For many years, sport was considered to be only for men, as women’s physiology was viewed as being less efficient, weaker, and unable to push their bodies in the rigor of sport. Prior to the 1960’s, women were banned or restricted from longer running and endurance events as they were considered “too fragile” for distance sport or even shorter Olympic events like the 400 and 800m sprints. This began the era of mass participation of women in sports, and in the 1972 Olympics the first women’s 1500m was run. The same year, eight women “legally” ran the Boston marathon, and by 1984 (only 35 years ago!) the first women’s Olympic marathon was sanctioned.
This year in 2019, 45% of runners were women and in more local smaller city races, women tend to comprise over 50% of participants. Women’s participation in running and endurance sports has come leaps and bounds in just the last several decades, but only recently has science and psychology begun to identify some profound differences between the sexes. What exactly is it that differentiates women’s performance abilities from men?
It is generally accepted that women are smaller in stature, have more body fat, and less absolute muscle mass and fewer and smaller muscle fibers than men. As well, women have physiologically lower VO2 max numbers than men (the maximum amount of oxygen their bodies can utilize during high-intensity exercise), which is also sensible. In power-based activities, these differences are likely where the discrepancies primarily lie. Across the board, women’s distance running and cycling records among elite athletes are typically 10-12% slower than men, although with longer distances these patterns tend to change as we’ll discuss more later. It has also been seen that men have greater running velocity and can cover more distance in a set period of time. These differences are more profound in shorter, more powerful contexts like shuttle runs or sprints.
However, when it comes to longer, slower, or more submaximal effort events, women have some interesting advantages. Women have higher prevalence of slow-twitch muscle fibres which contract less quickly, but can contract consistently for very long periods of time. The hormone estrogen also seems to improve the oxidative capacity of muscles – meaning greater oxygen update and improved recovery. Men however, tend to be able to have enhanced muscle growth due to higher level of testosterone – again, benefitting sports that favour power but potentially less valuable to low-and-slow type training and racing.
What Does This Mean?
So, when women train at the same intensity as men, they are able to adapt to the same degree, and in some circumstances even more effectively. As we’ve discussed, especially in distance events, women who focus on endurance training are able to become more metabolically efficient and run just as far as men. The science tells us that they should be as quick, but not so fast!
Go a Little Longer
When it comes to ultra-endurance events, women seem to have the upper hand. Many ultra-endurance race winners in unisex races are women – and not by a small margin. This past year, German cyclist Fiona Kolbinger raced 4000km through Europe and finished the Transcontinental Race 10 hours ahead of her closest male opponent. This past May, Katie Wright beat 40 men and six other women to win the Riverhead Backyard ReLaps Ultra-marathon in New Zealand, running almost non-stop for 30 hours. It seems that when the distances get longer, the women are rising to the top.
Why is this? Well, for all of the physiological science out there, there is only just recently a rise in the “biopsychosocial model” – which essentially looks at the mind-body connection and how the mind can affect boundaries within our deeply-entrenched biological systems. In excruciatingly-long distance races, athletes are working far under their maximal power for very long periods of time. Absolute strength and power is of less importance, and mental patience and grit hold much more water. Women also tend to be better at pacing themselves and “seeing further into the future” when moderating their early-race paces. Females also tend to use more emotion-focused coping mechanisms during the pain, fatigue, and sleep deprivation points in long races. Whether its experiences like childbirth or mental toughness from, well, life, it seems that this has given women a leg up when the going gets beyond difficult.
On the Whole…
Women have traditionally been seen as the physiologically “weaker sex” for many years. Culture and society has finally started challenging these norms, as women are now participating in events similar to men, and in some cases out-performing them. While it’s unlikely that women will naturally be lifting heavier weights than men or sprinting 100m faster than men, in longer races the gap is significantly lessened. Moreover, both genders need to remember that the power of the mind is probably the greatest tool of all, and with consistent training for both mind and body, great things can be achieved.
About the Author:
Boston Athletic Association. (2019). 2019 Boston Marathon Statistics. Retrieved from https://registration.baa.org/2019/cf/Public/iframe_Statistics.htm
C. Baumgart, M. H. (2014). DIFFERENT ENDURANCE CHARACTERISTICS OF FEMALE AND MALE GERMAN SOCCER PLAYERS. Biology of Sport, 227-232.
