Throughout history, females have always been regarded as the ‘weaker gender’ and were not seen to be as capable as men. They were also not officially allowed to compete on a scale similar to men. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that women started to challenge the restrictions and social stigma emplaced on them by society, especially when it came to sports. In recent years, the feminist movement, with their ideology that females are equal and as capable as their male counterparts, has also been gaining support worldwide. The UCI has also made a big push for women’s cycling in recent years, calling for bigger stage races and one – day races for women, like the Giro Donne, the recently – held Strade Bianche, and the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, as well as for a greater media coverage of women’s racing. But are males and females really functionally and biologically equal?
From a structural and functional perspective, females generally have wider hips than men, a shorter torso length in relation to leg length, and a lower center of gravity. This is an important difference to understand, especially when purchasing a new bike or doing a bike fit. Major brands often cater to women with this understanding in mind through a variety of WSD (Women Specific Design) bikes, with their geometry being the main difference. It is usually advisable for women to purchase such bikes, and will save the bike fitter a lot of trouble at the same time.
Females also tend to have a lower amount of muscle mass and higher body fat percentage than males, due to higher levels of estrogen and lower levels of testosterone. This also means that women can generally expect a lower power – to – weight ratio compared to men, a key determinant in cycling performance. The distribution of strength in a women’s body is also different from that of men, being stronger in the legs and weaker in the core and upper body area. Good core strength is a hallmark of any good cyclist as it makes power transfer and movement more efficient. Upper body strength is especially required when riding out of the saddle to stabilize the body and bike against the torque applied by the legs. As such, it is even more important that women do not neglect strength training. This should be done year – round with varied frequency, intensity, and exercises, working on core strength and using multi – joint exercises for a more functional approach. Do not worry about bulking up!
From a biological perspective, females have a lower V02max due to their lower levels of testosterone, which is also partly responsible for the production of red blood cells that transport oxygen. Females also tend to have lower iron levels due to menstruation, with exercise decreasing these levels further. Iron is not only an essential component for the production of red blood cells, but also necessary for growth, development, normal cellular functioning, and synthesis of some hormones and connective tissue. It is thus crucial for female cyclists to take extra caution and top up their iron levels through their diet. As discussed earlier, due to their higher natural body fat percentage, many women resort to restricting their daily calorie intake drastically, restricting their iron intake in the process. While consuming more calories and red meat are two straightforward solutions, these may not be popular among many women. Instead, women can to ways that improve iron absorption while consciously increasing iron consumption at the same time. Consuming foods that are high in iron like fish, spinach, beans, together with orange juice or vitamin C will aid in boosting both iron intake and absorption. Certain food products and medications like tea, wheat bran, and antacids, hinder iron absorption, and are advisable to be avoided. Precautions should also be given when taking an iron supplement, as too much iron in one’s system may be harmful as well. Always seek professional advise before starting on a course of iron supplements.
Despite having key differences between both genders, research has shown that women have the same metabolic processes and are able to respond similarly to training. While it is true that women tend to have a lower absolute magnitude of workload, the same principles of training and becoming a fitter and more efficient cyclist apply across both genders. Females do however, need to have a good understanding of their key differences and work towards a good strength training program and a balanced, iron – sufficient diet in order to ensure a healthy and satisfying life – long participation and enjoyment in the sport.