Should women's triathlon training be different than men's? with Wendy Mader | EP#170
Wendy Mader is a coach as well as former Ironman age-group world champion, with more than 25 years of experience in triathlon. In this interview we discuss what female athletes need to consider in their triathlon training, and how they may (or may not) need to train differently from male athletes.
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In this Episode you'll learn about:
- What might female triathletes need to do differently than males in their training?
- The impact of menstrual cycle on training.
- How does age impact training?
- Differences between men and women when it comes to psychology, mindset and confidence.
Wendy's previous appearance
About Wendy Mader
- I've been coaching for almost 20 years, and I just finished my 27th season of participating in triathlons.
- Triathlon has become my lifestyle. I was a swimmer in college and competed in my first triathlon as a team with friends.
The next year, when I was 19, I did a whole sprint and won my age group.
- I have learned a lot about myself as an athlete through coaching other athletes.
- I did my Masters thesis on eating, training and prevalence of disordered eating among triathletes in 1999.
Differences in training between male and female athletes
- Initially thinking about this I didn't think there should be any difference.
I treat all athletes the same: I look at their experience, their goal event, their current fitness and their time available to train.
Based on these factors I develop a training plan to fit their lifestyle.
- Whether they are male or female doesn't make much difference in how the overall training plan is designed.
- Brett Sutton has proposed that there are some differences between male and females, which can be true but I feel there are other factors to consider in the athletes life.
- You would want to look at hormone levels if someones performance suddenly changed, but I would never look at this as the first thing.
Impact of age in female athletes
- For the most part I would treat all aged athletes as described above, irrespective of their ages.
- I read the Joe Friel book 'Fast after Fifty' and now understand that as we age it's important to keep that intensity to try and maintain as much muscle mass as we can.
Obviously any intensity will affect the hormone imbalance.
- Ultimately the hormone changes both males and females go through with age will affect both mental and physical training.
- It's about how age impacts other factors.
- Athletic age is important to consider - what is their background in the sport or athletics in general?
- With the proper foundation and volume, an older athlete could potentially get into intensity sooner than a young non-athletic athlete.
Menstrual cycle and it's effect on training
- I coach a lot based on my own experience, and I love continuing education so I'm constantly testing different protocols on myself.
- I had always heard things change when you turn 40 - and I'm 45.
When I turned 40, I started cramping, and I'd never been someone who cramped before.
I cramped during my first half Ironman but I didn't eat or drink anything so that made sense!
- I started researching it and discussing it with my peers and they had had similar experiences.
- I was anaemic in 2015 and I've been a plant based eater for many years. I don't know what sparked this but I'd starting having my cycle twice a month for the past 6-8 months.
I went to get my blood work done as I was struggling in my sport and my theratin level was 8 (normal range is much higher than that!)
My doctor and I are still trying to work out what came first - the anaemia or the frequent cycles.
I started taking iron supplements and am now back to low but normal levels.
- I started researching it more and read the Stacy Simms book Roar.
She explains the different phases of the cycle well in her book - e.g. you should put high intensity and strength training in the first two weeks after your cycle to get the biggest benefit.
- Part of my PMS is exhaustion, so I started periodising my training around my cycle, planning in a rest week the week prior to my cycle.
- As I have first hand experience with this, I now consider it more with my female athletes.
- I also learnt that women need more carbohydrate in their diet than men as they are more likely to metabolise fat for fuel.
This also changes at different phases of the menstrual cycle.
Menstrual cycle variance across individuals
- As a female athlete it changes as you get older - your hormones change and you'll go through lots of changes.
- Once you've gone through post menopausal changes, you need to pay more attention to it.
As a younger athlete I never paid any attention to it because it didn't feel like it was having an impact!
Recovery differences between male and female athletes
- I have not found a significant difference between male and female athletes in my coaching experience.
- I've read studies that say female athletes need more recovery. They have less muscle mass so based on that and their hormone levels there are some studies that suggest they need more.
- However, there's not much specific research on how much more they need.
- Your whole lifestyle can influence your recovery - your stress at work and home, your nutrition and how much sleep you get.
It's not necessarily gender specific, but the two most important things are getting enough sleep for you to function, and eating good quality foods.
- In my Masters research, I didn't find a high prevalence of disordered eating in triathletes, but that was many years ago.
During this research I had male athletes detail stories of their struggles with disordered eating, demonstrating that it's not just a female problem.
- When people think of male and female athletes the females are thought of as being more self-conscious about their body and nutrition, but I think this occurs in both genders.
- Females tend to need more iron because they lose more during the menstrual cycle.
- Vitamin D is important for both males and females, especially in cloudy climates.
- However, before you start taking supplements get your blood tested to understand your baseline and see whether you need it or not.
There can be consequences of taking supplements if you don't need them.
- As a plant based athlete, I get my iron from green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, lettuce).
I take an iron supplement but I make sure I take it with a vitamin C which binds to the iron and ensures the absorption is as high as possible.
I take an iron supplement called Hema-plex as it's plant based.
- I've previously kept my own diet records to make sure I get enough protein. This helped me ensure I was eating enough vitamins and minerals in my diet.
My protein intake is 15%, carbs are 55-60% and my fat intake is 25-30%.
- My key source of protein is beans. I do like tofu, and some of the fake meat products you can buy (e.g. Gardine makes really good plant based chicken nuggets). I also eat a lot of quinoa and brown rice.
- I'm not against soy, but I don't like all my plant based products to be soy products.
- I like to cook which I think helps, as you then know what's going in all your food.
Gender differences in athlete mindset
- I think males tend to have more confidence, which is possibly a societal/generational thing.
- I think females have more resilience in the big picture. They have the mental toughness to go, finish and compete no matter what.
- When you get to ultra endurance events - e.g. Badwater or Leadville100 - females are top contenders with the males.
I think part of that is mental. To complete that type of event you have to be physically fit but your mind is what gets you to the finish line.
- I think males would be more likely to quit when the going gets tough and be okay with that decisions.
Whereas females would think more about the consequences of quitting, and that would drive them to finish.
- I'm one of the most confident women I know, but I wasn't always! In high school swimming I had no confidence at all.
- I had to learn that I never reached my potential in high school or college swimming because of my lack of confidence.
- Going into triathlon helped me gain that confidence. I believe with experience and success, you gain a lot of confidence.
- I also believe that failures lead to success and confidence too.
- As a coach, if you want to develop confidence you want to make sure you are realistic about your goals, and make sure you take small steps towards gaining confidence.
This way when you go to the overall objective or goal race you are going into it more confident.
- I wish back in high school I'd been able to go and see a sports psychologist, so I always encourage athletes I coach to do this if it gets beyond my range of competence.
- Confidence is such a huge road block to performance for both male and female, so improving it is key!
Training exertion gender differences
- I coach some male athletes that I have to reel in - I have to purposely give them lower power output ranges on the bike because I know they'll push for the top of the range.
- I have to get on their case about recovery days and communicating with me. It takes a lot of education to get them to understand the importance of recovery.
- In a female, I've never had to do that. I've basically never had to convince a female to take a recovery day!
- The individuals that I know don't push as hard as I know they are capable of are the ones who struggle with confidence.
They may be afraid of success, or of hitting the numbers this time but not next time.
I think they then set themselves up for saying moderation is okay.
- I could be a gender thing because we've spoken about how females tend to lack confidence more often than males.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to triathlon or endurance sports?
- Who is somebody in triathlon that you look up to?
- What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
- Mindfulness and being present in everything I do.
- In the past I used to multitask and I've realised I don't need to always do this.
- Since becoming more present in training I continue to succeed.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Wendy Mader
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
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