Women's health and training

Specific considerations for the female athlete

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Over the years it has been argued that the best ways for women to lose fat, get strong and improve athletic performance would be through different training methods to men. However, over the last few years many training styles like CrossFit and Boot Camps have proved this very wrong.

Women have started to train in the same ways to men demonstrating that they can be just as fast as strong (relatively speaking) and look as toned and defined, improving their weight and fat loss goals as well as strength and definition. 

Although women should carry out the same exercises as men there needs to be a few tweaks made in order to support the differences in the male and female body.


Training stimulus

Strength Training

Women have the potential to be just as strong as men in relative terms. These statistics are most obvious when men and women compete directly against each other for example in Crossfit workouts. The female weight may be less than the male but it is relative to the amount a female should be able to lift compared to a male athlete. This indicates that with the right training and correct nutrition women can be as strong as men.

The best training methods for women to use when first starting out and to gain lean muscle and strength is to use multi-joint exercises, ground-based lifts, hypertrophy training and traditional strength training methodologies.


Anaerobic Training

Studies have suggested that when completing bouts of anaerobic exercise women are not able to reach as high a peak heart rate as men, but women are said to be more likely to push themselves harder when training as opposed to their male counterparts. The difference in male and female power output levels and the way females respond and move when exercise explains why females are not able to reach as high a peak heart rate level as men.  

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Women’s bodies have differing strength ratios throughout their muscles, the most common being an imbalance between their hamstring and their quadriceps leading to poor movement which can cause pain and lack of speed and agility. These imbalances lead to added stresses placed upon the body and muscles which can sometimes hold a women back in her strength training programme. To help improve these imbalances it is suggested that the best exercises to carry out are deadlifts, squats, step-ups and back extensions.

Untrained women should not use aerobic exercise for fat loss but should opt for anaerobic training methods as they will help speed up the metabolism quicker and kick start fat burning.


Testosterone Levels

Hormones within the male and female body, especially testosterone, play a big part in how either sex responds to training methods. Although women have a lower testosterone level this does not directly influence the significant difference in a male and female athletes’ strength capacity, but it can alter the difference in the same sex’s strength capacity. A female who has a higher level of testosterone will have a greater strength and power capacity to a woman who is on the lower end of the testosterone scale. Females with a higher testosterone level will find it easier to gain muscle and lose fat.

Although we have identified many differences in the way males and females train we cannot solely rely on research to tell us how we should train. Each and every individual is different and will perform and respond differently to exercise and diet. The best way to find your ultimate diet and performance plan is to experiment and find what works best for you.

Research has stated that large calorie restricted diets do not work well for women as they will end up storing more fat, however, men responded better to a calorie restricted diet. In order for women to excel and lose the most amount of weight and fat possible they should eat a well-balanced diet and should opt for interval and weight training. The metabolic difference between men and women also plays a key role in how we metabolise the food we eat and where we tend to store our fat. Women tend to burn fat during exercise but burn glucose (carbs) when they are at rest compared to men who burn fat at rest.

Although women should opt for interval training it has been proven that women are able to outperform men in ultra-endurance events as they have a larger long distance endurance capacity.

 
Menstrual cycle and nutrition

Are there certain times of the month when your body feels like it doesn't want to work or you are feeling more tired for no reason? Yes we have all been there and we all feel it but always say “i don't know why”. Hopefully the next few pages will shed a light and help you understand why.

It is important to remember this is all based on premenopausal women.


Menstrual Cycle

When you look at the menstrual cycle as a whole the first 15 days are labelled the follicular phase which is directly after you have finished menstruation days 0-14, the middle period the ovulation phase and days 16-28 the luteal phase.    

You may ask why it is important to know the different phases of your monthly cycle but when training this can play a massive part on how your body reacts to the stimulus it is put under. There will be times of the month when your body is able to lift heavier due to the higher testosterone levels and times when you should lower the volume or expect to not reach PB’s.


Follicular Phase

During your follicular phase your body tends to have a higher tolerance to pain as your estrogen levels are increasing. Your body has normal progesterone levels and your body temperature is seen to be normal. Women tend to find they are able to to think very positively and you will feel like you can conquer the world! 

During this phase you should also experience increased endurance so you should be able to push harder through workouts. This is due to your body’s insulin sensitivity being higher so you are able to process the carbohydrates you eat more efficiently which can then be used as energy.

