Functional and Biological differences between Genders – What women cyclists should look out for

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.

Insights from 2012: Tour de France and Olympics

It has been a pretty busy month for the sporting world, with the Olympics coming to a close just last week and the Tour de France just last month.

I haven’t really been following the Olympics, only managed to catch the Men’s and Women’s Road Race and Individual Time Trials, together with some Track and occasional BMX and MTB action. I have followed the Tour de France much closer, and whenever I’ve the opportunity I would watch the live telecast, or at least the highlights of that stage. I have also been following the power meter data by a few riders, as well as the interviews of the different riders.

The domination of Team Sky at the Tour de France this year, and the attempted one at the Olympics, has definitely caused me to reflect and try to draw some insights on what contributed to their success, and their failure.

Here are the 2 main insights that I have gained from watching both the Tour de France and Olympics:

Know what the race demands, then train specifically towards those demands

We all saw the way Team Sky took the race by its horns and dominated it. They had the yellow jersey after the first week, which was a pretty risky thing because it was still quite far from the finish line in Paris and there were still a lot of tough mountain stages to go through. This was in contrast with the Tour de France in 2011, where the yellow jersey was only decided on the day before the last stage in Paris.

What was even more interesting to watch, was how everyone in Team Sky could just get to the front, and set the tempo on the mountain stages especially which made many riders crack, yet at the same time annul any attacks easily (e.g Nibali’s attacks). There was no sharp acceleration from them, just a steady pace and occasional rise in the tempo to bring back any attacks (mind you, it made the attacks out front look stupid). Froome and Wiggins were able to hold such a high tempo that they made everything looks so easy. What’s the reason, you may ask. Another doping scandal on the rise?

Dominating – Team Sky took the yellow jersey after the 1st week of the Tour de France and never gave anyone a single opportunity to steal it away from them. (Photo credits: Guardian news)

It’s obvious that such a high sustained tempo could only mean one thing, lots and lots of specific training. Specific training to get the Lactate Threshold to a certain wattage, such that they could hold that specific high tempo. Specific training to allow them to produce a high power output on the slopes of the Tour de France, yet able to Time Trial like a motorbike on the flats.

The only way to know what to train for, is to look at what the race demands from the rider, and Team Sky did a really great job at just that. They were able to analyse every single detail of what it took to win the Tour de France from past power data of their riders (Wiggins was 4th in 2009) from similar races and were able to put together what the race demanded from their riders. The concept is simple: If you’re able to replicate what happens during racing as much as you can during training, the higher your chances of doing well. Training should thus be specific to that big race/event that you are aiming for.

It’s not all about the numbers, but also about guts, panache, and aggressiveness

We also saw how Team Great Britain (well Team Sky in essence) didn’t manage to deliver Cavendish to the line in first place to win the Gold medal in the Olympics Men’s Road Race. To be fair, they were forced to do all the chasing and control in the peleton (they only had 4 men to do that, excluding Cav), which looked almost impossible to pull off. The peleton took full advantage of that, and a sizeable amount of riders were in the winning breakaway at the end. Even though Team Sky might have the men and the right ‘numbers’ to accomplish such a task, it proved that racing is also about using your head, and having the guts to be aggressive even when the chances of winning are slim. We saw how riders like Gilbert and Nibali shoot off the front even though they knew there was quite a big chance of getting caught back. Racing requires panache, and the guts to try even when you know the odds are against you. A fine example would be the newly crowned Olympic Champion, Alexandre Vinokourov, who did a gutsy attack with Uran within the last 5km, and made a cunning move on him and sprinted to claim the Gold medal.

Against the odds: Philippe Gilbert on the attack in the Men’s Road Race during the 2012 Olympics. (Photo credits: zimbio.com)

Of course, it is important to have a fine – tuned engine when you race. It is important to be able to hit a certain amount of wattage and train specifically to your races. But it is also just as important to have the racing smarts and aggressiveness to be able to use your engine to it’s maximum capacity.

I leave you with these 2 insights, do feel free to comment in the box below! Happy riding!