Understanding female physiology to maximise training

Do you sometimes wonder why you’re slower than usual during a training session? Do you often feel great one week and terrible the next? Chances are this could all be related to your physiology, and if that’s the case, you may not know your body as well as you think.

Don’t worry, I was in the same boat as you. But recently I bought a book called Roar by Dr Stacy Sims, and once I read it, I felt completely enlightened.

In this book, Dr Sims delves into the science behind female physiology, how women’s bodies compare to our male counterparts, and how to make our unique physiology work for us instead of against us.

In this post, I’m going to highlight some of the key points I pulled from Dr Sims’ book that I think are very relevant for female fighters, especially when it comes to optimising training for performance outcomes. Let’s begin!

Understanding female physiology

Sometimes women forget they’re not men. I’m guilty of this. I try to keep up with the guys in the gym, only to fall short and wonder why. There’s a reason for this, and it’s all related to the physiological differences between men and women.

Muscle make-up and pumping blood
When it comes to male and female differences in body structure, Dr Sim points out:

“Men and women generally have the same muscle composition as far as the percentage of type I endurance (aerobic) fibers and type II power (anaerobic) fibers. What is different is that the largest fibers in women’s bodies tend to be type I endurance fibers, while in men the type II power fibers take up the lion’s share of real estate.”

According to Athlepedia, type I fibers are referred to as the ‘slow twitch’ muscle fibers, whereas the type II fibers are referred to as the ‘fast twitch’. If you’ve ever wondered why your kicks aren’t as hard or as fast as a dudes (like I do), then this could be why.

Dr Sims further adds that women will always be slower because we “start with a smaller engine.”

“As a woman, you have a smaller heart, smaller heart volume, smaller lungs (25 to 30 percent less capacity than men), and lower diastolic pressure (the pressure in the arteries when the heart is resting between beats and the ventricles fill with blood)…”

Simply put, because of our smaller heart and lungs, we work harder to breathe and pump oxygen to our muscles, which in turn, makes it harder to work them. There are also other factors that come into play, such as hormones (testosterone / estrogen), but I’ll talk about that a bit later.

Endurance
According to Dr Sims, while men are better at giving short intense bursts, females are better suited for endurance.

There are different reasons as to why men are faster and stronger. As previously mentioned, they have bigger type II fibers to start with, plus the male sex hormone (testosterone) “increases the production of red blood cells, which absorb and carry oxygen to working muscles” (Sims & Yeager, 2016).

Since we already work with a smaller heart and a smaller pair of lungs, our muscles don’t have access to oxygen the same way men’s muscles do. The ability to pump oxygen to our muscles gets even harder when we’re at the high-hormone phase of our cycle (nearing our period), but more on that later.

Furthermore, Dr Sims says that, although women won’t match men for strength and power, what we lack in that department we make up for in endurance. We can keep going and going. We may never have the harder kicks or run the fastest against well-trained men, but we can keep up a steady pace for long periods of time.

Strength & recovery
Compared to men, women have to be extra vigilant with post-training recovery. Dr Sims says it’s harder for women to recover. The reason?

“For one, our capacity for muscle glycogen turnover (accessing and using stored carbs) is generally lower, especially during times when our estrogen levels are high. That slows our recovery time because our bodies need available carbs not only to prevent us from eating into the muscles during exercise, but also to help us recover quickly when we’re done.”

pexels-photo-348487If you’re not in the habit of getting some recovery in you after training, I suggest you start. Recovery is really important, especially if you have a heavy training load. I’ve been told by my nutritionist, and a few other experts, that women should consume their post-training intake (protein and carbs) within half-an-hour of finishing training.

When it comes to the strength side of things, we may be slower and weaker but we’re every bit as trainable. Just because we’re not the stronger of the two species, doesn’t mean we can’t build strength, and Dr Sims says we can most certainly build our type II fibers through strength training.

Hormones

Hormones play a huge part in training, especially for women. I’ve already written a post on managing your female cycle for training and fighting, which is more fight specific.

Here, I think it’s important to unpick the female cycle just a little bit more, so you have a greater understanding of what’s going on with your body.

Understanding the cycle
The menstrual cycle is typically 28 days long, give or take. This depends on how regular you are of course. There are two main phases of the menstrual cycle: the follicular phase (days one through to 14); and the luteal phase (days 15 through to 28). You ovulate in the middle of those two phases (the time where your eggs make their way down the fallopian tubes), and your period arrives at the end of it all (after day 28).

During the first half of your cycle (low-hormone phase) you will feel like your normal self, and training will be pretty steady. For the remaining 14 days (high-hormone phase), or in the few days leading up to your period, you feel like crap. Why? Well, your hormone levels change during these two phases and they have a big impact on your body and performance. Dr Sim says:

“…the cyclical rise and fall of your hormones affects more than your menstruation. The natural fluctuations of these powerful biochemical messengers impacts your exercise metabolism, the fuels that you burn and spare, your plasma volume levels (which are needed to sweat), how well you tolerate heat, moods, and much more.”

