Train like a girl

Lift­ing weights, track­ing hor­mones and train­ing in sync with your men­strual cy­cle is the fu­ture of women’s fit­ness, re­ports Jody Scott. Here’s why you need to re­think how you train to build mus­cle, burn fat and reap the health ben­e­fits.

VOGUE Australia - - VOGUE BEAUTY -

You are not a small man. Stop eat­ing and train­ing like one.” The open­ing lines of the book Roar by Dr Stacy Sims sum up a move­ment gain­ing mo­men­tum in women’s fit­ness. You may have al­ready heard strong is the new skinny … or sexy … or svelte. Be­com­ing stronger, rather than smaller, ver­sions of our­selves marks a re­fresh­ing change of fo­cus in women’s fit­ness.

In fact, we know now, women can han­dle (and re­quire) even more re­sis­tance train­ing than men. But not all women are on board yet. A 2017 study led by Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney re­searchers found less than one in five Aus­tralian adults are do­ing at least two strength train­ing ses­sions a week.

More women need to know that lay­ing down lean mus­cle in our teens to 30s helps us cope bet­ter with the de­mands of preg­nancy, breast­feed­ing, child-rear­ing and life in gen­eral.

Build­ing or main­tain­ing mus­cle mass in our 40s and be­yond de­liv­ers health ben­e­fits post-menopause, when we lose the pro­tec­tive ef­fects of oe­stro­gen on our brains, hearts, bone den­si­ties and me­tab­o­lisms. Main­tain­ing mus­cle in old age helps pre­vent falls, which can be lifechang­ing. So stay­ing strong is smart, too.

For a long time, we thought men were bet­ter at heavy lift­ing and women were bet­ter suited to aer­o­bic ac­tiv­ity. But Dr Sims says women can and should lift heavy weights and do ply­o­met­ric (jump train­ing) work to get strong, fit and fast. “But be­cause they have less testos­terone, they will not bulk up like men,” she says.

Dr Sims is an ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­o­gist, nu­tri­tion sci­en­tist, for­mer triath­lete and au­thor who has spent the last 20 years re­search­ing how fe­male ath­letes need to eat and train. She says the dif­fer­ences be­tween men and women “ex­tend far be­yond pony­tails and sports bras”. Hence the subti­tle of her book: Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fit­ness to Your Unique Fe­male Phys­i­ol­ogy for Op­ti­mum Per­for­mance, Great Health and a Strong Lean Body for Life.

Women are typ­i­cally smaller and lighter, have a higher pro­por­tion of body fat and less mus­cle than men. We burn more body fat dur­ing our work­outs. We sweat dif­fer­ently. And we need to re­fuel sooner.

But there is still much to learn about how women’s bod­ies re­spond to ex­er­cise. And al­most ev­ery­thing we know about fe­males, food and fit­ness is get­ting a re-think.

That’s be­cause un­til the early 1990s most re­search was per­formed on men. The re­sults were then ap­plied to the other 50 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion (that is, women) in smaller doses. Ex­clud­ing women was in­tended to avoid ex­pos­ing preg­nant fe­males to re­search tri­als. But fe­male hor­mones also com­pli­cated re­sults, mak­ing men sim­pler sub­jects.

Thank­fully, things are chang­ing. But Dr Sims says we short-changed women by giv­ing them the ‘shrink it and pink it’ treat­ment for so long: “It’s time to ac­knowl­edge, treat, train and fuel women as the dif­fer­ent phys­i­o­log­i­cal be­ings we are.” She says one of the most pow­er­ful things a wo­man can do is use an app to track her pe­riod, then sync her train­ing sched­ule with her men­strual cy­cle.

“Track­ing train­ing, mood and stress can help any wo­man, from the gym-goer to the top elite ath­lete, un­der­stand her body and how the men­strual cy­cle can af­fect her train­ing, re­cov­ery, mood and food,” she says.

