On average, men have bigger hearts, lungs and muscles, so how are women seemingly closing the endurance gender gap.
''The sores on my neck and body were excruciating. I’ve never known water like it. It’s something I carried with me for three weeks. Why did I do it? I love a challenge.” The words of ultra-endurance triathlete Claire Smith when reflecting on becoming the first British athlete – male or female – to complete the continuous Double Deca in Mexico last November.
Brit, Dave Clamp completed it in the old format of one ironman per day multiplied by 20, while Smith ‘tamed’ the 48-mile swim, 2,240-mile bike and 524-mile run in 660hrs, 28mins and 58secs. It was a long and ridiculous event. Along the way, she experienced the most toxic water she’s swum in, saddle sores and an ankle injury. “But no hallucinations,” she laughs. “Not this time. I used to, though, terribly before realising it was linked to dehydration. I remember the Double Enduroman up the road in the New Forest. I stamped my foot in a puddle but there were no ripples. My son, Jake, was with me. He said there was no puddle. But it was so vivid. I saw soldiers in the bushes as well.”
Soldiers or not, Smith’s consistently trampled all over male competitors. And she’s not the only one…
LONGER, FASTER, STRONGER
The past few years have seen women outperform men at the extremes of endurance. In December 2018, American Camille Herron claimed the world record among men and women for the fastest 24hr race, covering 162.9 miles. Then there’s the remarkable exploits of Brit Jasmin Paris, who thrust herself into the media spotlight when beating everyone at the 2019 Montane Spine race – a 268-mile winter assault on the Pennine Way. During pitstops, she breastfed her daughter Rowan.
Anomalies? Maybe not. There’s mounting evidence that the tougher and longer the event, the better women do. Most recently, a study by RunRepeat.com and the International Association of Ultrarunners concluded that female ultra runners are faster than their male counterparts over 195 miles beyond. “The average pace was 17:19min/mile,” lead author Paul Ronto tells us. “That was 0.6% faster than the men’s 17:25min/mile.” That compares to 5km where men are 17% quicker. The study was comprehensive, Ronto exploring ultra trends over 23 years that involved analysing over five-million results from 15,451 ultra events.
It was also run-specific, but this closing of the gender gap as distance grows is reflected in triathlon, too. Professor Romauld Lepers of Burgundy University in France revealed that between the mid-1990s and 2012, Ironman World Champ elite females closed in on the men from 15% back to 11%. Fast-forward to 2018. Daniela Ryf wins the Ironman World Champs for the fourth year in a row, finishing 25th overall in a time of 8:26hrs and thus finishing just 7.1% behind men’s winner Patrick Lange (7:52hrs). Brit Lucy Charles-Barclay regularly hits top-10 exiting the swim, including second overall at Challenge Roth 2019.
FAT AND FATIGUE RESISTANCE
So what’s going on? We crossed the channel to find out. Guillaume Millet is professor of exercise physiology at Saint Etienne University. He’s an expert on gender-specific physiology and suggests there are two reasons behind the closing of the gap: muscle fatigue and fat-burning capacity. “Before I elaborate, I must stress that there’s no definitive answer and to what degree the gap is closing, if at all,” Millet warns. “But it’s a question that deserves to be asked because women can win scratch races.
“Anyway, we undertook a study in 2012 to understand the area more,” Millet continues. “We tested a number of male
and female athletes at the 2012 UTMB event in Chamonix [legendary 170km run in the Alps]. It was reduced to 110km that year because of adverse weather but it was still tough.
We electrically stimulated their quadriceps before and after the race and discovered that the female runners’ neuromuscular system was fatigued to a lesser extent than the men. Their muscles were seemingly more fatigue resistant.”
Millet concedes he’s not 100% sure why but suggests it could be down to women possessing a higher percentage of type I slow-twitch fibres than men. Men have a higher percentage of type II fast-twitch fibres. Type I are better for endurance; type II are more suited for speed and strength.
