Women in sport
The physiological differences between the sexes are not only visible, but also logically explain why – depending of course on the sport and duration of the competition – the differences in performance vary by 6-30%.
Battle of the sexes! – there are no «small differences»
The bodies of women and men differ in many ways. Not only in height, weight, or sexual characteristics, but also in terms of physiological parameters. In concrete terms, this means: women are on average about 10 cm smaller and about 12 kg lighter than men. Gender differences can also be detected in the heart and lungs. Women have a smaller athlete’s heart, which means a higher heart rate for moderate athletic loads (lactate values of up to 4 mmol/l) – and the blood volume as well as concentration of oxygen carriers are also lower. The maximum oxygen intake (VO2max), a parameter for the load intensity, is lower in women. The lower endurance performance capability can also be seen in the lower haemoglobin values (relevant for the transport of oxygen).
The different hormone status after puberty also affects the metabolism. Women lose more fat under load, but less protein and carbohydrates.
The greatest differences in performance are in short-duration and strength-based sports. Due to the higher testosterone levels, men generally have more muscle fibres and therefore also higher maximum strength. The underlying differences in performance lie in the female cycle and related hormonal fluctuations and effects.
«Women are not small men - stop eating and training like one.» (PHD Stacy Sims)
The biological conditions explain why women should train differently than men.
A few examples of what a customised training program might look like:
- Stimulation: Due to the hormone status, women are less able to exert themselves to their full capacity in the individual training units and are thereby less prone to any subsequent overload symptoms. Accordingly, the next intensive training stimulus can be introduced earlier in time.
- Scope: The scope of training for women tends to be higher.
- Tapering phase: The loss of performance after the last intensive load starts earlier, so the last intensive load should be done closer to the target competition (3-4 days).
- Strength training: Due to the lower level of testosterone, training success is only achieved with a higher volume of training. It makes sense to take the anabolic (1st half of the cycle) and catabolic (2nd half of the cycle) cycle phases into account.
- Flexibility: Due to the softer connective tissue and increased flexibility, flexibility should not be forced, but carried out in a controlled manner. Stability training is recommended in the event of hypermobility.
- Monitoring: Much more than the half of all women notice cycle-related influences on their individual performance capability. It is helpful to integrate the cycle into the training diary or to record the possible effects using the cycle app.
What does your cycle-controlled training look like in practice?
Cycle-related influences particularly need to be taken into account when controlling your training because the natural hormonal fluctuations can influence your training both positively and negatively.
In concrete terms, this would mean that in the first half of the cycle, the focus is on increasing strength and endurance. The training intensity then increases until shortly after ovulation. In the second half of the cycle, the focus is on maintaining strength and endurance – and the training intensity decreases again.
The menstrual cycle is therefore specifically used to control your peak training loads and recovery. However, cycle-controlled training only works if a woman has her natural cycle and does not take contraceptives such as the pill or other hormonal contraceptives.
In the podcast series «smartHER– the women’s sportcast», the episodes with Adrian Rothenbühler provide further information on cycle-controlled training (gender-appropriate training plan and cycle-controlled training). Go to the podcasts
More information under: www.swissolympic.ch/fs
Maja Neuenschwander is the «Women and Top Sports» project manager at Swiss Olympic and a running expert.
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