It’s a rad­i­cal ap­proach when you con­sider ‘that time of the month’ re­mains a taboo topic in sports. Teenage girls may whis­per to a teacher that they have their

pe­ri­ods to skip PE classes. Women qui­etly avoid in­ver­sions at yoga. And, very oc­ca­sion­ally, an elite ath­lete may blame men­strual cramps for a dis­ap­point­ing per­for­mance.

Of course, races have been won and records set at all stages of the men­strual cy­cle. But Dr Sims says the rise and fall of hor­mones dur­ing a wo­man’s roughly 28-day cy­cle (it can typ­i­cally range from 21 to 35 days) has a pro­found ef­fect on her train­ing and per­for­mance.

It means when you train is just as im­por­tant as how you train. Yet, she says, few train­ers take this into con­sid­er­a­tion. “So women are of­ten work­ing against their bod­ies and get­ting frus­trated when they don’t get the re­sults they want,” she says.

Here’s what all women need to know. Hor­mones are the chem­i­cal mes­sen­gers that con­stantly carry im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion around our bod­ies. Our hor­mones tell us when to eat, sleep, grow, re­pair, have sex and re­pro­duce. They also make us feel happy or sad. While men’s hor­mones change dur­ing their life­time, on a day-to-day ba­sis they re­main pretty sta­ble.

But for women it’s an­other story – the lev­els of our sex hor­mones fluc­tu­ate al­most daily and they af­fect far more than re­pro­duc­tion.

“Ba­si­cally, we have two hor­mone phases each month: high and low,” says Dr Sims. “Dur­ing the low-hor­mone phase, we are phys­i­o­log­i­cally sim­i­lar to men in our car­bo­hy­drate me­tab­o­lism and re­cov­ery.” The low hor­mone (or fol­lic­u­lar) phase oc­curs in the first two weeks of your cy­cle (the ar­rival of your pe­riod marks day one of week one).

This is the best time to train hard, build lean mus­cle and burn fat. You will also feel less pain and re­cover faster. “Whether you’re work­ing out, train­ing or rac­ing, it will feel eas­ier when you’re in the low-hor­mone phase of your cy­cle,” says Dr Sims.

Your ovaries in­crease pro­duc­tion of oe­stro­gen af­ter your pe­riod ends. Then, around day 12, your oe­stro­gen level surges, as does the level of lutein­is­ing hor­mone (LH), trig­ger­ing ovu­la­tion. Many women feel stronger and more pow­er­ful. Thanks to el­e­vated oe­stro­gen, you may be able to lift heav­ier weights. You may even ex­pe­ri­ence bet­ter fo­cus and men­tal clar­ity.

But ovu­la­tion makes women’s lig­a­ments more lax, in­creas­ing our risk of joint in­juries. That’s why fe­male ath­letes are up to eight times more likely to suf­fer from an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment knee in­juries than male ath­letes.

Dur­ing the sec­ond half of your cy­cle, the high hor­mone (luteal) phase, pro­ges­terone and oe­stro­gen lev­els peak, caus­ing slight de­creases in your strength, aer­o­bic ca­pac­ity and abil­ity to tol­er­ate heat. “I’d be ly­ing if I said that ex­er­cise won’t feel harder dur­ing those high-hor­mone days be­fore your pe­riod,” Dr Sims writes in Roar.

Oe­stro­gen makes it harder for you to ac­cess glyco­gen (car­bo­hy­drate stored in your mus­cles), so you burn more fat for fuel. But it’s less read­ily avail­able dur­ing high-in­ten­sity ex­er­cise. And it re­quires more oxy­gen, so you fa­tigue faster. The up­surge in oe­stro­gen also di­als down the an­abolic (grow­ing) ca­pac­ity of your mus­cles.

High pro­ges­terone in­creases sodium losses, de­lays your sweat re­sponse and raises your core tem­per­a­ture by about half a de­gree Cel­sius, mak­ing you prone to heat stress and more eas­ily fa­tigued dur­ing long work­outs. It also breaks down mus­cle. Dur­ing this phase you don’t en­joy the same mus­cle gains from your work­outs, and re­cov­ery is slower.

