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Female Athletes, Hormones and Training Adaptations

Training recovery rates differ for women taking contraceptives.

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Female athlete recovering after training

The impact of a woman’s hormonal cycle on physical training and recovery for female athletes, like many areas of women’s health, has received limited scientific attention.

Available research evidence shows that women in the latter phase of their monthly cycle experience slower recovery rates and higher strain from training when compared with training recovery during the first half of their monthly cycle. New Zealand researchers from Auckland University and University of Waikato conducted a study to compare whether women who experience their cycles naturally or women who take contraceptives have any additional differences in recovery responses to training.

Investigators evaluated data from 4,594 women over multiple cycles. Interestingly, scientists observed a different response pattern among women who are naturally cycling, women on progestin only and women on estrogen/progestin combination contraceptives. Women who took combination prescriptions experienced the most pronounced reduction in recovery from training load, followed by women taking progestin only medications.

Other studies show that among female Olympic athletes, women who use contraceptives have a higher inflammatory response to an exercise session, when compared with naturally cycling female athletes.

Study authors recommend that training methodologies for women in sport should evolve to reflect known gender difference across metrics of adaptation to training. Trainers can use knowledge of the difference in response and recovery to training loads throughout a woman’s cycle and, among women who use artificial hormones, to adapt programs to apply the correct training stress to individual female athletes to avoid overload and to optimize training results.

The research is reported in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine (2021; doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2021-001047).

See also: Women’s Hormones & Athletic Performance

Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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