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Training the Female Athlete:

Hey ladies, ever wondered why some days you feel like you have lots of energy and you are on top of your game and other days you just feel really tired and slow? Ever struggled to manage your weight whether that be trying to lose weight or gain/maintain weight? Ever had your period stop and not known why? Well, be rest assured you’re not alone, the female body is a wondrous thing, however it is important that we respect that, and we adjust our training and nutrition to adapt to our ever changing bodies. Unfortunately we are often guided by training and nutrition information that has been researched with male participants as female participants are seen to have too much variability with the fluctuations in hormones throughout the menstrual cycle. The only problem being, is that we are not smaller versions of males, we are our own person with different and fluctuating needs, that means for us to be able to get the most out of our bodies and our training we need to adapt and change our training and nutritional needs in accordance with these fluctuations.

So yes ladies this post is going to talk periods and how best we can train around them to get the most from our training but also some dietary considerations we may need to make at different stages.

So lets discuss the menstrual cycle…..

Prior to puberty the development of both boys and girls is very similar with relatively the same body size, body composition and physiology (5). Once we hit puberty however there are key physical and physiological changes that occur for both sexes (5). Males have a significant increase in testosterone which results in increased muscle mass and height (5). While females have an increase in oestrogen which increases physical development, increasing fat tissue and resulting in the onset of menarche (or the menstrual cycle) (5).

A little more about the menstrual cycle. There are two key hormones that affect the menstrual cycle, oestrogen and progesterone (4,5). Oestrogen arises with the onset of puberty and the menstrual cycle it is produced to prepare the body for pregnancy (4,5). However, oestrogen also plays a role in bone and muscle strength as well as ligament and tendon stiffness. It helps to maintain normal cholesterol levels and affects brain, heart and skin health (4,5). Progesterone prepares the uterus for the potential of pregnancy by triggering the thickening of the lining in the uterus to accept a fertilized egg. It also causes the body to rely on fats for energy rather than glycogen, the body’s preferred fuel source (4,5).

A diagram depicting the fluctuations in hormones during the menstrual cycle:

There are four phases to the menstrual cycle each with varying hormone levels and consequently effects on the body.

Phase 1 (Period: Days 1-5):

Hormones and the physiological and psychological changes:

  • Hormones are at their lowest during this phase (4,5).
  • You may find you have changes in your mood leading to increased stress, potential accidents, poor reaction times and poor perception of exercise difficulty (4,5).
  • There is also a reduction in the body’s immune level response due to an increase in the bodies utilisation of magnesium and zinc (4,5).

Effect on training:

  • Initially during this stage it is important to allow the body to recover. It might be a good idea to reduce skill and precision training and include more simple low stress tasks (4,5).
  • You may initially want to reduce training volume load and include strength training (4,5).
  • As you progress to the mid to late stages of this phase you can include anaerobic and power-based activity, lactic acid based work and strength training (4,5).

Nutrition and it’s affect during this stage:

  • During this stage the body has a greater reliance on carbohydrates/glycogen for energy (3).
  • As the body is using more glycogen (carbohydrates) for fuel during this stage you may want to increase you carbohydrate intake (3).
  • You may also want to increase magnesium and Zinc intake during this phase to help increase the body’s level of immunity (3).

Phase 2 (Follicular Phase: Days 6-14):

Hormones and the physiological and psychological changes:

  • During this stage oestrogen levels are increasing to their highest (4,5).
  • Oestrogen has an anabolic effect for muscles and bones (building and strengthening muscles and bones), while there is also an increase in ligament laxity during this phase. Therefore injury risk is higher during this phase for injuries such as ACL and ligament related injuries (4,5).
  • There is an increase in glycogen storage as well as fat, protein, water and electrolyte stores (4,5).

Effect on training:

  • Include high intensity, low volume complex tasks (4,5).
  • Include anaerobic and power based activities as well as lactic acid based work and strength training (4,5).
  • Symptoms may vary during this stage from person to person but it is important to train appropriately, for some the focus may change to maintenance rather than improving physical capacities, however some may feel fine during this stage and be able to continue to push hard (4,5).