Research says that the follicular phase is a good time to start new activities and new exercise regimes as you are in a very positive stage of your cycle and if you start new activity during this time you are most likely to stick them out for the rest of the month.

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Nutrition during the follicular stage is similar to other stages of your cycle. You should always make sure you are making healthy choices. Due to the higher uptake of carbohydrates being used during training it is important for you to make sure that you replenish them and have re-feed days especially after carb-depleting workouts.


Ovulation Phase

Your ovulation phase is the time when your estrogen levels peak and progesterone levels also start to raise, you may also notice a rise in body temperature. This is a great time to try and PB your lifts and go heavy as this is your highest output phase.  One study by the Journal of Physiology stated that women showed up to a 11% increase in both quadriceps alongside handgrip strength during their ovulation phase.

Even though you are in your highest output phase you need to be careful as this is also the time for highest risk of injury, both major and minor due to our higher levels of estrogen which can impact on your collagen metabolism which together can affect your neuromuscular control. The American Journal of Sports Medicine noted that there was a 4-8 times higher chance of injury rates during this time.

Immune function is also compromised at this time. The body lowers this to allow for you to fall pregnant more easily...however those that aren't looking to get pregnant it is a time to maybe de-load training for a few days and increase the immune boosting foods. 

During your ovulation phase your insulin sensitivity is on its way back down so this is the time when you need to even out your macros and bring your carbs back down as your body will be becoming more insulin sensitivity. It is recommended to keep your meals little and have them every few hours as this will help to keep your insulin and energy levels steady.

It is important to add in lean and red meats during your ovulation phase to boost your iron and protein levels. Immune boosting foods such as mushrooms, green tea, seeds, fish, eggs, green veg and dark coloured fruits will help.

Taking a vitamin C, zinc, magnesium and including a greens powder is recommended


Luteal Phase

During the luteal phase your body will start to feel more tired and will tire more easily during workouts, you may feel like you are fighting against yourself with every rep you take. It is during this time that your uterus can sit up to two inches lower than normal which can lead to a higher chance of prolapse if not careful during training.

Your estrogen levels are on the decline and progesterone is increasing. Your body temperature will remain above baseline during this phase. You may also feel like your body temperature is higher and you will sweat more easily. Women also comment on not being able to sleep very well during this time and may also feel like they retain water.

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The luteal phase allows your body to use more fat for fuel so it is advised to up your fats slightly during this phase. Some women also like to add more cardio into this time of the month especially if you are trying to lose weight or lean out. Lower intensity cardio coupled with moderate weight strength work will allow your body to recover well during the luteal phase without becoming too weak or tired and therefore not being able to recover properly.

Similarly to the ovulation phase it is suggested to have smaller meals more often during this time to help keep energy levels consistent and reduce energy slumps. The luteal phase often makes women feel like they are cravings lots of different foods especially carbohydrates as they become more insulin sensitive.

It is really important to make sure you listen to your body and do not overeat especially on sugary foods and carbohydrates as you may see a slight weight gain during this phase as workout intensity has lowered but you may begin to eat more. To try and offset your cravings add in amino acid rich foods such as, pumpkin seeds and meats like turkey.


Menstruation Phase

After the luteal phase your body will start to menstruate and will begin to feel more ‘normal’ again your energy levels will even out and your body temperature will start to go back down. As your body transitions back this is a good time to start lifting heavy again and getting back into your more strenuous workouts. You can also look at going back to normal routines and habits with your nutrition as your body has started to settle so it will not be craving carbs or sugary foods.
 

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Top foods to eat during your period and why

  • Quinoa – Rich in protein, fibre, contains all 9 essential amino acids. Quinoa is said to help promote the production of the hormone serotonin – our happy hormone

  • Broccoli – Contains calcium, vit A B6 C E, potassium magnesium. Broccoli can help to alleviate bloating and help with reducing gas and puffiness

  • Bananas – rich source of potassium and magnesium. They are also a natural sleep aid

  • Pumpkin Seeds – They contain good fats and can alleviate water retention, mood swings due to there high magnesium content. Pumpkin seeds are also very good for regulating serotonin levels

  • Leafy Greens – These are rich in Iron which we need to replace that which we loose. They are also high in fibre so they can really help with digestion and bloating

  • Nuts and Oily Fish – Rich in Omega 3 which is a healthy fat and these foods tend to be quite filling keep you satiated for longer

  • White fish and red meat - Due to the iron and iodine levels - contributing to energy metabolism and replacing lost iron


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