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Women aren't small men: Myth busting female sports performance.

Women aren't small men. University of Waikato Research Fellow Dr Stacy Sims dispels some of the myths about female sports performance.

University of Waikato Senior Research Fellow, Dr Stacy Sims, is changing attitudes in the sport science field. Her research addresses female physiology and how this influences athletic performance.

Dr Sims’ research helps sport coaches to develop tailored training, nutrition and recovery programmes that enable women to achieve greater results. She’s based at the University of Waikato Adams Centre for High Performance in Tauranga.

Dr Sims says while the representation of women in high performance sport has increased in recent years, when it comes to performance training and nutrition the science behind performance enhancement has long been skewed towards men. Until the 1980s, sport science research was based on 18- to 22-year-old men, with no recognition of the influencers and differences between the outcomes of men and women.

So how do female training rates differ from that of males, and how can women enhance their outcomes? Dr Sims addresses a few of the key drivers of female sports performance.

It’s all about timing

During a woman’s menstrual cycle, her hormones fluctuate from low to high; termed follicular (low) and luteal (high) hormone phases. The variation of baseline hormone concentrations can affect her physical and psychological performance, although it varies from person to person.

The follicular phase is marked by the first day of bleeding through ovulation. At this time, a woman’s levels of oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest. This is when a woman is “most like a male” in terms of what is known in sport physiology and nutrition research. Her pain tolerance is increased, time to fatigue is increased, intensity and workloads are primed for personal best (PB) and from a metabolic state, a woman’s body can tap into more carbohydrate stores and recover faster (as compared to the high-hormone phase).

It’s during this low-hormone phase that women should aim to hit high-intensity training sessions hard, try for PBs in power and speed activities, and optimise recovery through nutrition. The luteal phase (approximately the two weeks preceding the start of a woman’s period) is known as the high-hormone phase. During this phase a woman’s physiology is markedly different from a man’s. Progesterone increases her body temperature (~0.5’C), sodium excretion and muscle tissue breakdown. The combination of elevated oestrogen and progesterone decreases the amount of water in the blood, increasing the body’s reliance on fat for fuel, while stimulating greater fat storage, and increases central nervous system fatigue (ie she runs out of steam quicker).

During the late luteal phase (~5-7days before menstruation) is a good time to focus on steady-state cardio exercises, higher rep, lower weight resistance exercise, and stay on top of protein intake throughout the week.

Key things to remember

Women should think of their training schedule as a monthly cycle. Give yourself the flexibility to push hard when you're feeling good and to back-off when you're not. Start by keeping a training log and monitoring your cycle versus your performance – this should give you a good idea of how the different phases affect you personally. When you’re menstruating, it is not the time to hide, it’s the time to hit those intensities and PBs; fuel well and pay attention to protein intake. As your period approaches, know that it isn’t your fitness, but your physiology that can make your training sessions feel more like a slog than a win – hydrate well, eat your protein, and alter your training to work with your physiology, not against it.

Want to know more?

For an ind-depth look at Dr Sims’ research and performance tips, read her book Roar.

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