Viewing entries tagged


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!  




Do You Know How to Tie Your Shoes? Part 1

By Geoff Rand


shoe fail.jpg

Somewhere between learning to wipe your own butt and driving a car, you likely were taught how to tie your shoes.  It’s an essential task that most of us do mindlessly everyday.  I’d venture to guess the majority of us tie them the same way, cinching up the laces, tying a single overhand knot, and finishing it up with a single knotted bow. 

While the standard way of tying a shoe might work fine for a casual walk to the store, it may not be the best choice for running or many of the activities we do in the Box, like lifts or box jumps or jumping rope.  If your shoes are laced too loose, they’re going to come untied which could cost you time in retying them during the WOD, or worse, you could lose the shoe and possibly even injure yourself.

Ok, so I’ll just tie them tighter, you say.  Not so fast.  Having your laces cinched down too tight can cause pressure points on your instep which can cause pain, fight against the foot’s natural tendency to swell on long runs, and can limit foot and ankle mobility.  I learned from long road marches in the Army that boots that were too tight caused horrible foot pain.

The key to perfect lacing is to have the shoe secure enough that it doesn’t allow the heel to rub around, which can cause blisters, while keeping the laces snug, but not overly tight to the point they are cutting off circulation.  I present Lock Lacing.

Ever wonder what all those extra eyelets are for on your shoes?  We’re going to use some of them now.  For Lock Lacing, lace your shoes up as you normally would, but skip that top “common” eyelet and instead lace through the one further towards your heel. This photo illustrates it better.


Next, make two loops by not pulling the laces all the way tight.  Take the free ends and thread them through the loop on the opposite side.  Like this.


Finish by tying them off like you normally would. You may need to vary the placement of the loops and what eyelets you use based on what is available on your shoe.  This video is a good demonstration of the whole method.


The goal is to keep the heel in place and to take pressure off the instep since you don't need to crank down on all the laces.  It is a secure and comfortable way to tie.

Lock lacing is a good general method for most of what we do.  It may feel a bit weird at first, but you’ll soon get used to it.  Lock lacing is not the only way to tie your shoes, and in Part 2, we’ll look at a few ways to help alleviate common foot problems by varying how you lace up your shoes.

Try out Lock Lacing and let us know what you thought of it in the comments.





The Equipment of CrossFit: The Right Shoes

By Geoff Rand


The explosion in popularity of CrossFit has spawned an endless sea of branded sport-specific gear.  Shoes have a strong foothold on the gear market.  Every athlete wears shoes and the apparel companies are definitely aware of this, some cranking out new models every six months, with ever-enticing fancy-sounding features and flashy colors.

But do you need CrossFit shoes?  What benefits do they offer?  What about those lifting shoes?  I’ve got answers.

To answer the first question, no, you don’t need CrossFit shoes; you could show up at the Box with your standard sneakers and complete the WOD.  You could also hammer in a nail with the battery of a drill, it's just not the best tool for the job.  You will find you will perform better with a CrossFit-type shoe and your lifts and movements will be more efficient, stable, safer, and effective if you wear them versus the standard “squishy” shoe.

The typical sneaker is made for walking or running.  It incorporates a cushiony foot bed that is designed to absorb impact and lessen the force you feel when you move.  While this may feel comfortable for a long run or for people who stand on their feet all day, when you start lifting weights, it becomes less than ideal.

Whatever the type of lift you’re doing, when you pick up weight, the force of the bar gets transferred downward to the ground through your feet.  If you’re standing on a bed of foam, gel, or air cushion, you will have an unstable foundation supporting everything pushing down on top of it.  I’ve heard it likened to standing on a giant marshmallow.  The same thing happens when you land from a jump.  If your base is unstable, it makes every part of the movement weaker, less efficient, and potentially unsafe.  You want a shoe that allows the force you absorb when lifting or jumping to be transferred directly to the ground forming a solid, stable platform.

I’ve used the term “CrossFit shoes”, but really I’m talking about any minimalist shoe, not just the ones labeled specifically for CrossFit.  When we talk about minimalist shoes, you will hear the term heel drop or heel-to-toe offset, and this refers the difference in height between the heel and the forefoot.  A typical cushion-sole sneaker will have a heel drop of 10-12 millimeters.  Minimalist shoes often have drops of 6, 3, or even 0 millimeters.  If your shoe doesn’t provide a heel drop measurement, more than likely it is not a minimalist shoe.  The lower the heel drop measurement, the closer your feet are to being in contact the ground.  The best shoes for our sport will have little to no heel drop.

Other features of the minimalist shoe are a sleeker shape and conforming fit.  You’ll find minimalist shoes don’t have extra protrusions or excess material and you probably will wear a size or more smaller than your normal street shoe or sneaker you’ve been wearing.  They should fit fairly snugly.  This tighter fit allows you to feel the surface you’re on and push against that firm base to accomplish your lift.