Then there’s the notion that women excel at ultra triathlons and other events due to being more efficient at burning fat for fuel. Studies show that their FatMax, the exercise intensity at which the highest rate of fat oxidation is observed, is higher in women than men. The resulting conclusion is that females can not only spare more precious glycogen stores for intense parts of the race, they can race fast and still predominantly tap into a near exhaustible supply of fat-burning energy, too.
“That’s the theory but I speculate that there’s another reason,” says Millet. “If you can tap into more fat, you’ll preserve amino-acid status as you won’t be drawing on protein for fuel. This prevents muscle breakdown and strengthens the muscle-fatigue resistance argument.” To that end, Millet’s currently analysing data from another study of his at the 2019 UTMB event to either prove or disprove his theory. He hopes to draw a conclusion soon. But, anecdotally, this propensity to burn fat and block fatigue’s echoed by Smith.
“The longer I go, the stronger I feel,” says Smith. “Take the Double Deca. I had a nasty injury halfway through the run. It broke my heart as I thought I’d have to stop. It worsened for a few days and reached heavy limping stage. But I flipped my mindset and thought, ‘I’m here long enough, this could heal’. And it did. As an event grows, I strengthen mentally and physically.”
MANAGING THE MENTAL SIDE
Ahh, the mental. There are many reasons mooted why women might be stronger than men, including the idea that childbirth bulletproofs a female’s mind to future painful exploits. Millet disputes this, citing no empirical evidence. As did Jasmin Paris in 2019 when asked about childbirth boosting her pain threshold:
“My daughter was born backwards but I don’t think one experience trains you for other unpleasant experiences.”
Sports psychologist Dr Carla Meijin is currently studying pain experiences of ultra female athletes. But the results aren’t yet in. They’re also not comparative with men, which reflects the sports psychological field as a whole. “There exists very little research that’s focused on differences between endurance male and female athletes from a psychological perspective,” says Meijin. “Much of the media coverage centres on the anecdotal.”
To that end, Smith concludes that she has a high pain threshold and quite an extreme personality. “I’m all or nothing. If I aim for something, I won’t give up.” That’s arguably symptomatic of many ultra athletes, not just women. You can also speculate that men’s egos have a more detrimental impact the longer an event, especially when it comes to pacing. Take an American study of 92,000 marathon results at 14 races that showed while both sexes slowed during the second half, men slowed more. Their grand egos sent them shooting from the start line before falling backwards.
THE MYSTERY REMAINS
It’s similarly unclear when you deconstruct each discipline. During the period 1983-2012, Lepers showed that the sex differences in elite Ironman Hawaii performance remained relatively stable at around 12.5% for swimming and cycling, while running dropped from 13.5% to 8%. Why remains unclear although a more refined pacing strategy’s been mooted. You’d also think women’s naturally higher fat percentages would provide greater buoyancy and more speed in the swim. But reverting back to the 2018 race, Ryf came in 13.5% slower than Lange and only 3.9%
back on the bike.
“And that clashes with the protein fat-burning theory,” says Millet. “Cycling doesn’t really damage the muscle so clearly muscle-resistance to damage isn’t the only reason. It’s a complex subject!” Other theories of gender closing include lighter female triathletes being naturally more economical on the run. The female’s natural lightness also pays off when dissipating heat, says Lepers.
Ultimately, it seems that females excel at the true extreme fringes of endurance events. Why could be down to physiological and psychological advantages when racing for days on end. The evidence is inconclusive. Or it could simply be a numbers game and outliers. The Spine race that Paris won counted just 11 women among its 126 starters. The next woman came in two days behind Paris. “Small sample sizes are a problem in making any conclusions,” says Millet. “All I know for certain is that whatever the gender of anyone who attempts such an undertaking, these extreme athletes deserve a medal. They’re inspirational.
The COVID-19 crisis has sidelined millions of athletes, from professionals to high school students to weekend warriors. Athletes have lost their primary source of mental wellness, their sport. As a therapist who works with athletes, I know how important sports and exercise are for mental health. So far 2020 has been a brutal year for sports, but with some creative strategies, athletes can get back in the game.
