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Women and Cycling - What makes women different to men ?

Dietary requirements.

Despite the observation that women tend to perspire less than men there is no evidence that they need less fluid nor that they can tolerate heat better. Women also need as much protein and fat as men relative to their body weight. The dietary requirements for men and women are broadly similar with a few exceptions :

fewer total calories : because less weight and less muscle mass
extra iron and calcium to prevent anaemia and maintain or promote bone density
athletes on the contraceptive pill should take a multivitamin / mineral supplement as these drugs may affect absorbtion and metabolism of certain vitamins.

The absolute amount of carbohydrate required will depend upon the individual concerned and the duration and intensity of training/competition. Total carbohydrate requirements of 2000 calories per day are not uncommon even for women endurance cyclists. However, experience has shown that most women cyclists (as in common with many other female athletes) are over pre-occupied with their weight and underestimate their nutritional needs. Like most endurance athletes women cyclists are often guilty of eating far too little carbohydrate and would benefit from additional intake without risk of increasing weight. This is due to an increase in the training potential of the body and a resultant increase in metabolic rate (Anderson, 1997).

Training and recovery.

The differences between the performances of men and women athletes are greatest in the lower ranks. This can be explained by the differences in lean body mass and muscle fibre size.

Interestingly, the differences between the VO2 max of elite men and women athletes can almost all be accounted for by the differences in lean body mass, red blood cell number and physique. Absolute maximal oxygen consumption (L.min-1) is typically 40% greater in men than women of similar athletic standing. When body weight is taken into consideration (ml. min- kg-1) this difference is reduced to 20%. It decreases to less than 10% if expressed relative to lean body weight. Thus body fat accounts for almost all of the differences in VO2 max between men and women. The remaining differences being accounted for by physical and haematological factors.

Women use the same number of calories per hour of exercise as men - (relative to lean body weight) and have similar ratios of Type I and Type II fibres. The production and clearance of lactic acid is also the same. Women, however, tend to have smaller hearts than men and higher heart rates at the same level of exertion, even when expressed as a percentage of maximum attainable. This needs to be taken into consideration when prescribing training levels purely on heart rate (visa vi BCF guidelines - which were based on a male). Using perceived rate of intensity as an additional tool is recommended. A number of tests recommend the equation 226 minus age for predicting maximal heart rates in females although, like 220-age, this rule only applies in around 55% of instances. The variation in maximum heart rate and the relationship between VO2 and heart rate varies considerably between individuals even of the same sex, thus all athletes must learn to listen to their own bodies and training accordingly.

Psychology and behaviour.

The hormonal differences between men and women may also be responsible for the distinctions in behaviour pattern. Testosterone and related male hormones are often considered as responsible for aggression and drive. When training females it is possible that they may need to be driven harder in order to attain the levels of training overload needed for effect.


The effects of training on the female body are the same as the male and the main differences between possible levels of attainment are body fat percentage, physical differences in stature and the anabolic effects of testosterone.

Women athletes must learn to be proud of being female and accept their differences (and not overly compare themselves with their male counterparts). A rationalised and specific training programme coupled with a good diet and appropriate recovery will help a female athlete attain her goals and help her compete equally against other females.

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