Joyner, M. J. (2016). Physiological limits to endurance exercise performance: influence of sex. The Journal of Physiology.
K.M Haizlip, B. H. (2015). Sex-Based Differences in Skeletal Muscle Kinetics and Fiber-Type Composition. American Physiological Society, 30-39.
Williams, S. (2019, August 11). Are women better ultra-endurance athletes than men? Retrieved from BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-492843894389
As the leaves begin to turn and temperatures begin to drop, for many people this time of year becomes staying indoors with Netflix. For the endurance athlete however, the time between November and April can represent a big wide window of opportunity to reflect on what went well in your season, identify areas of focus for coming one, and develop a finely-tuned base-building plan to prep you to conquer the spring.
If your racing season took you into the fall, it’s always a good idea to take a few weeks, or even a couple of months, off of a structured training plan. Physically, this gives your body a true chance to recover, as prolonged racing and training causes a substantial degree of muscle breakdown and a systemic inflammatory response. It can take up to 19 days after an Ironman-distance triathlon for inflammation and cortisol to return to baseline levels, even in a well-trained athlete. Mentally, endurance events require long term commitment, self-discipline, and a high degree of day-to-day planning and time management. It’s healthy to give yourself a break from the rigidity of this type of schedule.
So once you’ve refreshed your mind and body and as the mornings continue to get darker, here are 5 reasons why you should get yourself back in gear over the colder indoor months.
Controlled environments let you hone in on specific weaknesses.
Did hills eat you up this year? Does your form start to fall apart at a certain speed? Now is the time to work on whatever’s holding you back from the next level. Not having a race schedule allows you to build training blocks and choose training workouts with these goals in mind. Running or cycling workouts using treadmills and indoor trainers are great ways to target exactly what you need to improve on.
Workouts give you more bang for your buck.
Take cycling for example. It is generally accepted that 60 minutes on an indoor trainer is equivalent to 90-100 minutes of outdoor cycling. This is because you are pedaling against a controlled, consistent resistance, and there aren’t any opportunities for coasting downhill or stopping at a red light. This is a good thing, since even the strongest mental game can go a little bananas when on a trainer for long periods of time. Which brings us to our next point…
Classes do the job, and they’re social.
Endurance sports can be a little lonely. Maybe you’ve got some friends in the summer that you can join for long runs or rides, but the winter can be much more isolating. Rather than hole up, try a class specifically designed to challenge runners or cyclists. Whether you’ve got a friend to go with you or not, the time always passes much more quickly in a group setting, not to mention it’s way more fun. Check out Altitude’s roster of upcoming classes this winter here!
Hit March with a spring in your step.
Most athletes look to start racing again for March-April. Nothing feels worse than sitting on your couch for several months, only to blow the dust off of your shoes in spring and have to dedicate the first 6-12 weeks of training to just base build. Even doing a few key workouts per week can keep you from detraining, or, even better, can help you beef up your base before the warm weather comes around again.
Keeps the winter blues at bay.
SADS, or seasonal affective disorder syndrome, is a proven disorder that manifests as an increase in sleep, sedentary behavior, depression and sometimes weight gain that occurs during the fall/winter months and remits in the spring. Research has shown that light therapy and getting outside is helpful to combat symptoms, as well as aerobic exercise. Bonus points if you can grab a buddy to join you.
So after your last race, take a breather, do some reflection, and plan for crush your goals for the following year.
Altitude training has been around for a while – ever since the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Despite its long history, it remains relatively unknown, especially here in North America. This is because altitude training has been used only exclusively by the pros, and only recently has the technology become more accessible to everyday athletes. Because of how elusive it is, we have come across some misconceptions about altitude training. Here are 4 of the most common ones we’ve heard:
1. It’s only for people who are planning to race at altitude
No, altitude training is not just for people competing at altitude. It’s also for people looking to improve their athletic performance at sea level, specifically increase their VO2 max, aerobic capacity and power output.
Look at it like resistance training, but for your endurance. Reducing the oxygen percentage in the room is like adding resistance to your workout. And incorporating that kind of training into your program will improve (or at the very least, maintain) performance at any elevation.