In March, college basketball was halted in its tracks. Next, the Boston Marathon was called off for the first time in its 124 year history. Then the Olympics was postponed until 2021. Like falling dominoes, the event after the event was canceled. At first, athletes were disappointed, but hopeful. Maybe their seasons would resume later in the year, they thought. But the precedent had already been set: 2020 was to be the year of canceled sports. Reality hit, and with it came a profound sense of loss.
Sports connects people in deep and personal ways, and for many athletes, sports is their identity. When something this powerful is taken away, it’s traumatic, almost like a death. Grief can be caused by any kind of loss. In her book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler Ross breaks down grief into stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Athletes right now may be experiencing any one of these stages of grief. Left unaddressed, these feelings can lead to more serious mental health problems.
Mental health professionals are noticing increased anxiety and depression among athletes. Referrals for counseling have increased, and athletes are reporting overall declines in measures related to the quality of life.
Coaches are concerned about their athletes too, especially children and teens. Lack of routine and isolation from peers can be devastating for a young person who hasn’t yet developed the coping abilities of an adult.
Even superstar athletes are not immune to the psychological effects of COVID. Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, who has struggled with depression, said in a recent interview that the pandemic has been incredibly challenging for him emotionally.
Another concerning trend is substance use. Since March of this year, alcohol use and drug overdoses have increased at alarming rates in the overall U.S. population. Athletes, absent their normal routines, could turn to substances to ease their stress.
While prospects look dim for sports returning anytime soon, athletes can adapt and make the best of a bad situation.
The great Michael Jordan can serve as an example. In his second season in the NBA, Jordan missed 64 games due to a foot injury. He desperately wanted to play, but his coaches said no. Instead of sulking, Jordan hit the weight room. He adapted and came back stronger than ever.
Athletes can adapt, and so can sports franchises and teams. Major League Baseball adapted. Instead of scrapping the entire season, they instituted a modified schedule with no fans. Not ideal, but better than nothing.
The New York City Marathon also adapted. This year it’s a virtual race. In the fall runners will complete the 26.2 miles alone in their local area and submit their official times. For athletes and teams, 2020 is the year to pivot and get creative. A positive, can-do approach is what’s needed.
STRATEGIES FOR ATHLETES
Even with a positive attitude, athletes can get discouraged. Here are some strategies for athletes (and non-athletes) to boost their mental game during this unprecedented time.
Have a routine.
Athletes accustomed to showing up for regular practice now have to create their own structure. Working out at the same time every day is key. This creates a sense of control, which can ease anxiety.
Mix it up.
Now is a great opportunity to explore different sports. Football players might try yoga, or swimmers might try cycling. Variety keeps things fresh and reduces burnout.
Human contact feels good. Schedule regular activities with family, friends, or teammates. Of course, use common sense and refer to your local social distancing rules. Even virtual meetings help maintain a sense of connection.
Adjust your standards.
Athletes set high standards for themselves, and are often disappointed when they fall short of their goals. There isn’t much that athletes can do right now except train. Accepting this fact will temper unrealistic expectations.
Get help if you need it.
A good coach helps injured players by referring them to a sports doctor. Likewise, athletes need to ask for help if they’re feeling off emotionally. This could mean calling a friend or reaching out to a mental health professional.
The world of sports, and the world at large, is going through unprecedented times. It’s normal to feel anxious, depressed, even defeated. It’s also okay to mourn the loss of your sport. But it’s important not to give up. Keep training. Sports will be back. For now, be creative, adapt, and reach out for help if you need it.
On the Sidelines: Athletes and Mental Health During COVID 19 Pandemic.
How to Approach Strength Training During Menopause (And Why You Should)
The way we perceive strength training today has dramatically evolved over the past decade, especially around the subject of weight training for women.
Yes, men and women respond differently to strength training, but it doesn’t mean one sex benefits from it more than the other. While lifting weights may carry the stereotype of being more beneficial for men, due to the link between strength training and boosting testosterone levels, it’s a habit that’s extremely beneficial for women of all ages.
