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Ashley Mellen, Kate Buttino, Jennifer Varela, and Tsukasa Higashi at NAGA (photo credit: Bianca Riviello)

“Women are not small men.”

This month the ladies from my gym, Florian Martial Arts, crushed it at the NAGA Northeast Grappling Championships. As the female fighters continue to elevate their performance, I want to share some gender differences in training adaptations that I learned from Dr. Stacy Sims. The more we can learn about the differences between our bodies and the bodies of our male counterparts, the more we can find ways to most efficiently achieve gains and hit our training goals.

Recently I heard Dr. Stacy Sims speak on Scott Iardella’s podcast, Rdella Training. Dr. Sims is an environmental exercise physiologist, nutrition scientist, and specialist in performance nutrition and gender differences in athletes. She shared so much valuable information, but I’ll just touch on some of the highlights. For more, definitely listen to the episode or pick up her book ROAR (links are included at the end). Here are 3 things to know to amplify training effects, hit your goals more efficiently, and maximize overall performance:

  1. Women require carbs to maintain baseline function and lean body mass
  2. Women have a shorter recovery window than men following training sessions
  3. Women’s physiologic response to training changes based on menstrual cycle phase

 

  1. Carbohydrate Requirements
    Ever try a low or no carbohydrate diet and become frustrated with the results? Turns out women need 120-130g of carbs to simply maintain healthy levels of immune, endocrine, and brain function, increase lean body mass, and decrease body fat. And these needs only increase with intensity of training. On the other hand, men can cut out carbs and not have the same issue. Why? It all comes back to evolution.In the cave man days, when resources were low it was beneficial for men to get lean and fit in order to hunt and gather. For women, during these times of resource scarcity it was beneficial not to reproduce or require a higher calorie intake. This is why severely decreasing carbohydrate intake in men can lead to body fat composition enhancements whereas the same cuts in women can lead to menstrual cycle dysfunction and an increase in body fat.This gets scarier due to the body’s efficiency for adaptations. Dr. Sims explains that even short bouts of carbohydrate restriction can lead to long term negative results. Within 5 days there is already an endocrine dysfunction that leads to increased body fat. Even with proper nutrition later in life, the body becomes efficient at falling back into this pattern. This reflects the literature around eating disorders that has shown that someone with a history of disordered eating will typically retain a 10-15% decrease in baseline metabolic rate and associated elevation in body fat percentage. This is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve when training to get lean or make weight.** Make sure to consume 3-4g of carbohydrates per kg body weight daily
  2. Recovery Window
    In order to maximize training gains, women require post-session nutrition faster than men do. This is because our recovery window is significantly smaller. When people talk about getting post-session carbs and proteins in, usually they say 45 minutes to 1 hour post exercise. However, these times are based on studies of men, not women. Dr. Sims explains that women actually only have a 30 minute window to increase leucine concentration in their muscles to stimulate muscle reparation and adaptation. This basically means we need our protein source within 30 minutes in order to both recover and make gains.Nutrient timing is so important for women to gain muscle and strength and lose body fat. Without proper post-training nutrition, increases in cortisol levels can promote catabolism (breakdown), increase fat and appetite, and cause menstrual dysfunction. Note that men also need leucine, they just have more time to get it. Dr. Sims suggests whey isolates or non-fat Greek yogurt.** Make sure to consume 20-25g high quality protein < 30 min after training
  3. Physiology during Menstrual Cycle 
    Lastly, there are pretty significant changes in hormone levels throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle. This doesn’t just mean you need more tissues when you’re watching Grey’s Anatomy; there are actually physiologic changes that are important to consider during training.Women typically have a 28 day menstrual cycle. Weeks 1 & 2 are the low hormone phase, and following that is ovulation and the high hormone phase. During the low hormone phase, estrogen and progesterone are low so our bodies actually react more like men. This is the time when our training feels great – hitting goals, making gains. Then during the high hormone phase we experience changes that are not just related to reproduction; in fact, higher levels of estrogen and progesterone also affect our kidneys, brain, carbohydrate metabolism, core temperature and sodium retention. Some associated training effects are decreased intensity, cognition, and reaction response and increased heart rate, body temperature, laxity, and overall catabolism.Some of Dr. Sims’ tips to counteract the changes during the 2nd half of the menstrual cycle are to consume proteins before working out and to take glucose tablets during higher intensity sessions in order to continue achieving training goals.** Requirements and response to training will change based on hormone level

In closing I’ll just quote Dr. Sims again – “women are not small men.” Too many times women try to follow the same program as men and then get frustrated that they aren’t achieving the same results. I know I’ve been there before. In reality, to maximize results sometimes women need a different training program. The more we can understand physiology, the more efficiently we can train. Thank you to Dr. Stacy Sims for sharing her knowledge and research on this subject. Growing up as a female athlete, I can attest to the frustration of the void in answers and guidance provided by trainers and coaches regarding gender differences in training. I look forward to continuing to learn more about this fascinating subject and incorporate some of these training tips into my program.


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