2. Altitude training is dangerous
There are risks associated with any form of physical activity – whether it be hot yoga, a high intensity spin class, or a run around the neighborhood. The same goes for training in a simulated altitude environment. To reduce risk as much as possible – members are assessed and screened before entering the altitude room. During training, members are given carefully regulated programs based on their conditioning, and are always under supervision from trained coaches. Heart rate monitors and pulse oximeters are used regularly to monitor exertion.
Of course, not all forms of exercise are safe for everybody. And altitude training isn’t recommended for people who are pregnant, have breathing problems like asthma, have high blood pressure or other serious medical issues.
3. But I’ll lose strength and power exercising at altitude
Training in reduced oxygen typically means you are unable to reach the same levels of ‘intensity’ as you can at sea level. It is this stress of hypoxia on the body that stimulates it to be more efficient in using oxygen and providing energy to active muscles, improving aerobic conditioning and endurance. Continuous exposure to high altitude will cause you to lose power. But, when you combine simulated altitude training sessions (2-3 per week) with your regular strength and power sessions at sea level – you can maintain, and actually boost, your strength and power levels no problem.
4. I’ve heard that you are supposed to sleep in an altitude tent. Why exercise?
Altitude tents are designed for the “live high, train low” model. This method of training (sleeping at altitude) is commonly used by athletes to increase their red blood cell count and improve overall performance.
For those of us living at sea level, and who aren’t professional athletes – altitude tents can become impractical. We don’t have the benefit of naturally ‘living high’ and it can be hard to get the most out of an altitude tent – which you should be using for 4 weeks, 16 hours/day while maintaining training. See here.
A great alternative is simulated altitude training, which follows the “live low, train high” model. You already live low, and perhaps mostly compete low. Training high gets the job done quicker (2-3 sessions per week is usually recommended) and it’s much easier to convince your partner about heading to the gym than sleeping in a tent.
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Altitude training is nothing new to athletes. Especially Olympians, whose draw to altitude started with the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 (7,000 feet). After that, they discovered its benefits not just for competing at altitude, but also for improving performance at sea level. And there’s proof.
Check out these stats from the games in Sydney and Athens showing what percentage of medalists + finalists used altitude training camps for their preparation:
For swimmers in the Olympic Games
Sydney Summer Olympics in 2000
Over 40% of the top athletes (including one-third of the medalists and finalists) used altitude training camps to prepare.
Athens Summer Olympics in 2004
5/7 of the medalists and 9/14 of the finalists used altitude training camps to prepare.
In total, that’s 70% of the top athletes (14/20), and an increase since the previous games
*figures from The Use of Altitude Training in Sports
Not all of us are Olympians and can dedicate time to travelling the world and training at various high altitude destinations. So, how can we get that same effect of increased performance and efficient training here at sea level? Well, fortunately, technology has allowed use to introduce simulated altitude environments that mimic what you would experience on top of the mountain.
Simulated altitude training is done through things like oxygen masks and high altitude tents sleeping in (live high, train low). Now these are great pieces of equipment that definitely have their benefits – but the problem is, they can be very uncomfortable and restrictive. Most athletes really just want to rip that mask off as soon as they put it on. Plus, when you are on the mountain or at your race, there is no mask restricting your motion, so the environment you are training in doesn’t exactly model the environment you are training for.
So how can we make altitude training more comfortable? How can we make it feel even more like the real thing? Thankfully, technology has evolved and improved even more to give us a solution to the discomfort and difficulties that comes with masks and other personal-use altitude equipment. The solution is Altitude Chambers. Altitude Chambers are actually rooms (tightly sealed to certain specifications) that use a compressor and gas-filtration system to reduce the concentration in the air, creating a hypoxic environment. These rooms let you exercise and move around freely, just like any regular gym or studio. The only difference is that the oxygen concentration is lowered from its usual 20.8% to typically between 14-16% in order to simulate being at elevations over 4000 feet.
What does a Simulated Altitude Chamber look like? Here are some pictures to help you visualize it:
Mile High Training
This is a small 1-2 person chamber that you might find inside a larger gym (usually operated by a professional sports team and rarely found in commercial gyms). For this type of a room, you would usually have cardio pieces inside. In this case there is a bike and a treadmill. Here the altitude is at 9000 feet, which is a good elevation to get a reasonably tough workout in.