Throughout their lives, most women will experience menstruation, menopause, and potentially pregnancy. These big shifts will not only impact their sex hormones and reproductive system but practically their entire bodies.: mood, cognitive response, sleep, metabolism, you name it. By adding in another stressor, such as strength training, their bodies will experience more tissue damage and spikes in select hormones which will impact their systems in a variety of other ways.
Sometime after turning 45 years old, a woman’s ovaries will slowly begin to decline in oestrogen and progesterone hormone production: a process most commonly known as menopause. When it comes to menopausal women, there’s a lot of misguided information around whether not they should incorporate a strength training regime at this stage in their lives. Luckily, strength coach Molly Galbraith, CSCS and Dr. Helen Kollias of Girls Gone Strong helped us clear the air with some of the most relevant facts and science behind strength training and menopause.
Menopause and Your Hormones
Oestrogen plays a key role in regulating the absorption and breakdown of collagen while also assisting one’s bladder function (holding and releasing urine specifically).
“Changes in oestrogen levels during menopause can have an effect on the pelvic floor,” explains Galbraith. “This may mean that women are more susceptible to urine leaking post menopause due to the reduction in oestrogen.”
Therefore, adopting a strength training routine may aid in maintaining good pelvic floor health and decrease the risk of urinary incontinence. For example, performing exercises such as squats, glute bridges and kegels with intentional, controlled contractions can help reinforce stability and proper muscle engagement in the pelvic region.
Symptom wise, menopause is most commonly associated with hot flashes, night sweats, and chills, otherwise known as vasomotor symptoms.
“The vasomotor centre is a part of the brainstem involved in regulating blood pressure via blood vessel dilation and contraction,” says Dr. Kollias. Changes in the hypothalamus (the area of your brain that regulates your body temperature) can initiate hot flashes and fluctuations in a menopausal woman’s internal temperature. Given the relationship between exercise and healthy oestrogen production, a few studies have shown that adopting a regular training regime can reduce the severity of sleep quality, insomnia and depression. As far as these particular symptoms go, the evidence is mixed as to whether or not exercise helps to reduce hot flashes. However, it has been shown to improve psychological well-being and decrease amount of weight gained during this phase.”
Bone Density & Muscle Mass
Regardless of age, strength training benefits the retention of muscle mass of any female. It’s really no secret that following a consistent exercise routine improves one’s cardiovascular, metabolic and psychological health.
One of menopause’s consequences is the acceleration of tissue aging throughout the body (muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons). Given the majority of women will enter this phase around the ages of 50 to 55 years old, strength training won’t just decrease their risk of osteoporosis but if adopted early on in life, it can also aid them in achieving the highest possible peak bone mass when premenopausal.
So, one could suggest that if you’re under 45 years, it’s smart to incorporate a resistance training routine to benefit as much as possible from it before fully shifting into menopause. However, the good news is that there’s no such thing as being “too old” for strength training or starting “too late.”
Now, we already know that once a woman enters menopause, her ovaries start decreasing the production of oestrogen and progesterone. Research shows oestrogen acts as a regulator of muscle energy metabolism and muscle cell viability. It does so by inserting itself into cells, like muscle membranes, in order to stabilize them and help protect them from tearing. Therefore, strength training to increase the size of muscle fibres can help to mitigate these effects by combating age-related sarcopenia (a reduction in muscle strength and size) and maintain the current health of their bones, muscles, and joints.
Although a healthy lifestyle does not increase the amount of estrogen in circulation, it reduces the risk of deterioration and development of chronic health conditions.
We already know estrogen’s role goes beyond a woman’s reproductive system. On top of helping regulate the menstrual cycle, oestrogen is crucial to preserving muscle mass and is instrumental in bone formation. As oestrogen production starts to decline, premenopausal and menopausal women’s bone rebuilding process will, in turn, start to slow down. So, in this case, strength training is a great way to help maintain a healthy skeletal and muscular system. That said, it’s important to really prioritize proper recovery.