Nutrition and it’s affect during this stage:

  • As the body is using more glycogen (carbohydrates) for fuel during this stage you may want to increase you carbohydrate intake (3).
Some of the various symptoms women experience throughout the menstrual cycle:

Phase 3: (Ovulation: Days 15-23):

Hormones and the physiological and psychological changes:

  • Oestrogen levels start to drop before progesterone levels start to increase. Testosterone is at it’s peak during this phase (yes ladies we do still have testosterone in our body however we have much lower levels than that of men) (4,5). 

Effect on training:

  • Now is the time to do more strength and power training (4,5).
  • Intensity can be quite high during this phase (4,5).
  • Symptoms during this stage can vary from person to person so it is important to train appropriately according to your symptoms (4,5).

Nutrition and it’s affect during this stage:

  • If you are experiencing poor sleep quality during this phase you may like to increase your magnesium intake as magnesium levels have an affect on our sleep (3).
Example sources of Magnesium:

Phase 4: (Luteal phase: Days 24-28):

Hormones and the physiological and psychological changes:

  • Progesterone rises and oestrogen slightly elevates (4,5).
  • Progesterone causes increased inflammation and muscle breakdown, brain fog can also occur and temperature increases (0.3-1), therefore it is important to have adequate recovery during this phase (4,5).
  • There is an increase in glycogen stores in the liver and muscle tissue and a decrease in the blood stream. This will lead to a greater utilization of fat stores during this time (4,5).
  • There is a depression of blood lactate concentration (4,5).
  • There is the greatest retention of water, sodium, chloride and potassium during this stage potentially causing bloating (4,5).
  • There is greater protein breakdown during this stage leading to lower muscular endurance (4,5).

Effect on training:

  • Include high intensity, low volume complex tasks (4,5).
  • Include anaerobic and power based activities as well as some strength training, due to decreased blood lactate levels. Strength training may decrease however during this phase due to the increase in muscle breakdown (4,5).
  • Include low intensity and high volume aerobic work as the body has the ability to cope with low impact prolonged stressors at this time (4,5).

Nutrition and it’s affect during this stage:

  • The body has an increased reliance on fats rather than carbs during this time so it may be difficult to hit higher intensities for prolonged periods. It is therefore good during this phase to change the focus from long duration, high intensity work to working on more technical skills (3).
  • Maintain or increase protein intake to counteract  the increase in muscle breakdown (3).
  • There is an increase in sodium loss causing bloating, therefore you may want to increase salt intake during this phase to help reduce bloating (3). 
  • The body has an increased utilization of magnesium and zinc during this phase lowering the bodies immune levels. Therefore it is important to increase magnesium and zinc intake during this time (3).
  • Increase omega-3 fat intake to help manage inflammation (3).
Example sources of Zinc:

Now that we have some understanding of just how much the menstrual cycle can affect our training and just how important it is for us to respond appropriately to this to gain the most out of our training. We now need to take the next step and look at tracking our period and the symptoms that follow it. There are many great apps out there that can help you do this but one of my favourites is the FitrWomen app. This app allows you to track the days of your period but also the symptoms you may be having, it then provides you with some helpful tips on how best to train and fuel yourself during the various stages. One of the great reasons why we should track our period is that we are then able to learn about our bodies, know how we are going to feel at certain times, but also how best to fuel and adapt our training to allow us to get the most from our body during the various phases.

Oral Contraceptive:

Now some of you may be asking how does this change if I am on the oral contraceptive pill and a great question to ask. As we know the oral contraceptive pill is designed to prevent a Woman from getting pregnant, it does this by preventing the natural rise and fall of progesterone and oestrogen in the body throughout the cycle. This means that the two hormones stay at a stagnant level throughout the cycle until it is time for you to have your period at which time both oestrogen and progesterone drop (2).

So what does this mean for your training and nutrition. For the most part it will mean that these things can stay very consistent throughout the month with you experiencing less symptoms associated with the natural cycle (2). With the exception being when you are on the period phase where you will still experience all the same symptoms as usual (2). Even though your hormone levels are kept relatively consistent when you are on the oral contraceptive pill it is still important that we listen to our body and respond appropriately (2). 

A diagram of hormone levels when taking the oral contraceptive pill:

But what if I don’t get my period?