Fluid shifts from your blood plasma to your cells, mak­ing you bloated, thick­en­ing your blood and rais­ing your blood pres­sure, mak­ing you more pre­dis­posed to cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem fa­tigue. Ex­er­cise feels harder than usual.

The level of the sleep hor­mone mela­tonin rises dur­ing the luteal phase, so you crave more rest. Your ap­petite in­creases by about 1,250 kilo­joules a day. In­creased sodium ex­cre­tion makes you crave more salty foods. And those choco­late crav­ings kick in (although, cu­ri­ously, it tastes sweeter). Luck­ily, your rate of me­tab­o­lism rises by about five to 10 per cent dur­ing this phase.

And what about women who take oral con­tra­cep­tives? “The pill seems to have par­tic­u­larly ill ef­fects on your mus­cle tis­sue and strength,” Dr Sims says. “In one study, women not tak­ing oral con­tra­cep­tives saw a 40 to 60 per cent greater gain in mus­cle mass from train­ing than their peers on the pill. Other re­search finds oral con­tra­cep­tives slow mus­cle re­cov­ery af­ter a hard work­out and may dim your aer­o­bic ca­pac­ity.”

Per­for­mance coach Nar­dia Nor­man, who has pre­vi­ously worked with the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Sport, says women should keep train­ing through­out their cy­cle but dial the in­ten­sity up or down. But she has one caveat. “As soon as you are bloated or ex­pe­ri­ence tummy pains it is very dif­fi­cult to turn on core mus­cles and sta­bilise,” Nor­man says. “So you may pre­dis­pose your­self to in­jury.”

Be­fore train­ing hard in the low-hor­mone phase of their cy­cle, Nor­man says women need to make sure they are man­ag­ing stress, get­ting enough sleep and tak­ing care of their nu­tri­tion. “By that I mean eat­ing enough to cope with the de­mands of train­ing,” she says.

Natur­opath Lara Bri­den tells her pa­tients they need enough key macronu­tri­ents (car­bo­hy­drate, protein and fat) to func­tion at their best. “I see so many young women who have lost their pe­riod to a re­stric­tive diet,” Bri­den says. “Men can get away with a low carb diet, but women need a cer­tain amount of car­bo­hy­drate to sig­nal lutein­is­ing hor­mone, which reg­u­lates men­stru­a­tion. The diet that works for your boyfriend may not work for you.”

Com­plex car­bo­hy­drates help your body burn fat and help pre­serve pre­cious mus­cle. Dr Sims says ‘low en­ergy avail­abil­ity’ is a big is­sue for ac­tive women, be­cause they don’t have enough en­ergy to sup­port nor­mal ev­ery­day health, let alone the added train­ing. For the record, women need about 120 grams of car­bo­hy­drate per day to main­tain health while men can get away with as lit­tle as 50 grams.

Women also need more red meat, be­cause it con­tains a spe­cial type of amino acid called tau­rine. “Tau­rine builds bones, calms the brain, and pro­motes the healthy detox­i­fi­ca­tion of oe­stro­gen, and it can re­ally only be ob­tained from an­i­mal protein,” says Bri­den. “An­i­mal pro­teins [from sources] such as meat, dairy and eggs are also a good way to main­tain mus­cle mass, burn fat, rev up me­tab­o­lism and sup­port healthy hor­mone bal­ance.”

Dr Sims says women also need more of the key amino acid leucine (found in protein) to pre­vent the break­down of lean mus­cle. Fi­nally, don’t for­get fat, which fu­els aer­o­bic ex­er­cise, sup­ports im­mune and nerve cell func­tion, and aids in the ab­sorp­tion of hor­mone-bal­anc­ing nu­tri­ents such as vi­ta­mins A and D. Get­ting stronger means eat­ing and train­ing smarter. Do it #likea­girl or, even bet­ter, #likea­woman.


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