Understanding hormones
pexels-photo-110470
There’s a lot in Roar about hormones and how they affect your body. For instance, you know that bloated feeling you get before your period? Well, that’s a result of estrogen which helps with the release of vasopressin, or AVP. Vasopressin is the hormone responsible for retaining water. It’s also responsible for affecting our plasma volume, or rather the drop in plasma volume.

When plasma drops, your blood becomes thicker, which means less blood is being pumped from your heart. This makes exercise feel harder. Also, if you’re wondering why you may feel hot during the high-hormone phase, that’s progesterone raising your core temperature.

The high-hormone phase is usually when you start getting PMS symptoms as well. Women are affected by this in different ways. You might get sad, cray cray, or be a combination of both. This can be attributed to estrogen and progesterone affecting your hypothalamus – the part of your brain that’s linked to the nervous system, endocrine system and pituitary gland. Dr Sims says:

“Anything that affects the hypothalamus can have a direct effect on the limbic system (center for emotion and emotional control) and autonomous nervous system (heart rate, breathing rate, digestion). This can also increase fatigue, lethargy, and low mood.”

So what can you do?

With all this information thrown at you, it’s time to look at how you can work with your body. Here, I’ll be giving some of my own tips, including advice from Dr Sims.

Working with what you’ve got
If you’re feeling physically left behind by the guys in the gym, understand you’re working with a different vehicle than they are. They will naturally be faster and stronger – it’s just biology.

But don’t be dismayed. You may get tired more quickly, or be the person at the back of the pack during a run, but that doesn’t mean you’re not the fittest or fastest version of yourself.

I wouldn’t, however, discourage you from ceasing to compete with the guys. Why? Because I believe having someone faster and stronger than you to compete against makes you push yourself even more – like iron sharpening iron. If the only people you have to compete against are slower and less fit than you, you’re not setting a good benchmark for yourself. Keep training as hard as you can, and the rewards will speak for themselves.

Also, remember that you’re every bit as trainable when it comes to strength. Dr Sims points out that you may not be able to compete against a well-trained man, but you can be stronger than an untrained one if you’re at the peak of your strength. I have a friend who can easily deadlift 120kg with excellent technique, and I know she’s stronger than a lot of guys I know.

Recover is key!
scott-webb-22537As mentioned, it’s harder for women to recover after training. It’s even harder when you’re in your high-hormone phase because “progesterone prevents recovery and breaks down muscle” (Sims & Yeager, 2016).

I usually take protein with me to training and have it straight after my workout. Others have suggested chocolate milk as an optimum post-training recovery drink. If you want to know a bit more, I suggest reading this article by fitness magazine.

My nutritionist also told me to have a good meal at least one hour after having a post-recovery drink. She gave me the following formula to use: 50% vegetables (at least three different kinds), 25% carbs (sweet potato / kumara, brown rice), and 25% protein (fish, chicken, etc). If you get a dinner plate and split it up using the break-down above, half the plate should be full of veges, a quarter of the plate should be full of meat, and a quarter full of carbs.

Working with your menstrual cycle
On top of the tips I’ve already discussed in my other post about the menstrual cycle, I also make sure I’m giving my body the right things during the month, and regulating training as best I can.

Drawing on Dr Sims advice for managing your cycle, and combining that with the information in this post by T-Nation, I’ve devised the following plan for myself:

Follicular phase
(Day 1 – 14)
Ovulation
(Day 14)
Luteal phase (Day 14 – 28) and PMS (7 days before period) Period (Day 1)
Training Train hard Train harder
Go for PR (during strength and conditioning)
Harder to train (high-hormone phase)

Bloat

Cravings

Body starts returning to normal. Move into follicular phase plan.
Nutrition Eat carbs Add more calories through protein, carbs and fats (metabolism climbs during this stage of your cycle) Less carbs and calories*

PMS
Zinc, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids and BCAA’s (I normally take these all the time anyway. I also find the omega-3 good for cramps).
*Insulin sensitivity is at its lowest point. Given that you’ll also have cravings, and your body won’t be able to stand high-intensity workloads, it’s wise to monitor your carb intake if you’re watching your weight for a fight. (Source: T-Nation).

Understand that the above is based on whether your period is regular. Keeping a record of your cycle, and what you notice physically during each stage, helps with tailoring a plan that works for you. You can use the above as a guide and adjust it to suit your needs.

Conclusion

There’s a whole lot of information in Roar that I haven’t gone into, like how to train when you’re at different stages of your life (pregnancy, menopause). If you’re interested in knowing more, I highly recommend purchasing the book and, as always, I encourage you to do your own research.

What I really wanted to get across in this post are the main physiological differences between males and females so you have a better understanding as to why your body does what it does. I also wanted to offer some ways in how you can make the most of your physiology, instead of facing frustration when your body decides to hit a wall.

If, however, you are struggling physically and things are continuously going downhill, I would suggest seeking advice from a medical professional.

If you have any suggestions, please feel free to put them in the comment box below.

Roar is available on Amazon.com. Go here to purchase.

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