Considerations for female athletes

I went to an all-women’s college for my graduate degree, a master’s specializing in coaching with a emphasis on coaching women. You might be thinking: they have a degree in that? Yes, but only from this one institution, which gives you an idea of this school’s mission: to create opportunities, and equality, for women and girls all around the world. For two years I had the opportunity to immerse myself into every aspect of coaching—from human physiology, biomechanics and nutrition—to sports psychology, pedagogy, and cultural studies.  

As invaluable as my college degrees were, through six years of schooling in human performance, not once did we discuss the physiological differences between male and female athletes. Not even once! On one hand I get that, because we’re still fighting for equality in sport.  To draw attention to differences between male and female athletes could risk flashbacks to the days before Title IX, when it was believed that women’s ovaries might explode from exercise exhaustion, and when a Boston Marathon official attempted to physically remove Kathrine Switzer from the race when he realized a woman was running (women were not allowed to participate, so she had entered under the androgynous name K. V.  Switzer).  

Though we’ve certainly made big strides since that time, in many ways the exercise community is still a male-dominated world; studies are done primarily on men, most training and physiology books are written with the male body in mind, and discussion of hormone fluctuations through a monthly cycle are taboo and often misunderstood. Resources focusing on women’s-specific physiology are hard to find compared to those written by men with men’s needs in mind (diet and weight loss books, on the other hand….).  

A race official attempting to physically remove Kathrine "K.V." Switzer from the Boston Marathon in 1967. The official was taken out by her boyfriend, who was running the race with her, allowing Kathrine to become the first woman to complete the race.

A race official attempting to physically remove Kathrine "K.V." Switzer from the Boston Marathon in 1967. The official was taken out by her boyfriend, who was running the race with her, allowing Kathrine to become the first woman to complete the race.

All of this is said with zero intention to offend any of the awesome dudes I work and train with, many of whom make a conscious effort to support women in sport and welcome women into their races and training events. Rather, this is meant to spark a conversation between female athletes (and coaches) about ways we can be more innovative with our training design, and how we can pay closer attention to *individual differences, while specifically respecting and honoring female-specific physiology. 
(*Tuning in to, and honoring, individual differences in physiology is key to maximizing performance. Differences between the sexes is just one factor to consider. Equally important are differences in age, muscle fiber composition, dietary preferences, metabolic health, heredity, and of course, life stressors and family and work schedule, just to name a few.) 

Take, for example, “standard” periodization or training design. Most commonly, volume and/or intensity build through the season, then tapering before key events. This makes sense for a healthy male athlete, whose body is genetically designed to build muscle and respond favorably to training at all times during the month. Women’s bodies, however, experience fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone that shift us from an anabolic state (muscle-building) to a catabolic state (a state of muscle breakdown) through a monthly cycle. Does it make sense then, to structure training load with no regard for when our body is most primed to build muscle and positively adapt to training?  Conversely, does it make sense to overload the system when the body is already in a catabolic state and struggling to recover?

Also consider the nutrition end: female athlete need not only adjust dietary intake around energy expenditure and training load, they must also factor in hormone fluctuations that impact muscle building or breakdown, core body temperature, and even resting metabolic rate.

I’m sure by now those who train and race on a team are thinking: we don’t have the luxury of catering to every individual’s physiological ebbs and flows, if we did that, we would never get any work done. Having coached teams for many years, I couldn’t agree more.  However, even those who are committed to a team’s training schedule can tune in to, and cater to, their own body’s needs. Here are a few of those ways:

--Adjusting nutrition and hydration to mitigate muscle breakdown
--Increasing sleep and recovery time during catabolic weeks
--Shifting supplementary workout loads to match energy levels and recovery rates
--Designing strength training to capitalize on anabolic weeks and increase power development

Whether we are training in an individual sport, or as part of a team, there is much we can do to capitalize on our unique female physiology. This begins with thinking more critically about how we train and fuel, by carefully listening to our body and paying attention to its needs, and by supporting each other through that journey.  Doing so will only strengthen our individual performances, as well as those of our women’s teams. I bet K.V. Switzer would be pretty fired up about that.


To explore this content more thoroughly, including the specific needs of perimenopausal and postmenopausal women athletes, join us for the women’s-specific nutrition and performance clinic on May 18.