Some may think this is odd but it occurs far more often then you would think. When a female has an absence of her period it is called amenorrhea (1). This can occur when an individual has increased their training loads with inadequate nutrition (1). Meaning that an individual has increased their training load without increasing the volume of food they are eating as well making sure that food meets their nutritional requirements to fuel not only their body for every day living but also for their increased training load (1). It can be accompanied with an eating disorder, however this is not always the case, and can be due to a lack of education and awareness (1).  When there is a cessation of the menstrual cycle this can lead to fertility issues later on if not dealt with. It is difficult to determine the prevalence of this disorder however it could be as high as 50% of athletic populations (1). As with all previous nutritional information in this post it is only a guide and if you need more guidance with this it is best to seek the advice of an accredited Dietitian.

So if you only learn one thing from this blog post then I hope it is to become informed about your body and treat your body the way it deserves to be treated, with care. Remember that we are not a mini man nor are two women the same, so it is important that we do not compare ourselves and our abilities to other males or with each other and that instead we choose to further improve ourselves for ourselves.

References:

  1. Dusek, T. Influences of high-intensity training on menstrual cycle disorders in athletes. Croatian Medical Journal. 42(1): 79-82, 2001.
  2. Larson, B. Cox, A. Colbey, C. Drew, M. McGuire, H. et al. Inflammation and oral contraceptive use in female athletes before the Rio Olympic Games. Frontiers in Physiology. 11: 497-455, 2020.
  3. Manore, M. Nutritional needs of the female athlete. Clinics in Sports Medicine. 18(3): 549-563, 1999.
  4. Oleka, C. Use of the menstrual cycle to enhance female sports performance and decrease sports-related injury. Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology. 18: 318-326, 2019.
  5. Pitchers, G. Elliott-Sale, K. Considerations for coaches training female athletes. Professional Strength and Conditioning Journal. 55: 19-29, 2019.
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Development of Muscle Mass: How much is optimum for performance?

Increasing muscle mass is often the goal of resistance training programs for the general population. However, when designing training programs to increase muscle mass for athlete populations it is important to consider the potential advantages and disadvantages this may have on performance. 

Advantages of increasing mass:

  1. Generally, a larger muscle is a stronger muscle. This is especially true if the increase in muscle mass is the result of an increase in the amount of contractile elements of the muscle fibre ultimately increasing the force generating capacity if the muscle. Therefore, there is greater capacity for strength and power.
  2. The inertia of a body is proportional to its mass. Think of a basketball player under the ring attempting to hold their position for a rebound.  A player with more mass will be harder to move compared to a player with less mass.
  3. An increase in mass may allow an athlete to move with greater momentum which is valuable for collision-based sports. Momentum = mass x velocity there for an athlete with more mass running at a given velocity will have greater momentum and more chance to inflict damage upon their opponent. 

Disadvantages of increasing mass:

  1. Acceleration is an important speed quality for many sports. Acceleration = force / mass. Therefore, if as a result of training we have in increase in mass without a subsequent increase in the ability to generate force acceleration will be compromised. The same thought process can be applied to an athlete’s ability to decelerate, change directions and jump. Therefore, if we increase mass without consideration of force production important components of performance can be negatively impacted. 
  2. Increases in body mass leads to greater impact forces when running and jumping. The cumulative stress associated with the greater impact forces from these activities means that more recovery from training and competition will be needed. If additional time needs to be budgeted for recovery, then that time needs to be taken from other aspects of training such skill work or the development of physical qualities.
  3. Endurance performance is important for most sports. An athlete’s Aerobic power or VOmax is expressed in millilitres (mL) of oxygen per kilogram (kg) of body weight per minute –

(mL·kg-1·min-1  ). If an athlete consumes 4,000 mL·min-1 with a 70kg body mass the VOmax = 57.1ml·kg-1· min-1 . If body mass is increased to 73 kg with no improvement in Ouptake VOmax would decrease by 4% to 54.8 mL·kg-1·min-1.

Practical Applications

  • When prescribing training to athletes do not just assume that an increase in mass will be of benefit for the athlete. Carefully consider how the change will impact their performance.
  • If attempting to get a hypertrophy response, training with heavy loads (approximately 90% of maximum) that presents a neural stimulus for strength adaptation is recommended.

Note: The above information is a snapshot of a manuscript published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal that I co-authored with colleagues and students. 

