Written by Dr. Reena Tenorio
We’ve all experienced it. Whether it be a friend, significant other, sibling or being a woman yourself, we have all had the pleasure of interacting with a ‘raging’ woman, firsthand. Quite frankly, we are different creatures than men. We are amazing of course, but certainly different in many ways. As women we face mood swings, body weight fluctuations, altered motivation and energy and disrupted sleep; unfortunately, most of this is out of our control. By understanding our bodies, we can better manage our training and improve performance.
With the introduction of Juggernaut Training System’s “Iron Woman” concept, I felt it was appropriate to take this a step further for the ladies. This article is intended to discuss the roles hormones play in our training as women. Please note, I am a Doctor of Physical Therapy, NOT an endocrinologist, but I have researched the topic to better understand it for my own well-being.
Hormones, in basic terms, are chemical messengers in the body that regulate normal functions: sleep patterns, growth, metabolism, reproduction… the list goes on. Men and women have the same hormones, just in different amounts. For a woman, a well-defined and somewhat predictable pattern of hormonal changes takes place over the course of her menstrual cycle. The phases of a cycle are defined by different levels of certain hormones; for instance, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor 1, etc. (I will not be going into great detail about the phases or describing these hormones.)
It has been suggested that these naturally occurring hormonal swings and/or different phases of a cycle may alter female athletic performance. Despite the growing amount of research on the subject, the evidence unfortunately remains inconclusive. This is particularly due to the fact that “athletic performance” itself is a multifaceted entity, as is the complexity of the cycle of a woman, and so many factors must be considered in such a study.
Nonetheless, many of the women in these investigations reported associated symptoms (such as fluid retention and bloating, weight gain, cramps, headaches, food cravings, mood changes and so on) leading to performance decrement: So even though they did not see decreased performance directly related to their cycle, the symptoms they were experiencing did have some effect on how their body was responding to the demands of exercise, training and competition.
In weightlifting and powerlifting, body composition is rather important, especially for the competitive female. Daily weight checks can become stressful when our body decides to be “jacked and lean” one day and turn into a wallowing sea creature the next. F*** YOU HORMONES!! Ladies, don’t freak out. This is where a good nutrition plan, limiting salt and sugar intake, and hydrating well come into play. Sleep and recovery is also key. Give your body ample rest time, and even if you are craving junk food, feed yourself well. It will pay off in the end.
As athletes, we take our training and competition seriously. Yes, it’s fun, but it is important to us to make the most of each training session. Sometimes though, things don’t go as planned. Before you know it, you’re upset, fighting tears, unable to focus and on a downhill slide to a terrible practice… and often for reasons unknown. F*** YOU HORMONES!! Chill out girls. Step away from the task at hand, control your breathing, relax and refocus your mind, and let go of whatever got you upset in the first place. This will make for a more successful practice.
Although many scientists suggest that women’s training programs be tailored around menstrual cycles, I do not feel this is appropriate. Countless feats of strength and athleticism have been reached at various times in a woman’s life and/or cycle. Rather, we should understand the naturally occurring changes, as well as possible side effects that may occur. By paying close attention to, and being aware of subtle signs (such as bloating, fatigue, moods, cramps), we can recognize hormonal imbalances that may alter our body composition and affect our overall performance and mood. When/if an imbalance is identified, it can be corrected with a combination of good nutrition, quality sleep, supplements, exercise and a positive mental attitude.
Tips for coaches and training partners:
- Women respond better to criticism when it comes with a little positive reinforcement. No, you don’t have to fluff or baby us. We can handle being told what we are doing incorrectly, but a little encouragement and constructive criticism goes a long way.
- Some days we are just more emotional than usual… and we cry. Men often respond in aggressive ways; so can women, but tears happen. This doesn’t mean we are weak or won’t work hard. Don’t feed into the emotional attitude too much. Be patient and give a little space when needed.
- Some women do feel weaker, slower and less motivated during “that time of the month.” Talk to your athlete and be aware of her schedule. Details can be spared, but this is all part of coaching a female; don’t make it awkward.
- Competitive female lifters are often concerned about their weight. Encourage good eating and recovery habits to ensure maintenance of competition, training, and/or desired body weight.
For the ladies:
- Don’t take shit so personal! Take the criticism from your coach, learn from it, and then let it go.
- Be mindful of others around you. Throw your tantrum, curse and cry in your own space; then get your butt back to work.
- Practice controlling your heart rate and emotions. When you feel yourself getting worked up, give yourself a second to slow down your breathing and bring your mind back to the task. Look into mindful meditation for more practice.
- Take care of your body and it will respond well to its normal cycles and the demands you place on it.
- You can try all you want… but “perfection” will rarely be met. Work on your weaknesses, be proud of even small progress, and strive to improve every day. Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the pursuit of “perfection,” rather focus on doing YOUR best at every opportunity. The rest will fall into place.
- Love what you do! You will have good days and you will have bad days. Embrace the struggle and love it.
Let me make a few points clear: This article is not in any way an excuse for bratty behavior or dumpy moods, and not all of the above statements/tips are true for ALL women. Lastly, none of what was said should suggest that female athletes are in some way more fragile, weaker or “uncoachable” compared to their male counterparts.
Iron Women, let’s embrace our differences, our mood swings, our training, and our hormones!
Get more training tips for women in 34 Training Tips for Women
Dr. Reena Tenorio, is a weightlifter/CrossFit athlete based in Orange County, CA. Reena competed at the 2013 American Open in weightlifting, the 2012 and 2013 CrossFit Southeast Regionals (team) and is a licensed Doctor of Physical Therapy. Reena’s diverse athletic history and background in physical therapy gives her a unique perspective when examining training.