Why is training as female so complex? And who would have thought that your gender would have such a significant impact on your ability to train and remain injury free.
Being a male myself, the hardest thing I generally have to think about is what time I need to get to the gym. But our female athletes have way more other factors to think about, mainly revolving around their menstrual cycle. So let’s take a quick lesson in how female athletes vary from males.
- Have a menstrual cycle.
- Have a pelvis and hips designed to carry a developing foetus for 9 months and accommodate birthing, regardless of if they do or not.
- Have mammary glands/breast designed to produce milk for feeding a newborn.
- Hormonal profile can positively or negatively affected by various factors, including eating, training, stress, etc.
- In general, body fat makes up more of the total percentage of body weight for females. Adult females have 8-10% more body fat than adult males.
- Have a greater resistance to fatigue than men, therefore are able to sustain continuous and intermittent muscle contractions at low to moderate intensities longer than men (Clark et al 2003, Yoon et al 2007).
- Bone mass is built at the same rate as males during puberty, but after puberty it falls behind.
So the good and bad news is that some of these things can be changed and some of them can’t. Arguably the most important thing to understand is how your menstrual cycle can affect your training. So what is the menstrual cycle and how does it affect a female when training?
Firstly, the menstrual cycle
The menstrual cycle functions to select, mature and release an egg from the ovaries and prepare the endometrium for implantation of the fertilised egg. Menstruation is typically 28 days, but can range from 24-35 days. During this period of time, hormonal fluctuations are entirely normal (see figure below – the four main hormones and their fluctuations). They are in a constant state of flux, never steady, always going up or down and are tightly regulated by stimulatory and inhibitory signals sent between the ovaries, hypothalamus and pituitary. Because of the various hormonal changes a female experiences in this cycle, the female athlete needs to be managed differently to a male athlete.
There are five main phases of the menstrual cycle that need to be considered by a female (or their trainer) when training. These stages have various adaptations that need to be considered. To make things even more complicated, there can be some crossover of phases and rarely are two females exactly the same. The key phases (using a 28 day cycle) are :
- Menstruation phase – day 1-5
- Follicular/proliferative phase – day 1-13
- Ovulatory phase – somewhere between day 12-16
- Secretory/Luteal phase – day 15-28
- Premenstrual phase – somewhere day 24-28
- Be careful during this time. 70% of women experience symptoms as a result of bleeding. Back pain is one of the most common ones. At this time, consider things like not lifting from the floor and/or lifting with a wider/sumo stance to promote stability of the SIJ/lumbopelvic region.
- For women who don’t experience symptoms, still be aware that lifting during this time can be problematic and some consideration of the above mentioned problems should be taken.
- Due to higher pain tolerance and perceived higher energy levels, this is the time the female body is primed to go as hard as you can, particularly in the early stages.
- During later stages, the rise in oestrogen has been suggested to hamper pre-exercise carbohydrate stores. As a result of this, it is thought that strength training (as opposed to HIIT) might be more effective.
- There is evidence to suggest the female athlete is at a higher risk of injury at this time. Studies have shown things, like ACL injuries, are more likely to happen around ovulation.
- Oestrogen levels are peaking here, which means their ligaments become more lax, potentially placing them at a potentially higher risk of injury from heavy lifting.
- Increases in breathing and body temperature may make it harder to train in this phase, however that aside, a female can load as much as they like during this time period. Research has suggested this does not affect performance.
- Unlikely to do heavy lifting at this stage. Females who suffer from PMS can lose coordination, awareness of where they are in space, become clumsy, suffer from things like headaches and bloating.
- Avoid activities that involve fine balance or motor control.
- Just get through this phase with a minimum of fuss.
So, there it is. Clear as mud. Hahaha. The most important thing to realise is that hormonal fluctuations happen, they are normal, but being aware of where you are in your cycle may help you avoid injury. If you find it difficult tracking where you are at and what this means for you, downloading an app like (FitrWoman) might be a great tool for you to assist you in your training regime.