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The Female Athlete

boy v girl.jpg

In a world where women are striving for equality in all aspects, it is important to make note of what makes us different.  These differences are not always a negative and in some cases give our sex an advantage.  In this blog we will explore how our bodies react differently and are built differently than men and what that means in terms of working out, injury and nutrition.

Due to higher estrogen levels, women have more body fat than men. The leanest female athletes, such as top marathon runners, have body fat of approximately 8 percent, compared with 4 percent for their male counterparts. In addition, women's bodies are less muscular, but their joints are more flexible, which gives them greater range of motion -- an advantage in sports such as gymnastics. The wider female pelvis also affects the alignment and movement of the extremities. Men have higher levels of testosterone, which gives them a performance advantage in other ways. 

Estrogen is not a negative however.  Your muscles have estrogen receptors, and, in fact, there’s good reason to believe that estrogen plays a major role in the beneficial adaptations that occur with aerobic training.  When compared to sedentary men, endurance-trained men have 3-5x as many estrogen receptors in the muscles (suggesting they become more sensitive to the effects of estrogen), and it’s been found that, at least in mice, estrogen receptors on mitochondria increase the rate of glucose uptake into the muscle when activated.

Testosterone enables men to develop larger skeletal muscles as well as larger hearts. Men also have a larger proportion of Type 2 muscle fibers, which generate power, strength and speed. Testosterone also increases the production of red blood cells, which absorb oxygen, giving men an even greater aerobic advantage, reports "New York Times" writer Gina Kolata, in an interview with Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, an exercise researcher at McMaster University in Ontario.

Women tend to have a greater proportion of Type 1 fibers (roughly 27-35% greater Type 1 fiber area relative to total fiber area) and greater capillary density.  Those are two major factors.  More Type 1 fibers and greater capillary density mean better tissue perfusion (ability to get more blood to the muscle to provide oxygen and clear metabolites) and greater capacity for glucose and fatty acid oxidation (because Type 1 fibers are the ones with more mitochondria and aerobic enzymes).  Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes are negatively correlated with Type 1 fiber percentage and capillary density in both lean and obese people.

Conversely, men have a higher glycolytic capacity than women.  That means that they can burn through more glucose in the absence of oxygen, which lends itself to better performance for short-intense bursts of effort, but which also means more lactate accumulation and longer recovery times after all-out efforts.  This is related to both the higher percentage of Type II fibers, and also higher levels of glycolytic enzymes.


Though women tend to have more fat, there are differences in where that fat is stored, and also the characteristics of that fat.  For starters, men tend to have more visceral fat (fat stored around the organs in the abdominal cavity), and women tend to have more peripheral subcutaneous fat (fat stored between the muscles and the skin).  This gives rise to the “apple” and “pear” shaped, or android and gynoid fat distribution patterns.

Due to some of the skeletal formation differences mentioned earlier, women are more prone to injuring joints such as the shoulders and knees. Weaker shoulder muscles and looser supporting tissues mean the joint is less stable than in men, reports writer Michael Lasalandra, in an interview with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center sports medicine physician Bridget Quinn. Also, the injury rate to the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, a major knee ligament, is significantly higher in female than in male athletes. By proper training and strengthening of supporting muscles, women can prevent such injuries.


Women have increased incidence of patellofamoral disorders, stress fractures and ACL injuries.  In fact the risk of injury is 2-10 times greater than males especially with pivoting sports.  ACL injury is more common due to land ion biomechanics and neuromuscular control differences.  Females land with their knees in more extension and vaigus due to hip internal rotation.  This picture gives a good idea of the pressure placed on the female’s lower extremities and the suceptiblility to injury.  Conditioning and strength play a big role, but females in general have smaller ACL size and smaller notches.  Another factor is a women’s cyclical hormone levels, placing them at a greater risk for injury during the first half of the menstrual cycle.  

Perhaps one of the most important conditions that differentiate male and female athletes s susceptibility to the Female Athlete Triad, or “the triad.” The triad consists of three main symptoms including low energy availability, menstrual dysfunction and decreased bone mineral density. This was more common when skinny was in and women were afraid to put on muscle, afraid they would look to masculine or get “thick”.  Strong is beautiful and in some ways our culture is starting to recognize this more and more.  By regulating your caloric intake and making sure your hormones are still in healthy balance, even athletes that push to the point of no longer having a regular period can avoid the triad.

Just to reiterate, gender differences related to acute performance aren’t that huge, and are less a function of gender per se, and more a function of body composition.   Of the differences that do exist, the largest contributing factors are fiber type differences and sex hormone differences.  In essence, they set women up to be more metabolically suited to just about everything.  

They clear VLDL and triglycerides better, have better insulin sensitivity, have a more favorable fat distribution, and burn a greater proportion of fat at any given exercise intensity, making them less fatigueable.  The only place where men have the edge is in glycolytic capacity and explosive (but not maximal strength) performance (both related to Type II fiber proportion).


So what do we do with all that?

For starters, ladies, do not be afraid of carbs.  Not only are they delicious and awesome, but you have better insulin sensitivity, and the more of them you eat, the more of them you burn.

Second, you do not have a harder time losing weight because you’re a woman.  Yes, you’ll probably have to eat fewer calories than a man who weighs the same amount you do, but the primary factors in determining your calorie needs are body size, body composition, and activity level, with gender playing little to no role.  If you’re more jacked and/or more active than a guy who weighs the same as you, then you can eat more than him.  If not, you can’t.

