In honor of Women's History month, I want to dive into what makes a female athlete different and to learn, apply and celebrate the differences between male and female athletes. This is an incredible time in history where female athletes are finally stepping into the spotlight. Until recently, most research was done on men and generalized to women because women were “too difficult to study.” More and more research is becoming available everyday to help understand how very different male and female athletes are from their physiology, their thought patterns, their motivation to their biomechanics.
At Precision, we aren't afraid of using words like period, pelvic floor, menopause, pregnancy or postpartum because they are a part of everyday life when it comes to working with female athletes. Unlike men, women's physiology changes on an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis. When we are looking at female athletes first we must identify where they are on, what I like to call, the female athlete spectrum. If we identify where they are on this spectrum it narrows down what challenges they may face and what benefits they may have at their disposal based on their physiology.
The differences between male and female athletes really begins around ages 11-12 years old. Prior to puberty girls and boys are very similar in strength, speed and size. Then puberty hits and everything changes. Girls that are used to winning all the time often hit a training plateau. This is very common and often not discussed with athletes by their coaches, parents or healthcare providers making it an incredibly challenging and frustrating time for girls.
Around the age of 12-13 female athletes could be refocusing their training on things like mental skills, neuromuscular control and consistency rather than worrying about being the fastest on the track. However, without that knowledge they often begin overtraining, under eating and worrying that their performance. Enter issues like Relative Energy Deficiency (RED-s), eating disorders, injury and mental health struggles. As girls get their periods we must adapt their training to benefit them rather than sticking them in the same box as the boys and expecting the same results.
As female athletes develop they have leaner, smaller body frames, less red blood cells, lower cardiac output, lower VO2 thresholds, smaller muscles and more body fat, decreased muscular stiffness and dynamic control. At first glance this may all seem like a disadvantage, but it's not. It's just different. Although there are vast differences in female and male athletes we do see that as women become more trained their physiology becomes much closer that that of a males.
Many of the differences in men and women are driven by hormones. Women have less testosterone and more estrogen and progesterone. One benefit of female sex hormones is that estrogen acts as a protective mechanism against heart disease. Men tend to have more troponin released in their system post exercise and are more prone to hypertrophy of the ventricle.
Women's hormones fluctuate rather than stay in a steady state. That is why having knowledge of these fluctuations benefits the development and performance of female athletes as they grow and mature. What a woman is doing in her training should correlate with where a woman is in her cycle for maximal strength, decreased injury and performance. There are times during each month that women should push themselves and train hard and there are other times they should focus on rest, recovery, neuromuscular control and mental skills. Finding this balance and rhythm can change the destiny of a female athlete.
Additionally women get pregnant. I know it seems obvious, but in the world of sports historically women have had to hide it for as long as possible and have been under immense pressure because of contracts and financial concerns. Luckily this is beginning to change because women are finally empowered to speak out and support each other. More resources are becoming available for pregnant and postpartum athletes. The mindset around pregnant and postpartum athletes is improving but still needs to evolve much further.
Women run and train during pregnancy, but don't have to. If they choose to continue training there are plenty of ways to support them physically and otherwise. However, many female athletes struggle to continue while they are pregnant because of the extraordinary changes their body undergoes in every single system of the body. We have to give them the grace and support to choose either way.
Postpartum is forever. Once a woman has had a baby her body may never be the same again- even 10+ years later. Musculoskeletal changes include pelvic position and size, changes in the abdominal wall and pelvic floor, foot size, stability and much more. This is not negative- it is reality. Despite all of these changes, many women come back from pregnancy stronger and fitter than ever.
Menopause is another under studied and under discussed period in a female athletes' life. There are so many peri-menopausal and post-menopausal women in sports now. We need women to be more educated that what they used to do may no longer benefit them. During this period of their lives they may need to change how they fuel, hydrate and train. The new changes in hormones impact temperature control, disrupt sleep cycles, change carbohydrate and protein metabolism and how bones strength is maintained .
Women make incredible athletes. Now that research and knowledge about the female body and physiology is becoming more available we need to apply it to our athletes to help keep them strong, safe and crushing it.