“Women aren’t small men,” says Stacy T. Sims, PhD, an environmental exercise physiologist. It’s a phrase she now uses as her tagline, adding that when it comes to fitness training research, mainstream advice and application is “mostly based on men and generalized to women, but that’s how women end up overtraining.” It’s also why women don’t achieve the results they want.
The biological differences between men and women have a major impact on proper training, and Sims has dedicated her work to exploring these. In particular, three biological differences stood out among the rest because, as Sims explains, maximizing adaptations — essentially the point of training — is “about your physiology, not your fitness.”
CARBS AND PROTEIN: THE CHOCOLATE MILK EXAMPLE
“Everyone has heard that chocolate milk is great after exercising, and that works great for men but not for women. Women have a shorter acute recovery time, which means they need a higher dose of protein, ideally a 2:1 carbs-to-protein ratio rather than the 4:1 ratio that men need,” says Sims.
When it comes to the ladies, Sims explains that women tend to have more progesterone coursing through our bodies depending on the timing of our cycle. Because progesterone is super catabolic, our muscles break down faster, so we need more protein to counter that stress, something chocolate milk doesn’t deliver.
“Women are most like men during the first two weeks of their cycles, roughly from days 1–14. We have more power, less fatigue. We can handle intensity, and we sleep better, too,” says Sims. This is the time of the month when we can more closely follow standard fitness recommendations, but once things start changing hormonally, women have to take a different approach. Around 5–7 days before our periods start, women need to back down on intensity-based sessions because once that part of our cycle hits, the elevation in estrogen inhibits our body’s ability to access stored carbohydrates well. In this phase of our cycle, we get more out of focusing on tempo, sleep and recovery rather than intensity — otherwise we’re not doing much but pushing our bodies past their biological boundaries.
REPAIR AND REST TIMES
While men can handle intense workouts pretty much every day, women’s physiological needs are different. “Plenty of research has been done on how long it takes the body to come back to baseline after training — for women it takes about 90 minutes, while for men it can take between 3–18 hours,” Sims explains, which is why, as she noted with the chocolate milk example, it’s important for women to feed their muscles with higher levels of protein post-training. Adequately resting, and building it into our training plans, is also important to keep our cortisol (aka that pesky stress hormone) down. “When we skip rest and recovery and overtrain, we end up with elevated cortisol levels” and — yep, you guessed it — extra body fat, notes Sims.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT WORKOUT