Training the female athlete

Before I got into the strength and conditioning world I was a Chiropractor. Whilst studying, basic and advanced physiology needs to be studied in preparation for subjects later in the course such as differential diagnosis. Why is this important? Well you need to understand physiology to understand disease process but you also learn how the body adapts to stress (physical, mental and emotional), diet and disease. The stress most of you are interested in by reading this article is physical, so here is some of my learning and interactions with training the female athlete and how they adapt to training.

Women are complex organisms. A little more complex than males and a little more fragile or should I say sensitive with regards to hormones. A woman’s primary role (biologically speaking) is to be as healthy as possible to create life and reproduce.

Lets start with the female menstrual cycle. Basically and of course it is anything but basic, but essentially an average woman’s cycle is 28 days. For ease this can be broken down into 2 x 14 day blocks.

The first block is a low hormone phase and begins with the first day of bleeding/period (menses). This menses phases usually lasts for 7 days and the first block of the two, 14 days cycles finishes with ovulation. This is when an egg is ready to be fertilised. This also concludes the low hormone phase.

The second block is a high hormone phase. This is when the body has increased levels of estrogen and progesterone. The circulating blood (in the body) usually becomes lower in plasma levels as fluid is lost to interstitial tissue (usually feeling a little bloated towards the end of the block)

So how do these “blocks” affect training?

In the first 14 day block the female athlete is primed to compete. They are ready and can access energy stores such as carbohydrate from the liver well and should (biologically speaking, of course other factors will always come into play) be ready to kick butt, take on the day and go hard in training. Training in this phase can be targeted to higher intensity, lactate tolerance style training with high power and explosive training.

In the second 14 week block the circulating hormones mean that carbohydrate is harder to access. The body prefers to use fat for energy and lower intensity, longer aerobic work is preferred and higher rep, aesthetic or strength endurance sessions should be favoured.

Training Modifications

Training modifications should be made with reference to diet and hydration as well as the training program itself.

As mentioned in the first block the athlete has the ability to go almost for broke:

– High intensity

– Speed power and plyometric focus

– Harder shorter more intense metcons

In the second phase due to the blood plasma reducing the athlete should increase their water and salt intake. Despite feeling bloated they are actually dehydrating as the blood becomes thicker as fluid is lost to the surrounding tissues. If the athlete is competing during this phase simple carbohydrate should be consumed close to the competing window as the body has difficulty getting carbohydrates from the liver, the immediate supply of glucose to the blood supply can be used for performance

The training program should be shifted towards:

– Longer aerobic session

– Strength endurance

– Aesthetic sessions

As a side note to all of this, although I am NOT a medical doctor I would suggest most females do not take the contraceptive pill unless they are taking it for a medical reason. There are many different forms of contraception which are better options for the majority. When you do take the pill you are not really having your period. You are having a scheduled withdrawal bleed. There is nothing natural about it not to mention the side effects and recent links to cancer which are starting to become better documented.  As an athlete you also miss out on some of the benefits we have listed above!

Want to know more about training the female athlete drop us a message and we can see if we can help you out. Changing your diet and training program with your coach to centre it around your menstrual cycle could be the performance boost you have been looking for.