Triathlon Training Education

Women-Specific Training

Part 1

I am a woman. I have been training for running and triathlon events for over 7 years now. I got injured many times when I initially got into a sport, I made a lot of mistakes, and I learned a lot from those mistakes. I learned a lot from my running and triathlon friends, too. Then I learned a lot from my coaches. There was a lot of learning during these 7+ years of my athletic adventures and I thought I had learned how to train myself on what I should be doing to reach my athletic goals. 

But only in the last year, I realized how little I knew. Specifically, how little I knew about my female physiology and my own body and my own training approach. None of my coaches ever asked me about my menstrual cycle, and none of my training was ever adjusted based on how I was feeling or what phase my hormones were in. None of the female-specific hydration or recovery protocols were mentioned.  

I’ve had plenty of conversations with my female triathlon friends and the puzzled look on most women’s faces told me that the topic of female athlete training was not something they were familiar with. 

Moreover, at some of the training camps I attended, I was given the wrong information – completely wrong for women! It was correct for men but not for women. At that point, I did a lot of reading and research on my own and knew to filter that kind of information. This made me even more hungry for the topic of women-specific training. 

I finished my USAT and Training Peaks Triathlon Coach Certifications and while women-specific training was touched a bit during the courses, it was enough to just get the interest going, and then you were on your own. And to be honest, there is not much information out there. In this day and age, I was shocked to learn how little we know and how even less of what we do know is being applied to female athletes’ training. The majority of the scientific studies were done on male athletes, moreover on very specific male athletes – such as college athletes. 

One source claims that only 6% of the studies were done specifically on women. And then you start breaking it down to smaller groups – as menstruating women, menopausal women, perimenopausal women, endurance training women, RED-S female athletes, etc. and you find so little research and information that you have to ask: how on Earth do these women train? The answer sadly is – they train as men do. I was one of those women for the past 7 years. 

It has been a fascinating journey to learn and apply what I learn to my own training and finally be able to see the results and achieve new PRs and start to apply women-specific training to my own athletes. So far, I am very pleased with the results and I think every woman should know about it and use her female physiology to her training advantage. 

It is a complicated topic but I will try to explain the basic principles. We will use a sample menstruating female athlete with a very predictable 28-day cycle.  

Note, that no two women are the same and that’s where your personal coach should step in but if you do not have a coach, once you learn the basics, you should be able to apply these principles to your training yourself. 

Generally, a woman’s cycle can be divided into 5 major phases based on hormone fluctuations: Early Follicular Phase, Mid Follicular Phase, Ovulatory Phase, Mid Luteal Phase, and Late Luteal Phase. Each of these phases has different characteristics and requires a different approach to training. 

Below you will find sample workouts for our sample athlete based on her cycle. Note that actual workouts would depend on where the athlete is in her training and what workouts are appropriate for the state of her development. 

 

Day 1 – 4 – this is your superpower window. If your menstrual symptoms allow, this is the time to gain the benefits of your training. Consider moderate to high intensities in your training. Your PMS symptoms may still persist but overall you should feel positive and ready for training. It is also a great window for your A race, again if your symptoms are under control.  A sample workout would be: 

Bike Workout:  

Warmup 15 min @Z1 then 3 x  {   60 seconds @Z4 / 90 seconds @Z1 } 

5 min @Z3  

3 x  {   4 minutes @Z3  / 3 minutes @Z4  /  2 minutes Z5  /  1 minute @Z1 } 

Cooldown 10 minutes @Z2  

 

Day 5 – 13 – still in your superpower window and still a great A-race timing. Continue with moderate to high-intensity training, you should generally feel great during this phase with high motivation and decreased levels of stress and anxiety. A sample workout would be:  

Bike Workout: 

Warmup  15 min @Z1  then 4 x  {  30 seconds @Z4 /  30 seconds @Z1 } 

5 min @Z3  

5 min @Z2  

10 x  {  1 min @Z4  / 1 min @Z2  

Cooldown 10 minutes @Z2 

 

Day 14 – 17 – max power training time to take advantage of the anabolic state of your hormones. Low volume but high-intensity training is preferred for the most benefit. A sample workout would be: 

Run Workout: 

Warmup 20 min @Z2 with run drills and 4 x 20-second strides 

4 minute build from @Z2 to @Z4 

Main Set 2 x  {6 x (20-second @Z6 / 20-second @Z1) } 

Cooldown  10 minutes @Z1  

Day 18 – 23 – endurance training is your friend during this phase. Longer but lower intensity training is the most beneficial. 

Run Workout: 

Warmup  20 min @Z2 with run drills and 4 x 20-second strides 

Main Set  3 x (2 mi @Z3 / 3 minute @Z1)  

Cooldown  10 minutes @Z1 

 

Day 24 – 28 – low to moderate intensity work during this phase. Focus on drills and more technical aspects of the sport. Here’s a sample workout for this phase: 

Swim Workout: 

Warmup 

200 @Z1 

2 x 50 kick on your side, switch by 25 (15 sec) 

100 @Z1 focusing on rotation 

2 x 50 as 3-6-3 drill  (15 sec)  

100 @Z1 focusing on rotation and hand entry  

Main Set 
8 x 25 Build (15 sec) 
4 x 50 Desc 1-4 (15 sec) 
100  @Z1 focusing on rotation and hand entry  

2 x 50 kick on your back  

6 x 100 { 

1, 4 @Z2 focusing on right hand entry 

2, 5 @Z3 focusing on rotation 

3, 6 @Z2 focusing on left hand entry } 

2 x 50 kick on your back   

4 x 100 @Z3 counting strokes the last 25 of each 100 and trying to keep the same count on every 100 

Cooldown

2 x 50 as 3-6-3 drill  (15 sec) 

100 @Z1 focusing on rotation and hand entry 

I hope this gives you an idea of how to structure your own training and get the most benefit out of it. Pay attention to your female physiology, track your training WITH your cycle and symptoms, and there is no doubt you will find patterns. 

Instead of beating yourself up for not being able to keep a certain number of watts on a certain day, shift your mindset, check in with your body and it may be a smarter move to let your body rest on that day or do a longer low-intensity session and wait for your hormonal state to shift so you can kick ass and build muscle.  

What about menopausal or women approaching menopause? A different game plan for these ladies. But that’s a topic for another article. Stay tuned! 

As always, comments and feedback are welcome and if you are looking for a coach, give me a shout. 

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