Young W, Talpey S, Bartlett R, Lewis M, Mundy S, Smyth A, Welsh T. (2019). Development of Muscle Mass: How much is optimum for performance? Strength and Conditioning Journal. 41(3) 47-50

Full text: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329333781_Development_of_Muscle_Mass_How_Much_Is_Optimum_for_Performance

Author: Scott Talpey, PhD. CSCS, ASCA LII. Senior Lecturer & Program Coordinator Master of Strength and Conditioning Federation University Australia.

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Keys to Developing Speed in Team Sport Athletes:

Want to be like Jake Neade able to evade players, create space and close space on the field?

Ever wished you could be like Eddie Betts and seem as if you have all the time in the word to get around your opponent?

Ever wished you had the same speed in the fourth quarter as you had in the first quarter? We have the answers for you, as we take a deep dive into speed and running mechanics for team sport athletes.

No matter whether you play Australian Rules Football, Rugby League, Cricket, Basketball or Tennis, appropriate speed and running mechanics is the key to optimal efficiency on field/court and the potential to reach higher velocities.

Some might argue ‘why would you take time to teach  team sport athletes how to run fast in a straight line, when they spend the vast majority of their time changing direction throughout the game?’. Here are some of the reasons we believe it is super important for a team sport athlete to learn how to run fast in a straight line:

  • Athletes will express linear sprinting mechanics with every lead or defensive play that they make.
  • By teaching correct technique we can create greater efficiency within an athlete. An athlete that doesn’t waste their energy through unwanted movements is able to develop greater speeds at the same or lower energy cost.
  • Athletes who work on linear sprinting mechanics will often improve their speed without the reliance on heavy resistance training.
  • A faster athlete tends to create greater space offensively and close space easily defensively.

Speed is a fundamental component of all field and court based sports, especially when looking at acceleration. Max speed however must not be over looked, even if it is rarely reached throughout a game. The greater max velocity we can reach will influence the velocity which we can achieve during acceleration. Fundamental to speed however is technique; poor technique can lead to energy leakages where an athlete is putting energy into a movement or action that has no positive benefit to their overall speed outcome. Energy leaks can come in many forms with some of them being:

  • Poor foot mechanics.
  • Poor postural integrity and pelvic stability.
  • Over emphasis on back side mechanics.
  • Excessive forward lean.
  • Excessive overarch through the spine.
  • Unwanted tension throughout the body.
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This athlete is showing excessive overarch of the spine, excessive backside mechanics, ultimately resulting in too greater forward lean and a flat foot strike.

These are just some ways that many field and court sport athletes will waste energy when accelerating throughout the game. This accumulated waste of energy leads to greater levels of fatigue in the later stages of the game, impacting performance. Many of these factors rely on good technique as well as strength and body awareness. So what exactly do we mean by each of these points?….. Let me explain each one a little further so we can gain a greater understanding for the importance of teaching correct running mechanics. 

Poor foot mechanics:

When our foot strikes the ground during sprinting we should have what is called a ‘forefoot landing’ (landing on the front part of our foot). It is important to note that this does not mean landing on our toes, rather the ball of our foot. This means that the athletes foot should also strike just behind the knee, placing the athlete into a drive phase as soon as the foot strikes the ground.

When an athlete is striking the ground with their midfoot or worse still their heel (whilst sprinting), they are doing what we call over striding. In doing this they are putting on the breaks, of which they then have to overcome before they can accelerate forward again. This is a very slow way to run, if you imagine accelerating and then braking your car whilst driving you are basically doing the exact same thing. Not only are you slowing yourself down but you are placing a greater load and stretch on the hamstring muscle group placing them at greater risk of a strain or tear.

Poor postural integrity and pelvic stability:

This is often due to a lack of strength and a lack of body awareness, as the athlete allows the shoulders to rotate excessively in opposition to the legs, or for the trunk to slump, or lastly they allow for the hip on the swing leg side to drop (commonly referred to as a Trendelenburg gait). When the trunk is moving in opposition to the legs excessively this is wasting energy that could otherwise be used to accelerate the athlete forward. A lack of stiffness in the trunk results in a loss of stiffness in the lower limbs, often resulting in collapsing through the hip, knee and ankle, while the Trendelenburg gait exacerbates the loss of stiffness through the lower limbs, further contributing to a flat foot strike. When there is a loss of stiffness in the lower body this results in a loss of elastic energy, a form of energy used that has one of the highest speeed of usage making it very advantagious for us to use this form of energy when trying to run FAST!

