Watch: Should women be training differently to men?

In Partnership with The Sufferfest

The gender data gap has made headlines in recent months.

Best explained via examples, it’s the phenomenon that means women are 17 per cent more likely to die, 47 per cent more likely to be seriously injured and 71 per cent more likely to be injured in a car crash, due to the use of male test dummies.

It’s the lack of equal research which means women are 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed after a heart attack, because trials and research have focused only on men – whose symptoms differ.

And don’t get me started on why we all laugh and joke about the women queuing out the door to use the toilet, instead of just building more cubicles.

Tangent aborted – does this data gap rear its head in cycling? Yes.

One review found that only 3 per cent of leading sport science studies focused exclusively on women – and where some women were included, they were in a severe minority – leading to a situation where entire journals can include female participation rates as low as 12 per cent.

This means that some of the information we read in relation to training is based on data mined from and optimised for a male physiology.

I spoke to coaches Neal Henderson and Mac Cassin, who work with The Sufferfest to create their training plans and sessions, about what this means for women.

Basic differences

We’re all the same species. There are more similarities than differences between the genders – but the differences do matter.

Men have a higher overall body mass, with more muscle mass (particularly in the upper body), and tend to be larger. However, women usually carry around 10 per cent more body fat.

From puberty, men also have more circulating testosterone. In fact, around three times as much.

Though levels vary with age and across individuals, the normal range for men is 280 to 1100 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL), vs 15 to 70 ng/dL for women.

Testosterone aids oxygen transportation, and recovery, to name a few uses.

Cassin explained: “Testosterone is one of the most potent hormones out there. A lot of people will have heard about anabolic steroids, which people use to dope. All those are is synthetic testosterone or chemicals that increase your bodies’ normal production of testosterone.

“The fact that men naturally have higher testosterone levels, you can see it will create a difference in performance. Not just to absolute strength, but also your ability to recover.”

Women, comparatively, have much more fluctuations in hormone levels. In fact, that’s largely why not many studies feature us – it takes longer to track results at each phase of the menstrual cycle.

“If you’re looking at responses to exercise, and you have to match the phase of the woman’s menstrual cycle first when you’re doing the testing, it extends the time required and adds an element that a lot of undergraduate studies don’t have the resource for,” Henderson said.

World Records have been set at every phase of the cycle – Cassin reminds us, and fluctuations and responses are unique – so your best best is to record them via a tracking app. If you want a general view, there’s more on each phase and typical responses here.

Fiona Kolbinger won the transcontinental outright (Photo by Damien MEYER / AFP / Getty)

On the plus side for women, the female body is more efficient at burning fat – which is one of the reasons we see women winning ultra endurance events outright: if you’re able to unlock the 100,000 odd calories of stored fat, you’re less reliant on carbs.

Power profiles

So men have more muscle powering testosterone. What does it mean?

The Sufferfest asks its app users to complete a test when they start training with the system – this records their 5 second, 5 minute, 20 minute and 1 minute power.

They’ve noticed some differences in the percentage of power women can produce compared to their Functional Threshold Power (FTP).

Average power as % of FTP 

5s

1 minute

5 minute

Men

368%

174%

124%

Women

288%

159%

121%

Of course, a world champion female sprinter is going to run circles around Mr Smith who lives next door. But based on averages, if we took a male and a female with the same FTP, we’d expect the male to produce a significant amount more power in a sprint.

Knowing this, firstly, is helpful when we benchmark ourselves. The Sufferfest’s ‘Four Dimensional Power (4DP)’ model means that if you train with its system, your power targets will be adjusted to reflect your own unique strengths and weaknesses.

But what can we do with it?

Despite lower top end power, we know that at the top level, women’s races are more intense – because they’re shorter. One study found that pro women spent 20 per cent of their racing time in zone five, vs 10 per cent for men. Distances are usually shorter in domestic racing too. To race, you’ll need a top end –  regardless of gender.

“I would see [the differences in top end power] as a better opportunity to develop a strength or a skillset that some of your competitors might not have,” Cassin says.

The coaches recommend lifting sessions in the gym, and the likes of standing starts on the bike to develop a killer sprint which could catch the opposition off-guard.

“Doing heavy resistance training in the gym, in women, is going to create far less change in muscle size. But there can still be considerable increases in muscle strength,” Henderson says.

“You can do standing starts out on the road. Get into a nice big gear, roll to an almost stop, and then just do a maximal effort to get up to speed as quickly as possible. You need to recruit all the muscles in your legs, and it’s applicable directly to cycling, as you’re going through exactly the same range of motion,” Cassis added.

Recovery

Lower testosterone means that women typically need longer to recover between hard sessions – something which generic training plans never really take into account.

“Just giving yourself two or three days between those sessions is probably going to be more important for women,” Henderson says.

Nutrition is important too – getting a protein shake in will speed up recovery, but it’s worth checking what’s in it, or supplementing with extras.

Essential amino acids are those which cannot be made by the body, and must be consumed via food. Among other jobs, they aid recovery and healing.

“We know with women, taking in the branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), especially Leucine, is quite helpful and will enhance recovery,” Henderson says.

You can pick up BCAAs in pill or powder form at most health food stores.

Tracking training

Once cyclists get into the top class of geekery, they may begin to track their training via the ‘Performance Management Chart’ (PCM) available within apps like Training Peaks and Strava’s performance bundle.

Under varying names, the charts offer up a view of fitness, fatigue – and the resulting balance, called ‘form’.

The data all comes a ‘TSS’ (Training Stress Score, of Suffer Score in Strava) given to each session. This is based on percentage of time spent at, below or above FTP – with more weighting given to time spent above it.

Unfortunately, it’s created around numbers collected from mostly male profiles.

“It’s helpful to look at this with two theoretical riders: a male and a female with the same FTP or, say, 200 watts. They both go out and do maximum effort 30second repeats,” Cassin says.

“On average, we know from the data we’ve collected from all people doing tests in The Sufferfest, men will be able to produce more power over a short duration as a percentage of their FTP. So if one of you is doing maximal efforts at 600 watts, and the other at 400 watts, they’re both maximal – but the 600 watts is three times the FTP, so would be weighted very heavily, whilst the other is only twice.”

“The TSS will say the second rider didn’t work as hard as the other. That becomes an extra issue, when you know that because of the difference in testosterone, women are going to recover slower.”

It sounds like a nightmare – but it’s actually quite easy to counter this. ‘Acute Training Load’ (fatigue) looks at what you’ve done in the last seven days.

“For women, and masters athletes [who also need longer to recover], shortening that period – looking at 5 days instead of 7 days – will give you a better sense of training load,” Cassin says.

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