first 2 weeks higher insulin-resistance on the second. Your body's ability to maintain adequate blood-sugar levels will help you determine the best type of training during each period.
Generally, the follicular period, the first 2 weeks, will yield a better response for shot and powerful efforts while the second half is best suited for long-steady efforts like tempo and base.
It is a simplified guide, but generally speaking, these are some good rules to keep in mind:
Best time to do HIIT, lift heavy, or try for a personal best (PB) are weeks 1 & 2. Week 2 tends to be peak performance for power. If you are an endurance athlete, week 2 is best for short distances such as 5km, 10km, 21km, Sprint, and Olympic distances
Week 3 is good for long and steady efforts, longer endurance races should also be fine during this time, although arguably week 2 is still the sweet spot
Week 4 is usually great for recovery and doing technique work
Both genders have their considerations to take, but the female body offers an advantage of knowing when things will happen (generally). It is also important you become aware of what are the risks and work around them so you can have a long-lasting athletic life.
Talk to your coach about this and explore how some adjustments in diet even equipment can help you to enjoy and get the most out of your incredible body.
If you want to get a program tailored to your special needs, or even find a ladies only coach, just sign up and we’ll arrange it for you.