Optimising Performance for the Female Athlete: Heavy Resistance & Sprint Interval Training

Flogging strength training to runners is harder than coaxing Nick into a marketing shoot. Fortunately, with the increasing amount of research emerging linking strength training with performance gains , the former is becoming easier. Any tips on the latter please let me know.

We recently hosted an evening at the shop discussing all things female health and performance. This article, along with the accompanying slides, is a condensed version of the talk Lou and Rik gave. If you would like further information please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Firstly let’s clarify our terms. Resistance training is defined as any exercise which causes the muscles to contract against an external resistance, whether this be bodyweight, a barbell or a rucksack full of bricks. What constitutes heavy is slightly subjective but can be loosely defined as lifting greater than 70% of your one rep max or less than 10 repetitions of a resistance exercise. Strength is your ability to exert force against resistance and power is how quickly this force (strength) can be exerted.

There is strong evidence that strength and conditioning, specifically heavy resistance training (HRT), is beneficial for athletes health, wellbeing and peformance. Current evidence is weaker for injury prevention but anecdotally and theoretically, there are several benefits. These benefits are outlined in the attached slides. The main performance benefit of HRT for both men and women is improvements in running economy, defined as the amount of energy it takes to move at a sub-maximal pace. This occurs through increased tendon stiffness, improved synergy between muscle groups, preferential recruitment of type 1 (fatigue-resistant) muscle fibres and being able to recruit more muscle fibres at a faster rate. All of which requires less energy meaning you can move quicker and/or further.

So why is it especially important that women strength train? Historically, exercise physiology research has been conducted on men so any conclusions drawn from these studies don’t necessarily apply to females. To quote Dr Stacy Sims, women are not small men. Fortunately there is a lot more research being conducted with female participants and the conclusions drawn so far suggest that women, specifically those approaching the menopause transition, can greatly benefit from both HRT and Sprint Interval Training (SIT). So what are the key differences we should consider for female athletes?

Women generally have a lower proportion of type 2, fast-twitch (power producing) muscle fibres and begin losing muscle mass around 30 years old. This loss of strength, power and muscle mass is even more pronounced during the menopause transition when growth hormone levels and Oestrogen – Progesterone ratios decline. As Oestrogen is responsible for fast muscle contractions, this decline causes a loss of explosive power, speed and muscle integrity. Luckily these changes can be mitigated and reversed through HRT and SIT. Both of these modalities effectively replace the role of Oestrogen in muscle fibre contractions by providing a neuromuscular (nerves which control muscles) stimulus.

‘Lifting Heavy Shit’ as Dr Sims puts it, keeps muscle contractions strong by stimulating nerves in the muscle to recruit the maximum number of muscle fibres. This type of strength training also provides a stimulus for muscle protein synthesis thus encouraging the maintenance and growth of lean muscle mass. HRT can be undertaken in a number of ways, but as a rough guide it involves completing compound (multi-joint) movements, comprising 3-5 exercises of 3-5 repetitions (to fatigue, not failure) of 3-5 sets with 3-5mins rest between sets to allow the Central Nervous System to recover. This recovery can be total rest or done via the addition of another exercise with targets a different muscle group (Supersetting). Examples of compound movements include deadlifts, squats, lunges and push ups. Plyometric and ballistic exercises can also be included to improve power output. A strength training programme must be gradually introduced as the skill component needs to be developed first to avoid injury and as menopause is already associated with systemic inflammation and a reduced resiliency in tissues.

Sprint Interval Training, defined as short bouts of very fast running combined with lots of recovery, has been shown to have a host of health and performance benefits. For runners, SIT can improve running economy, running form, peak power output, maximal aerobic speed, cardiac output and Vo2max. For women, SIT also increases lean muscle mass, fat burning and improves blood glucose control. An example of SIT could be 10 x (15s sprints with 115s static rest) combined with a thorough warm up and cooldown.

There is also some evidence that HRT and SIT can be used to reduce injury risk amongst female athlete populations. Women incur a higher rate of chronic and acute injuries due too possessing smaller bone dimensions and lower bone density, which is exacerbated during the menopause transition. These risks can be reduced through HRT, SIT and explosive plyometric activities.

Evidence for adapting training around the mesntrual cycle is mixed and the topic for a whole another discussion. What is apparent is that the menstrual cycle affects all women differently and that measures can be taken to make training easier. My advice would be to adapt training based on your own experiences, seek out experts in the form of health practitioners and qualified coaches and most of all, be kind to yourself and back off if you feel you need to.

It is estimated that only 20% of women currently engage in resistance training two or more times per week, so there are clearly a lot of potential gains to be made in this area. Seek out a qualified strength and/or running coach for additional advice around training adaptations. It should be noted that if you are currently training in a different way to that which we’ve discussed and it is producing positive results, then continue as you are but we believe that women of all ages can benefit from incorporating both HRT & SIT into their training programmes regardless of age. Remember, running is cool but being strong is badass.


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