Gender Physiological differences in Triathlon

 Author/ Text: Giannis Psarelis

 Triathlon New Zeeland Level 3 Accredited Coach

There are many obvious and well know physiological differences.  “There are some basic physiological, nutrition and medical gender differences that coaches must consider when training females. Female athletes approach training and racing with different mental skills as well.” (USA Triathlon Guide, page31)

We mention some of the physiological differences :

  • Females athletes have more body fat than male athletes. Elite female triathletes might an average 13% compared to 5-6% for male athletes.

  • Male triathletes have lower body fat percentage at lower body than female triathletes. Lower body percentage body fat is a good triathlon predictor variable for total triathlon performance

  • Female athletes usually have lower VO2max values than male triathletes

  • Male triathletes possess a larger muscle mass, correlating with great muscle strength. “Female athletes must perform regular strength training to help slow the loss of muscle mass as they age to preserve that smaller initial amount of muscle”

  • Women have wider hips and larger knee angles of the average woman’s body. “Exercises that stabilize the pelvis, shoulders, knees and core are very important for women because they address the effects of the wider hips and larger hip-knee angles of the average woman’s body. Women who have the strength to keep their joints stable during running are much less susceptible to injury. Stable joints aslo lead to more efficient running, cycling and swimming. “

  • Hemoglobin concentration of elite athletes is about 5 to 10 percent lower in women than in men.

Swimming

From the 3 sports of Triathlon  swimming is the sport where gender performance differences are smaller. Of course we are referring in long distance events. The reasons for the above statement are the following :

  • Female have more body fat percentage especially in lower body so they have more buoyancy in lower body where the center of gravity is located.

  • At lower velocity a woman’s drag coefficient drops somewhat compared with a man’s in any similar water condition.

  • Swimming is a technical sport and technique is the major performance restriction

  • Female athletes have greater flexibility at the shoulders but also at the ankles. Female novice swimmers kick much better their legs than male novice triathletes.

Cycling

Bike Fitting and Female Bikes. The road and TT bikes are usually designed by having the male athlete in mind. This of course has changed and the major manufacturers there are road bikes especially for women: “Women sometimes do not fit well on bikes designed with the male torso and leg lengths in mind. Bike manufacturers are beginning to realize this and offer bikes designed for women: a good bike fit is the most important component of optimizing rider performance”.  There are special saddles for women, special cycling clothes e.t.c.

“Greater muscle mass and aerobic power in males, even expressed relative to lean body mass, may represent an advantage during long distance cycling, especially on a relatively flat course such as Ironman cycling, where cycling approximates a non weight bering sport.”

 

Running

Morphological (body fatness) and physiological gender differences, such as oxygen carrying capacity (haemoglobin concentration) may partly account for the gender difference in distance running performance”.

“Female runners tend to be more susceptible to training injuries. Commonly documented reasons for this include the structure of a woman’s body, with its wider pelvis and therefore greater angle from the knee up to the pelvis area. This can lead to increased patella femoral injuries and iliotibial band syndrome. Females also tend to have loose ligaments – possibly due to the impact of estrogen. Loose ligaments mean  hypermobile joints that are not as well supported by soft tissue connections. This can also result in a higher chance of injuries.  Most of these injuries can be resolved and prevented with specific training targeted at strengthening the weaker muscles that stabilize the hip and the knee”.

Women are more exposed to stress fractures and anemia than men. For that reason foods rich in calcium, iron and vitamin  D are needed. Supplementation might be the case.

How Physiological differences influence the way we design a program ?

I believe that coaches can’t be great coaches with all targets groups. Recently in Triathlon we notice that Siri Lindley focuses mostly in female triathletes and has excellent results.

In Greece there are coaches in Team Sports mostly that they focusing  in female athletes and that successful coaches in male team don’t attempt to coach female team. What is the reason for this. Is the physiological differences? It might the reason but it’s not the  most important. The most important are the psychological reasons and the different approach you must have when you train female athletes.

In swimming and water polo teenagers female athletes are always listen quietly to their coaches and do what they are supposed to do with greater discipline while boys don’t seem to listen and they are usually less quiet.

Concerning the physiological differences the following issues must be taken in consideration:

  • Their hormonal circle and their physiological difficulty to train and compete in specific days

  • The lower percentage of hemoglobin and the need to monitor constantly their iron related variables at the blood.

  • Injuries : “Female runners tend to be more susceptible to injuries”. So strengthen exercises, soft surfaces and adequate recovery is needed.

  • “If a female athlete becomes pregnant, she could defer to her doctor for guidance on how it will affect her activity”. It’s well known that pregnancy affects every woman in a different way. Some women are able to train until the end of their pregnancies and others need to back off from the start of their pregnancy.

 

Conclusion

It’ good to know the physiological needs of female triathletes but I think that only through experience someone can become an efficient coach for female triathletes.

References

  • “Triathlon Science”, Joe Friel & Jim Vance – editors (Human Kinetics),Chapter 3 “Gender and Age considerations in Triathlon”, Romuld Lepers, PHd

  • USA Triathlon Guide.