One CrossFit-specific feature I’d strongly suggest looking for when choosing a minimalist shoe is a rope guard.  I know that Reebok and Inov8 have added a durable plastic grippy piece to the inside of some of their models to keep rope climbs from tearing up your shoes while increasing the grip you can apply.  You can tell the people who are climbing in shoes without these guards because they have what look like huge half-moon bites taken out of their shoes.  The coaches will thank you for choosing shoes with rope guards, as it’s less debris they have to vacuum up under the ropes at the end of the day.

Some will argue that minimalist shoes don’t offer enough cushion for running and that their feet hurt when they run in minimalist shoes.   If you heel strike when you run, then yes, your feet will hurt as minimalist shoes aren’t designed to take a hard heel impact.  If you are landing softly on your forefoot, you should not feel discomfort while running in minimalist shoes.  Look at some of the Olympic athletes breaking world records while running barefoot.  It’s not the shoe, it’s your form causing the discomfort.

Examples of minimalist shoes either designed for, or acceptable for CrossFit are Reebok Nanos, Inov8 F-lite 195s, Merrell Trail Gloves, and Nike Metcons, to name a few of the more popular types.

The Olympic lifting shoe is a specialist shoe that has a place in CrossFit when doing Olympic lifts of the snatch or clean and jerk, or any type of squat.  This is not a shoe everyone needs to own, but it does offer some benefits to those who are serious lifters or those who have mobility issues.

The idea behind Oly shoes is to give you a solid base with zero compression and eliminate your foot sliding around inside.  They accomplish this by constructing the heel of solid plastic or even wood.  The straps on Oly shoes are called tarsal straps, and they are used to lock your foot in place to make your base even more stable.  They keep your foot from rolling and allow you to press out against the side of the shoe, which helps you to create additional hip activation, and translates into more power in your lifts.  A word of caution from experience…don’t crank down too tightly on the strap as you can cause your feet to go numb. 

Olympic lifting shoes have a ½” to 1” (13-25 mm) drop (or sometimes even more) so that you can sit back more in your heels without falling over.  This also helps to open up the hips and places you in a more torso-upright position, which helps you to better support the overhead lifts.  The drop also assists athletes with hip or ankle mobility issues, by allowing them to squat deeper, while still maintaining proper alignment of the spine and pelvis and discouraging overextension of the knee, which leads to injury.

Notice how the athlete can squat deeper while maintaining a better upright position in the Oly shoes versus the Chuck Taylor shoes without the higher heel.  He also looks more stable and comfortable in the photo on the right.

Notice how the athlete can squat deeper while maintaining a better upright position in the Oly shoes versus the Chuck Taylor shoes without the higher heel.  He also looks more stable and comfortable in the photo on the right.

Oly shoes are expensive and not everyone needs them.  If you have good ankle and hip mobility, you might be fine lifting in minimalist shoes.  A good way to see if you could benefit from Oly shoes in your lifts is to put 2.5 lb. or 5lb. weight plates under your heels and squat.  Have a coach observe the differences in your elevated and regular squats.  If the extra elevation helps you keep that chest up better and squat deeper, the shoes might be a good investment.

You may argue that in real life, you’re not going to stop what you’re doing and change shoes before picking up something heavy, so why would you need special shoes?  That is a fair question.  But, in real life, you are not repeatedly picking up heavy objects and lifting them overhead for 20, 30, or 40 minutes straight.  If your shoes help to keep you in proper form and prevent injury from repeated lifts while wearing them, you’ll be more likely to maintain proper form when lifting an object in real life without the shoes.

There are some situations where Oly shoes are not appropriate.   They are heavy and clunky and the heel drop is too high to run in comfortably (or safely).  They aren’t good for jumps or movements like toes to bar also due to their weight.  They aren’t good for deadlifts because the elevated heel puts your shin out of ideal alignment, which causes you to use more of your quadriceps in the lift than your glutes and hamstrings that you should be using.  The elevation also adds to the distance you need to pull the bar.  For deadlifts, stick to minimalist shoes or go barefoot.

Popular Olympic lifting shoes are made by Reebok, Adidas, Pendlay, Rogue, and Nike.

For most CrossFit athletes, a good minimalist shoe will cover the majority of their needs for daily WODs.  If you are getting into the heavy Olympic lifts, are serious about CrossFit competitions, or can benefit from increased range of motion while squatting with them, Olympic lifting shoes might be a good investment in addition to your regular CrossFit shoes.

Before you go out and buy new shoes, talk to some of the athletes and coaches in the Box.  Ask what they wear and why.  Many of us have tried several brands and models to get to the ones we like.  It will likely save you some hassle and money on returns.