“While most trainers focus on weight gain and weight distribution during this time, they really need to be focusing on recovery,” explains Galbraith. “During menopause or postmenopause, women have a decreased capacity for physiological stress.”
This is largely due to vasomotor symptoms. These symptoms (often called hot flashes), are described as a sudden increase in blood flow mostly to the face, neck, and chest, that cause the sensation of extreme heat and excessive sweating. When a woman experiences these symptoms at night, these “night sweats” can cause significant sleep disturbances. These can be caused by the decline of oestrogen, which help you fall and stay asleep by controlling levels of cortisol, and a lack of melatonin, which regulates body temperature for sleep. All the more reason to ensure proper recovery.
Galbraith’s tip: “Being mindful of how your clients feel during and after exercise, ensuring they can take breaks and have plenty of water to drink if they are experiencing hot flashes, and monitoring their overall recovery is incredibly important.”
Potential methods of recovery include:
Soft tissue work post-training, such as foam rolling
Epsom salt baths (to help relieve any delayed onset muscle soreness)
Giving your body 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep at night
Getting adequate protein intake
Start taking a magnesium supplement
Ice baths or cold showers
Wrapping it Up
Why should a menopausal woman opt for strength training rather than solely relying on aerobic work as a form of exercise?
“Just like anyone, a combination of strength training and cardiovascular training is best for retention of muscle mass, improved bone density and health, cardiovascular health, and overall health and well-being,” Kolias states.
Along with preserving muscle mass and increasing bone density, menopausal women that opted for strength training as their primary method of exercise noticed tremendous psychological changes in and outside of a gym setting. Many of Galbraith’s clients experienced these benefits as well. “We’ve noticed that women feel appreciably stronger, more capable, more confident in their bodies and their abilities, and more in control of their overall health after adopting strength training. Particularly in a time in their life when they may feel as though their health is a bit out of their control.”
Although the stigma of strength training being “bad” or “too intense for older women” still exists, experts like Galbraith and Kolias will continue to passionately educate the fitness community on the benefits of adopting this style of exercise routine—regardless of age and gender.
OUR OWN PRETTY GRITTY BRANDED APPAREL
As well as our coaching, we have a real passion for stylish sportswear: after all, if we are spending a lot of time wearing it, we want to look and feel good in it and so we have developed our own ‘Pretty Gritty’ branded apparel. We aim to deliver our brand, beyond what we do locally so that all women can wear unique performance wear that is stylish and meaningful.
Our crocus logo and the name ‘Pretty Gritty’ represents determined women in the sports sector and is an analogy of the crocus flower itself: A tough, yet striking flower that brings much needed vibrancy and colour to its surroundings. In greater numbers they flourish and bloom.
We feel our Pretty Gritty apparel gets you noticed for all the right reasons and more and more women are wearing it proudly. Our products are perfect for both training sessions and events alike.
WHAT IS THE STORY BEHIND THE BRAND? - DO YOUR LOGOS HAVE MEANING?
Greek Mythology states that the Goddess Eos had an insatiable appetite for adventure and would circle the world every morning bringing the dawn of each new day with her gift of light.
We think she can be assimilated to all women, making changes and embarking upon something new, fresh and exciting and 'lighting' the way for other women to follow.
The ‘Pretty’ aspect of our name, not only lends itself to the radiance of a Goddess but particularly to the blossoms of the hardy, crocus flower whose golden stigmas, were offered to Eos as a sign of worship.
We have used the crocus as our main logo.
The crocus not only survives, but prospers in the face of hardship, managing to offer a cheerful and uplifting effect to onlookers. Like the crocus flowers, our women flourish together.
Our all female group can inspire each other to be better versions of ourselves; making small and incremental positive changes invigorating a ‘Dawn of a New Beginning’ whilst seeking out new adventures in life.
There is no better time than the moment you are in, to start anew. Being 'Pretty Gritty' is within all us women.