Over emphasis on backside mechanics:

Once again, this type of athlete tends to have more of a heel strike on landing (resulting in pronounced breaking forces). Excessive backside mechanics also means that the athlete is extending the leg too far behind the body, creating a long lever which is SLOOOW. Ultimately this results in the athlete not gaining a high enough knee lift at the front to allow the athlete to apply high force into the ground, which would otherwise result in greater maximum velocities achieved.

Excessive forward lean:

This can be as a result of having excessive backside mechanics. Disproportionate forward lean means that the athlete doesn’t trust their elastic system to absorb and produce energy quickly. Instead they rely on strength, making the athlete heavier on the ground, losing potential energy as they collapse through the lower limbs. Stiffness and elasticity can however be trained/developed without the use of a great deal of equipment.

Excessive overarch through the spine:

This means that the athletes hips are pointed low or they have an excessively anteriorly tilted (forwards tilting) pelvis. Ultimately this decreases the available range of motion that the athlete can achieve at the front of their body, leading to excessive backside mechanics. As with excessive forward lean the lack of range at the front of the body means that the athlete is not able to produce as much force into the ground as potentially possible. It also means that the athlete is more likely to heel strike and overstride, increasing injury risk.

Unwanted tension throughout the body:

When an athlete creates tension often through their arms and neck they are putting energy into something that is not going to help them move forward faster. It is important that an athlete be relaxed so that their energy can be better used to produce greater force into the ground, allowing them to move quickly and efficiently in a smooth rhythmical manner.

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An elite sprinter showcasing correct max speed running mechanics; upright with a slight forward lean posture, high knee lift, forefoot landing, stiffness through the trunk but also a relaxed upper body.

So how can we best correct these patterns and produce a faster more efficient athlete? We do this through the use of drills where we break down the complexities of running mechanics and teach it in parts. We can then gradually put these parts together to produce a rhythmical a correct running pattern. So what are some drills that we can use.

  • Wall drive acceleration drills:

Wall drive acceleration drills allow the athlete to develop correct posture, whilst also allowing the athlete to practice correct swing phase pattern and foot strike pattern. Progressing to resisted accelerations, also develops correct positioning and posture throughout the acceleration phase. When the band is added in it allows the athlete to maintain a good posture whilst learning to apply force into the ground correctly through movement.

Wall drive acceleration
  • Wall slide drill:

This drill teaches the athlete correct upright posture in max speed, along with correct lower limb mechanics as it forces the athlete to bring the leg up and forward (heel to butt) rather then allowing the leg to lag behind the body.

Wall slide drill
  • Step overs:

This teaches the athlete correct foot strike mechanics, teaching a forefoot landing with the foot striking just behind the knee. It also teaches the athlete the importance of speed through their foot strike, as they aggressively attack the ground. Think step over the ankle and grab the ground.

Step overs

Lastly, for us to really get fast we need to run fast and regularly run fast. So there are a few different ways that we can approach this working on acceleration speed, max speed and then the use of resisted and assisted sprinting.

  • Standing start/rolling start:

It is important to practice various starting position and scenarios as the athlete will be required to accelerate from various means during a game. It is important however to start basic with a standing start get the mechanics and the positioning right before challenging the athlete with varying starting positions.

  • Max speed running:

It is super important that team sport athletes still work on their max speed even though they will rarely reach max speed within a game. A greater max speed capacity will ultimately increase their acceleration capacity and overall maximum velocity they can reach. 

  • Resisted/assisted accelerations:

Resisted accelerations are a good way to teach the athlete correct running position and force application over an extended duration, when the resistance releases it is important that the athlete is able to maintain their positioning. It also overloads the sprint forcing the athlete to apply greater levels of force into the ground then what would normally be produced. Assisted sprinting forces the neuromuscular system to work over time as the body tries to keep up with the pull of the bungy.  

It is important that these tools are used in conjunction with appropriate change of direction techniques and agility drills to allow the skill of running to be integrated with other technical skills required such as change of direction and agility based work.

These are just some of the tools that you can add to your tool box to improve your speed and running efficiency throughout the game, however if you have any specific questions or would like us to tailor a running program for you, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.