Despite having the same fitness goals, women—both professional athletes and fitness enthusiasts—need to prepare for their exercise routines differently from men. This could be due to various reasons, say medical and fitness professionals, female athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
Shaibal Dutt, 47, and his wife Anuradha Dutt, 47, are both runners and have similar fitness goals. The two like to hit the streets of Kolkata by 4:30am for a run, so that they can get on with their day by 6:30am. But, safety reasons often dictate how Anuradha can train. While Shaibal can head out for a run before daybreak all by himself, Anuradha is forced to alter her routine whenever her husband is unable to accompany her due to travel or other reasons.
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Another reason why Anuradha’s training, at times, takes a backseat is because she has to ensure that their son gets to school on time and has his lunch and books packed. “I will always put matters at home before my training,” says the special educator, adding, “If someone at home needs to be tended to or cared for, that comes first for me.”
“Women have to deal with far more layers of complexity, with their own body as well as family, safety, housework and life in general,” says Nakul Butta, founder and head coach at Delhi’s All In Running. The coaching world globally is only just beginning to focus on gender-based factors in training and there is a massive amount of work to be done in this regard, feels Butta.
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Cure.Fit fitness expert Shwetambari Shetty says that both men and women can do the same exercises, workouts and have the same goals, however, due to physiological and hormonal factors women may have to adopt a slightly different training route.
“The body of a woman undergoes cyclical biological changes. Therefore, for the physical activities that they undertake the approach needs to be tailor-made to their gender,” says Dr Amite Pankaj Aggarwal, director and in charge of the sports clinic at Fortis Hospital Shalimar Bagh. But it doesn’t have to be significantly different, adds Shetty.
Recently, British Olympic sprinter, and one of the fastest women in the world, Dina Asher-Smith told The Observer that she started planning her training around her period back in January for her prep for the Olympics. “Every major injury I’ve ever had has been on my period… It’s for a number of reasons. The hormone levels in your body change. Your ligaments change. Your lower back’s sore… It’s not only your moves that are different. You make decisions that normally you just would not make. Sometimes I get insomnia on my period,” Asher-Smith said in the interview.
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In professional sport, many athletes and players keep track of their menstrual cycles and plan their training load accordingly. The World Cup-winning US women’s football team keeps track of the squad’s periods all through their training with the FitrWoman app. It monitors a user’s cycle and lets them know on which days it might be risky to train intensely.
“Different women experience different symptoms through their menstruation cycles. Some can train on Day 1 while others can't train for the first 2-3 days of the cycle. Based on the individual and their symptoms, we try to schedule rest days and workout sessions. We also vary the intensity and duration of a session based on the timing of the cycle. Day 7 to Day 14 may include high intensity workouts whereas Day 21 to Day 28 may be more endurance focused,” explains Butta.
While being mindful of their periods, active women also have to ensure that they hydrate themselves and build up their carbohydrates, adds Aggarwal. Beyond periods, women also experience hormonal changes and this also impacts training routines. They have to be mindful of their fluctuating estrogen levels which can affect their sleep cycle and subsequently their ability to train, warns Aggarwal, who is also the head of the orthopedics department.
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Women have higher endurance and better flexibility than men but they also tend to have wider hips and narrower knees, which pose their own unique challenges. “Their muscle mass also significantly differs from that of men. While men are more dependent on carbs for their workout, women are more dependent on fat as a source of energy. They need to ensure that before engaging in exercise they build up on carbohydrates,” advises Aggarwal.
Due to their narrower knees, women suffer more knee injuries than men, says Aggarwal. “They need to ensure a good warm up and be aware of any pivoting activities as this could injure their ACL (anterior cruciate ligament),” he warns. While there is plenty of data to show that more than twice the number of women tend to suffer ACL tears than men, there is no clear reason as to why. However, medical experts agree the female anatomy—especially the wider pelvis and narrower knees—plays a role.
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When it comes to strength and core training, women have to pay special attention to their form due to the wider hips. “Women need to be careful while doing squats and ensure that their feet are kept apart at the right distance so that they don’t injure themselves. Women tend to injure their back muscles,” warns Aggarwal.
In terms of prep, just like Asher-Smith women have to be mindful of their periods, keep themselves hydrated and build up their carbohydrates stores. They also have to be mindful of their fluctuating estrogen levels which can affect their sleep cycle and subsequently their ability to train.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.