Finally, as far as training goes, odds are pretty good that you can do more work and benefit from more work than a guy can.  Your muscles are inherently more glycogen-sparing and fatigue-resistant.  You can probably do more reps with a given percentage of your 1rm before fatigue sets in, and do more total work (relative to 1rm) before you hit a wall due to higher proportion of Type 1 muscle fibers, greater proportion of fat being burned instead of glycogen, and lower glycolytic capacity.

Rock on ladies!  




The Equipment of CrossFit: Kinesio Tape

Just a reminder that there will be a reduced class schedule this week, August 15th-August 19th.  Check the CFF App or log onto Mindbody for more details.

by Geoff Rand

Each year as the CrossFit Games progress, you will see athletes with all sorts of tape on their bodies.  As the competition goes on, it seems more and more tape gets applied.  Some of them look like they’re wearing a Rock Tape shirt by the end of the week.

I’ve used Kinesio tape, specifically the KT Tape brand, but I wanted to find out how and why it works.  My search for knowledge turned into an anatomy lesson of sorts.

What is it?

Kinesio tape is a latex-free elastic tape used to relieve pain, provide support, and assist with recovery and injury prevention.  The tape can come in continuous length rolls, like Rock Tape, or precut lengths as KT Tape does.  The tape only stretches along its length, and is designed to breathe.  A tape application can last for several days and you can even shower or swim with it.  Rock Tape comes in all sorts of colors and imprinted designs.  KT Tape offers several colors and some tape with reflective stripes on it.

The Kinesio taping method was developed by Dr. Kenso Kase, an American chiropractor working in Japan, in 1979.  The method was not introduced to the U.S. however, until 1995.  Kinesio tape drew international attention during the 2008 Olympics when American athlete, Kerri Walsh, wore it during the beach volleyball event.

How does it work?

Kinesio tape is applied as sort of a first aid for an injury as a temporary fix or as a supplement to other treatments like manual manipulation.  Studies have shown that application of Kinesio tape between physical therapy visits helps prolong the therapy’s effects and makes the treatment more effective.

To understand how Kinesio tape works, you need to understand the make up of the body.  Our fascia tissue lies under the skin and is a honeycomb of intertwined fibrous cellular structures that act as protection for bones and organs and make up connective tissues like ligaments and tendons and also make up our muscles.

When we talk about knots in our muscles, we are really referring to the fascia tissue fibers becoming sticky, clumped together, and inflamed as they are stressed like they are in a WOD or after an injury.  If these knots aren’t released they can cause pain as the skin is stretched tightly over the affected areas and when the muscles are contracted.

When properly applied, Kinesio tape helps to relieve some of the pressure by creating a microscopic space between the muscle and dermis layers, allowing smooth muscle movement and draining of fluids while promoting healing blood flow.  With the pain lessened or completely relieved by the application of the tape, we are able to perform movements without the distraction of the painful sensation.  Instead of tightly wrapping up an injured area as is done in the traditional application of athletic tape, Kinesio tape allows and promotes freedom of movement.  The accepted practice for recovery is movement beats restriction for most injuries.

Kinesio tape can also provide a degree of support while still allowing range of motion that static athletic tape and braces cannot offer.  

How do I apply it?

Both KT Tape and Rock Tape have instructional videos on their sites explaining where to tape, how much stretch/tension to apply, and any modifications to the tape you might need to make before applying, such as cutting it into thinner strips or rounding the edges.  Most applications you can do yourself, but you might need an assistant for back applications.  You can also seek out professionals certified to apply Kinesio tape for more technical applications, or even attend taping seminars and official training programs to become tape certified yourself.

A couple years ago, I strained an ankle, and after watching a video, I was able to properly tape it up and continue the competition I was in.  I had no Kinesio tape experience prior to this usage.  I always keep a roll in my gym bag now.

Most Kinesio tape applications aren’t overly difficult, and you really can’t mess it up.  You will find that with practice, your taping will become more effective, hitting the correct areas more consistently, but if your tape job is a little off target, it won’t hurt you more, it just won’t be as effective.

You can even experiment with your own applications for Kinesio tape.  Recently, I fell and caught my full weight with one hand.  That jacked up my wrist for several weeks.  I found that a wrist wrap helped ease the pain, but I’d look silly wearing one all day, especially out of the gym.  I applied KT Tape as a light compression wrap on my wrist and it kept me from having to call out from work, and I was able to do general everyday movements with diminished pain.  It worked great!

The technique and placement varies depending on the body part you are taping, but generally, taping starts by sticking an anchor point.  You then apply varying degrees of stretch to the tape from 25%-100%, as per instructions.  Some applications may involve two or more tape strips.  The taping is usually finished by applying an end point with zero stretch.  This keeps the tape from pulling away.

The applications for Kinesio tape appear to have stretched beyond the realm of sports medicine.  I recently saw KT Tape being offered in a first aid trauma kit as a compression bandage.  And, while researching this article, I found Kinesio tape even works on our four-legged friends.  The uses seem endless.

A word of caution on Kinesio tape.  For one-time or occasional injuries or pain, go ahead and tape it up.  If you find you have a chronic pain make sure you don’t have something more serious going on.  It’s always best to seek a professional opinion for persistent pain.

Like any tool, there is a time and place to use Kinesio tape.  For a few bucks, it’s my insurance policy that has shown itself to be the difference in being able to work out or make it into work, and having to stay home.