*spoiler - these considerations might not always be the same things as men*.
Recently there has been an increase in the number of women and girls participating in sport and exercise - both at a recreational and an elite level (see previous blog post).
Like their male counterparts, female athletes want to become faster, stronger, achieve PBs, and break world records. This means that there is a requirement for researchers, practitioners, coaches, and athletes themselves to better understand the female athlete, and how female athlete performance and health considerations might impact upon performance and training in sport and exercise.
Despite this growth in women's participation, the science and research related to sportswomen is still lacking. This means that most performance and training guides etc. are based upon the research on men. However, there are many physiological and psychological differences between the sexes, and indeed between women themsleves, which could mean that taking this approach might not always be the optimal route for female athletes.
To change the narrative for performance and training in sportswomen, these women-specific factors must be considered by athletes and those working with them (i.e., coaches, practitioners and researchers).
#1 The menstrual cycle
Understand the basic biology of the menstrual cycle, and learn to know what's normal and not normal for you. Be aware of your individual experiences of the cycle and how that might effect your performance and training. This can be achieved through cycle tracking and using the current research in this area to inform performance and training. But, when reading this research please be critical and question everything - do not always assume that the average results apply to you. Finally, training with the menstrual cycle in mind might not be for everyone - especially if you're a sportswoman who breezes through their cycle and doesn't notice any changes in her performance or training across the cycle - and that's ok to. The key message here: you do you! In Episode 1 of the podcast - coming soon - I discuss all about my research in this area and how the physiology of the menstrual cycle might influence performance and training and what all of this might mean for sportswomen and those working with them.
#2 Hormonal contraception
Understand the basics of the hormonal contraceptives including the different types, how they work, the hormones involved - and don't be afraid to ask questions about how these are affecting your physiology. Then, be aware of how hormonal contraceptive use might affect your performance and training (often this is something not mentioned to us by GPs, doctors etc.), and you can increase your awareness through tracking your experience and delving into the current research in this area. Again, be cautious of this research and really tune into your own individual experience of contraceptive use, and use that to direct any potential performance or training changes - we should be working on a case-by-case basis considering all factors such as the reason why we are taking hormonal contraception, our experience of the natural menstrual cycle etc. I have talked all about hormonal contraception and its potential links with performance and training in Episode 2 of the podcast with one of my PhD supervisors, Dr. Kirsty Elliott-Sale.
#3 Breast health and support
Know the importance of wearing the correct breast support during sport and exercise and how to ensure you are wearing the correct support and fit for you - because just like the menstrual cycle and hormonal contraceptive use, this is - you guessed it - highly individual! Be aware of how sports bras can influence not only participation, but also performance and training by diving into some of the really exciting and emerging research in this area! All things boobs, breast biomechanics and sports bras are discussed in Episode 3 of the podcast with amazing guests from the Research Group in Breast Health at the University of Portsmouth.
#4 Pelvic floor health
Understand that leaking during sport or exercise might be common in sportswomen, but it is certainly not normal. Learn how pelvic floor health might change across your lifespan (pregnancy, post-pregnancy and the menopause), but also because of your sport and exercise and ways to prevent and address pelvic floor issues, such as incontinence, sexual dysfunction and prolapse as a sportswomen. Generally, these issues all have a simple solution (which is great news for sportswomen) so don't be afraid to speak up and get the help you need. Episode 4 of the podcast is dedicated to all things pelvic floor and leak free impact and lifting exercise for female athletes with the brilliant team at Umi Health - who are on a mission to make pelvic health accessible for all.
#5 Pregnancy and the post-partum period
Understand and be aware of the changes your body is going through during pregnancy and the post-natal period (which is a hell of a lot), and what this might mean for your performance and training, as well as your health (and that of your baby also). All things pre-natal exercise and physical activity is discussed in Episode 8 of the podcast where I am joined by the founders of The Active Pregnancy Foundation who share their research and expertise in this area as well as more information on their journey to support women to stay active throughout pregnancy and beyond. And we don't stop there - we recognise that the post-natal period of a woman's life is just as important, so in Episode 9 of the podcast I am joined by Emma Brockwell - a women's health physiotherapist specialising in post-natal recovery and returning to sport following pregnancy.
#6 Perimenopause & the menopause
Women spend a large proportion of their life in this stage beyond menopause so we need to be able to understand and be aware of the changes our body is going through during perimenopause (as it rides another hormonal rollercoaster), the menopause and then beyond, and what these changes might mean for your performance and training, as well as your health. In the final episode of Season 1 I'm joined by Dr. Bella Smith and Baz Moffat as we discuss all things perimenopause and the menopause in sport and exercise - and how menopause does not have to be a literal pause in a woman's life, but rather marks a time where women can reflect and move forward in a positive way.
#7 Female specific injury risk & injuries
Understand the increased risk of injury and/or injuries themselves (such as ACL injuries, concussion and even breast injuries!) as a sportswomen and learn how to minimise your chances of sustaining an injury using the current research. In Episode 7 of the podcast we shine a light on ACL injuries in particular as I'm joined by a PhD student at Nottingham Trent University who is researching and investigating the influence of the menstrual cycle and hormonal contraception on ACL injuries and how we can better support athletes to overcome these (for more information on her study please see our 'Research' page.
#8 Female athlete triad, REDs & other dysfunctions
Be aware of the internal changes in menstrual cycle function and what this might mean for other physiological systems, as well as your performance and health. In Episode 6 of the podcast I am joined by Renee McGreggor - a leading Sports Dietitian, specialising in Eating Disorders, REDs, The Female Athlete, Athlete health and performance - and, of course, we delve into all things REDs, including what to look out for as a female athlete (or those working with them), and how we can prevent these issues from being perceived as the 'norm' in sport and exercise. Additionally, in a bonus episode we shine a light on one particular dysfunction in sportswomen - heavy menstrual bleeding (as well as its potential links with iron deficiency and anaemia) - with Dr. Georgie Bruinvels and Dr. Charlie Pedlar, and how heavy menstrual bleeding is something sportswomen and those working with them need to consider and be aware of.
#9 Female psychology and mindset
Understand and be aware of the differences in female psychology (between men and women and across the lifespan), and what this might mean for your performance as well as your health. Including areas such as, competitive anxiety, confidence, goal orientation, preferred coaching behaviours, group dynamics and relationships, coping techniques, self compassion and how all of this is supported within the current research.
#10 Female specific nutrition and fuelling
Understand and be aware of female nutrition in sport and exercise, and what this might mean for your performance and training, as well as your health. As I mentioned above, in Episode 6 of the podcast I am joined by Renee McGreggor and in addition to chatting all things REDs, we also discuss female specific nutrition in sport and exercise - including eating around your menstrual cycle.
Here at the period of the period, we are on a mission to change the narrative for women in sport and exercise by providing awareness, education and support around these female athlete performance and health considerations. We hope you enjoy Season 1 of the podcast (which also includes bonus episodes on: sleep and the female athlete, bone health for sportswomen, and the current landscape of this research so far and moving forward).