Sporting Edge (Professional Soccer Team Gym)
Here is a great example of a room for group training sessions. It’s just like a spin class – but on a mountain! This room is currently in the training facility of a professional soccer team in England (Swansea FC).
Quay Club Dubai
This club in Dubai goes all-out (in typical Dubai-fashion), with the largest altitude room in the world at over 1000 square feet. This would definitely be an example of a super luxurious, high-tech gym showcasing just how far altitude training has advanced. This room in particular goes up to altitudes of 13000 feet.
So there you have it, all of these rooms are airtight, and account for things like CO2 build-up and efficiency (maintaining altitude). You can see that all of them allow the freedom to move around with no need for an uncomfortable mask to breathe into. Their evolution stemmed from bringing the training methods of elite Olympians to the public, without compromising comfort and freedom of motion.
How do you get the most out of your workout in the shortest amount of time? This is a question that plagues many time-crunched folks, especially professionals working long hours in downtown offices. If you can squeeze a lunchtime workout in, often it’s less than an hour — which isn’t much if you factor in transit time to the gym and showering after the workout.
Training at altitude presents an ideal solution to this dilemma. While commonly praised for its physiological benefits among professional athletes, an adaptive approach to exercising at altitude can enhance anyone’s overall fitness. Efficient in burning more calories during a given amount of time than at sea level, the time-crunched gym-goer can get a great workout completed in as little as 30 minutes — a reasonable amount of time to squeeze in to busy days.
The good news — Toronto is the latest metropolitan city to offer a “live low, train high” lifestyle. Altitude Athletic Training, a boutique gym with a simulated altitude chamber housing high-end exercise equipment, will open in Fall 2019 and offer the city a chance to experience the benefits of altitude training in a safe and structured way. Over the next few weeks, watch this site for more on the facilities and its offerings, but for now get excited to learn about how altitude training can complement any fitness program and help you get more out of your workouts in less time!
Anyone can benefit
Training at altitude isn’t just for professional athletes.
Altitude gyms have been popping up in many health and wellness-conscious parts of the world recently — notably, Australia, Singapore, and London, England.
“Toronto is an ideal city to offer an altitude training facility because it’s one of the more active cities in North America, with a high per capita of endurance athletes and fitness-minded individuals” explains Jay Zubek, co-founder of Altitude Athletic Training. “There’s really nothing like it in the city that can compare and we think it’s going to be well-received here because people of all fitness levels are always looking for an edge in their training.”
It’s not just the top-end athletes of the city that will enjoy the results from altitude training. “It challenges your body to shift into high gear and adjust to something new. If you’re just looking to shed a few pounds, this is a fun, different and effective program and a great place to start,” Jay explains.
While Altitude Athletic Training will offer programs specifically aimed at helping beginners safely adapt to training at altitude in a progressive manner, Jay recommends that anyone looking to really reap the benefits of the training method spend time at altitude two to three times per week, for about 30 to 45 minutes.
More for less
Efficiency is one of the greatest assets of altitude training in a gym setting.
“Altitude training has been around for a while, but not available to everyone at sea level,” explains Jay “It’s great for anyone who wants to work out, because the physiological effect on the body makes a 30 minute workout, for example, more efficient than 45 minutes of that same workout at sea-level.”
When the body trains at altitude — anywhere greater than 5,000 feet above sea level — the decreased level of oxygen forces it to produce more red blood cells. These cells in turn deliver more oxygen to your muscles.
“When you’re at altitude, your body is challenged and your heart rate is elevated, so your cardio system is working harder and your body is going to work harder as well,” explains Jay. “Not only does your body use the available oxygen more efficiently but, studies show you burn up to 25% more calories at altitude than at sea level.”
Feel great long after
The body absorbs the benefits of altitude training and holds onto them for weeks after spending time above sea level. This is something that goes away as you stop altitude training however. Which is why consistency and incorporating altitude sessions into your long-term program is important.
Lesley Smith, a professional Ironman triathlete and coach from Boulder, Colorado, does almost all her training at altitude by virtue of where she lives.
“When I come down to sea level, I feel an enormous difference cardiovascularly,” she says. “I definitely think there’s a benefit going back and forth between sea level and altitude training.”
After a class at Altitude, you’ll feel noticeably energized and ready to take on the rest of your day. After a few weeks of consistent training at altitude, “you’ll feel like superman or superwoman!” says Jay.
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