Women and Sports – Differences, Issues and Specific Challenges
Ongoing research continues to teach us more about how females respond to training and exercise.
As we learn more, we’re able to better monitor and adjust training patterns and exercise intensity to optimise athletic performance, while also avoiding injury from excessive or incorrect activity.
These are a number of important differences between the sexes regarding the effects of exercise on the body:
Body composition – Men and women have different genetic attributes and different levels of sex steroid hormones (testosterone, progesterone and oestrogen) which impacts on differences in body composition. For example, in general women will usually have proportionately less muscle and bones mass and a higher percentage of body fat than men.
Anatomy – The female pelvis is usually wider and has a larger hip width to thigh bone ratio. This helps with pregnancy and childbirth but can affect the way you jump and land. These changes can impact on the risk of sustaining a knee or ankle injury.
Hormones – A woman’s menstrual cycle is controlled by changes in hormone levels. These changes can affect sporting performance in some women and exercise itself may cause changes in hormone levels. Recent studies have demonstrated how women can feel their performance is negatively affected by their menstrual cycle. Common symptoms include abdominal or back pain, cramps, headaches, breast tenderness and reduced co-ordination difficulties. It’s easy to see how these could affect athletic performance.
Women who exercise can experience a higher incidence of menstrual irregularities. It is essential to have the correct nutritional intake for your training or sport, as when we “under fuel”, a negative energy balance can develop (we refer to this as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport). This problem can not only affect a woman’s menstrual cycle, but if unrecognized and untreated, it can have long lasting effects on health and wellbeing.
Flexibility – Women tend to be more flexible than men, with less joint stability (this is known as greater joint laxity). While flexibility itself tends to be a good thing, excessive joint mobility can increase your risk of injury, particularly in the knee, ankle and elbow. If you are particularly flexible (hypermobile), you’ll require additional muscle strength to provide the necessary support and stability for your joints.