One of the best books for women athletes I’ve read in a long time is Up To Speed: The Groundbreaking Science Of Women Athletes by Christine Yu. In fact, by the time I was done with it, so many pages were dog-eared and I’d highlighted so many passages, that I knew I had to get Christine on the podcast.
The book discusses the available science on women’s athletics–but also the lack of it. The truth is that much of the conventional sports related wisdom we’ve absorbed over the years is based on research done on men.
Despite that, Christine shares the most up to date information on science that applies to female cyclists and how we can incorporate it into our lives. This includes tracking our menstrual cycles, getting enough food to eat, and continuing to be athletic thru life transitions.
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Why Most Of The Research Has Been Done On Men
“When I spoke to most experts, and asked them this question, their response largely was that it’s because scientists thought women were complicated to research. And it makes sense, when you think about the scientific method and scientific methodology. Scientists want to simplify things.
“They want to understand how a specific chemical reaction works, or how a hormone works, or the purpose of this amino acid, or whatever it is. And they want to weed out all the other noise and data that might not pertain to that very specific question that they’re asking.
“So when you have a female body that has a menstrual cycle, that does have hormones that fluctuate up and down through the course of the month in a very unpredictable way, it’s a lot of extra noise. It’s just easier and cleaner, to study men where those hormones, that hormonal environment doesn’t fluctuate to the same extent. It’s easier to control for some of those other variables.
“So I think that on a very practical level, that’s one piece of it. But I think if you step back, and look at it from more of macro lens, I think it has more to do with how the systems of sports and science were developed from the beginning. Both of those systems were developed for men, by men, or with men in mind. And so when you kind of create a system or create a way of doing things, that privies one population, that just becomes the way you do things over time, and you don’t even question it. It creates these blind spots that you’re not even necessarily aware of until someone starts asking questions.
“So I think it’s those two things. On a very practical level, it’s just easier to study men because they don’t have all this other stuff to control for. But on a more macro level, it’s just the way the system was developed in the first place. And so that just became the way things are.”
What data does not exist today that you think would be very helpful for women?
“All the data and the information about what happens around menopause. What happens when those female sex hormones start to decline.
“We at least have somewhat of an understanding, on the other side, with puberty and adolescence, when these hormones first start to surge, and what happens to our reproductive systems and what happens to other systems, like our bone health, and cardiovascular health, and all these other things. But we don’t know what happens, on the other end very well.
“We have some general understanding from a health perspective, but not so much from an athletic or performance health perspective. So that’s, personally the piece that that I’m really interested in. And just because that closes the loop a little bit more in terms of this lifespan that women go through. There are these different transitions in hormones and physiology that we just really don’t have a good grasp on.”
Why You Should Track Your Menstrual Cycle
“Tracking your cycle, and paying attention to that is really empowering. It’s a way for you to understand what’s going on with your body. And from my experience, it was this realization that not everything was my fault. If I felt off with a training day or something like that, or just felt really tired or flat, it wasn’t necessarily my fault, it might have something to do with my cycle.
“And that’s to say that everything has to do with your cycle, but it might be related. And so that kind of gave me just more information about what was going on with my body. So I feel like that’s a really important thing for everyone.
“I think where we get into some kind of sticky things with cycles, like tracking and cycle syncing, and all the stuff is that we go from this place of wanting more information about what’s going on with our bodies, and how the menstrual cycle impacts us to wanting the answers. The answers of what do I do? It’s almost like a ‘how can I hack this? How can create the shortcut.’
“So I think that’s where we kind of get into some potential troubles when we’re looking to use the cycle as like a hack or performance hack. Because there’s so much variability in cycles across the board. Your cycle is very different from my cycles and different from someone else, and it doesn’t matter if we’re the same age, on the same day of our cycle, or whatever it is, the the levels and ratios of our hormones are going to be different. And then for any one person, those levels and ratios of hormones are also going to probably change month to month and definitely over the lifespan. So it’s it’s hard to create some sort of generalized plan for what to do.
“But I think, again, cycle tracking, paying attention to your cycle, in terms of athletic performance really is about kind of tapping into your own body and what it’s doing. And paying attention to those symptoms, that might be cycle related. If you’re tracking and you notice, every month, around my third week I’m flat, well, then maybe that does have something to do with my hormone levels. If there seems to be a pattern, then you can actually do something about it, in terms of how you recover, or what your nutrition is, or making sure you’re you’re hydrating, even kind of altering your training a little bit to front load higher volume, more intense stuff into phases in which you’re feeling more energetic.”
The Dangers Of Not Eating Enough
“When your body doesn’t have enough fuel, it senses that it doesn’t have enough fuel, it starts to think it’s starving and the body’s main goal is to survive. So in order to survive, it starts to shut down some of these non essential systems of which the reproductive system is one of the first to go. So that means your hormones start to shut down.
“And hormones play a big role, aside from just reproduction. That starts to influence things like your bone health, your muscle mass and quality, your recovery, cardiovascular health, pretty much every single system in your body, because again, your body’s just trying to survive.
“So if you’re layering on top of that more exercise, more volume and intensity, again, it creates more stress for the body that it’s trying to protect itself from. So being in that highly stressed state, it’s hard to imagine that your body is going to adapt to the training in the way that you want it to.. You’re not going to experience these long term adaptations. What you might see happening, and I think what we do see happening with a lot of athletes is there might be a short term gain. You lose a bunch of weight, you get lighter and leaner, you might have a great race or two, but then you see their performance kind of stagnate or get worse.
“It’s because the body isn’t adapting. You’re not giving the body, the fuel and the energy and the support that it needs to actually do the training and perform the way that you want it to.”
Christine’s Key Takeaway For Women
“There is no expiration date or point on one’s active or performance life. We all go through these periods of transition by nature of the fact that we live in female bodies. That is just our reality. So we have puberty, we might have pregnancy and postpartum and we’ll have the menopause transition. All of those are periods of transition. And they don’t necessarily need to signal the end of your athletic goals, the end of your athletic life and pursuits.
“It might mean that, you have to adjust things to re adapt to your body as it moves through these different phases but in no way shape or form doesn’t mean that like you can’t do something.”
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Are You Listening To The Femme Cyclist Podcast?!?
A podcast for women who love bicycles! We we celebrate all forms of riding and all forms of women, so whether you’re a road cyclist, mountain biker, or bike commuter, you’ll find your community here. Each week we’ll week bring you interviews from inspiring women, and offer tips and tricks to help you thrive on the bike.
About The Host
Kristen Bonkoski is the founder and owner of Femme Cyclist.
An avid cyclist for a few decades now, she took to cycling during her late teen years — a time when she needed something to help boost her self-esteem and confidence.
Mission accomplished, the sport has become an important part of her life. Kristen’s favorite disciplines are mountain biking and bike commuting, although you can also find her cranking out a century on her road bike and touring with her husband and son. If it has to do with two wheels, she enjoys doing it.
Kristen is a certified USA Cycling coach, and she runs Rascal Rides, a website about biking with kids.