Women are Not Small Men… Why Male and Female Physiology Differences Influence Athletic Performance


Fitness Couple giving each other high five after hard training

We watched a fair amount of the  Winter Olympics at our house in 2018 and it was quite obvious to see that the male competitors often had more strength, speed, and generally easily outperformed their female counterparts in each sport. These facts are not contested and are well known; world records ranging from the 800 meters to the marathon are 11 % slower for women than men. In head to head tests of strength of average men and women (i.e. not athletes), women will be only 52 % as strong in the upper body and 66% as strong in the lower body. Men are, on average, stronger and faster than women; but why is this so?

First off, women are starting with smaller organs such as the heart and lungs, which play a huge role in their capacity for VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen a body can use to create fuel). A woman’s VO2 max is, on average, about 15-25% lower than a man’s. Even the diastolic pressure in a woman’s arteries are lower, causing less oxygenated blood to be pumped with every heartbeat and lowering their cardiac output to 30 % lower than a man’s. There is also the fact that men have more of the hormone testosterone in their system, which ups the amount of red blood cells (6 % more than women) and therefore facilitates getting more oxygen to the muscles being used during exercise. All this to say, a woman will likely need to get her heart rate up higher and use more oxygen to get the same end results as a man.

Another difference between male and female physiology is the fact that in women, the largest muscle fibers are type I (endurance) whereas in men the largest muscle fibers are type II (anaerobic) even though there is not much difference between men and women when it comes to the overall percentages of type I versus type II muscle fibers. This means that men have an advantage when it comes to short intense bursts of activity as they are better at using glucose. Women, on the other hand, due to those type I fibers; are better at using fat and sparing glucose, which is important for long endurance type activities.

Interestingly, women are also more likely to consume muscle tissue for energy and will have a more difficult time when it comes to re-building and repairing muscle tissue post exercise during the high hormone luteal phase of menstruation (leading up to the period). This is because even though women may be better at burning fat during exercise, the same is not true during recovery. According to Dr. Stacy Sims, Nutrition Scientist, women’s fat-burning post exercise metabolism drops back to normal after about 3 hours, while men’s levels remain elevated up to 21 hours later.

So, with all these physiological differences, one might argue that women should not be training just like men do in order to get the best athletic results. Women need to be aware of their unique physiological traits and how to optimize what they have.

One big area that is slowly gaining traction for the fairer sex is lifting heavy weights. After a woman reaches the age of 30, her lean muscle mass will decline by 3 % every decade from her 30s until her 80s. Women don’t have to lose so much muscle mass as they age, they can train to minimize strength loss by lifting heavy 2-3 times a week. I talk about this in depth here: Women Lifting Heavy

Another idea that is starting to catch on in the fitness world is that of women training with their menstrual cycle, and the hormonal changes that accompany it, in mind. In my post, Workouts and Your Cycle, I talk about how to do this.

Knowing about the physiological differences between female and male physiology and coupling that with a workout strategy customized for me as a female has helped me immensely in gaining more strength and speed.


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