Women and performing sports

History tells us that sports have always been a men’s world. In ancient Greece women were not allowed to watch sports. Even today not all sports are accesible to women. In athletics this is quickly being undone. Take long distance trials for example, only in 1960 the 800 meter for women was put back on the programme. In 1984 the marathon has been added, a distance which had been run by men for ages. Other disciplines are also coming around. Since a few years the triple jump has been introduced and currently unofficial events of hammer throwing are organized. In recent decades women have outdone themselves consistently. This, undoubtedly, is related to the fact that more women have been practicing more and more intensively. Emancipation has caused that the sweating woman, at least on the field, has become a socially accepted occurrence. Ultimately the question is, whether women could ever reach the same athletic goals as men. Based on physical differences this is most likely not going to happen. Statistic calculations which prove the opposite do not take this into account. Below we will discuss the most important physical differences.

Endurance sports show that men perform approximately 10% better than women.
This is caused by the fact that men can absorb more oxygen per kilogram bodyweight than women. This is caused by:
· male athletes being able to pump a greater volume of blood through their harts.
· male blood containing more hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells which is responsible for moving oxygen to the muscles.
· the fact that women have a higher fat percentage than men, approximately 10% higher, which means extra weight. The body of a female athlete, on the other hand, seems to be able to handle energy and fluid control better. The longer the endurance test is, the smaller the difference becomes between men and women. Aside from that it has been shown that there are no differences between the sexes of muscle buildup, such as quick or slow muscle-fiber typing and in trainability.

Strength and Speed.
During sports activities where power and explosiveness are important, such as hammer throwing, disc throwing and the explosiveness of a start in a run, the results of men are (much) better than those of women. Causes for these differences should not only be sought in the differences in physical features between women and men. The average Dutch woman (still) thinks that power sports are “too manly” and they hesitate to join in. Of course there are differences in strength between men and women. The maximum force of a boy develops much quicker in puberty than that of a girl. Ultimately this results in a (much) bulkier muscle buildup and strength. These factors are of great value in the throwing events of athletics, but also in other events where quickness and explosiveness (like the dash) are important. That hammer throwers are extremely fast in the first 30 meters clearly has a reason.

Motivation to Perform
Women who belong to the very best in their discipline have no indication of difference in motivation to perform or fear of failure. This however, only counts for women at the top, the average athlete seems to have this difference. Women appear to stop performing sports much sooner, especially during puberty many girls quit! Later on being a mother and doing sports do not appear to mix well. In the KNAU (Royal Dutch athletics Association) only 25% of the seniors are women!

Research shows that the menstruation itself has no influence on quickness to react, muscle strength or oxygen intake while exerting oneself. Indirectly the menstruation can cause effects in performance:
- The premenstrual syndrome. Approximately 20-40% of women are affected by premenstrual syndrome, which can go hand in hand with fatigue, moodiness, feeling bloated and painful breasts. Especially the fact that women can feel fatigued both before and during the menstruation, can lead to a shorter period of endurance. Besides, it has been shown that trained women are less likely to have these endurance problems.
- Higher need for iron. Women in sports require a higher level of iron. This is because through sweating and monthly loss of blood women lose iron more rapidly. Iron is required to build up hemoglobin and for the muscle protein myoglobin, which is involved in releasing energy for the working muscle. If there is an iron deficiency then a slower recovery after the workout will persist and ultimately this can result in complaints of extreme fatigue and loss of performance. The advice is then to consume an iron-rich diet, with lots of vegetables, red meat and oats. Drinking tea, coffee and milk during a meal should be limited, since they reduce the iron intake from food. Sometimes taking iron-pills is necessary. However, this should only be done when a severe iron deficiency in the blood is proven. Too much iron in your blood is also not healthy.
- Elevated chance for injuries during periods where menstruation is absent. It has been shown that many endurance athletes get an irregular menstruation pattern or it could even stay away for longer periods of time. This appears not to be such a bad or even to be a good thing (less loss of blood), but ultimately it is not. The absence of menstruation often coincides with a reduced concentration of the female hormone estrogen. This can result in reduction of calcium in bones, through which an elevated chance for a “fatigue-break” is created. When such a fatigue-break occurs in a bone, for 6 weeks the athlete cannot compete or practice (fully). It has also been shown that women who are on ‘the pill’ have a smaller chance for calcium reduction in bones.

Only in recent years has there been more (scientific) interest in pregnancy and performing sports. It has been shown that continuous exercise during a (normal) pregnancy is allowed. It is clear that at the end of the pregnancy the practice should be (slightly) adjusted. During long runs the belly will be in the way and breasts are often heavy and more sensitive. During the course of the pregnancy the chances of (overburdening) injuries will increase. The body mass increases, while the joints become more flexible. The chances for falling down will increase as well due to changing bodily dimensions. Strength training and technical events, such as hurdles and long jump become (more) dangerous. This often means that women stop actively running and prefer to ride a bicycle, swim or do walking.
Also see hip instability, runners’ nipple and achy breasts.

Only in the last few decades have women increased to actively participate in sports. They are quickly regaining the performance setback on men. However, there will always be performance differences, due to physical difference that can be shown in endurance and strength.

This article is a modification on an article by Els Stolk, union physician KNAU (Royal Dutch athletic association)

Live Long and Prosper!