There is no contention that there is a gender gap in sports. Womens’ sports receive less investment, income, screen-time and media coverage than its male counterpart. A new report has shown that the gender gap also extends to sports science research – the failure to consider the physical and physiological differences of the human body leads coaches and sports directors to transpose studies on men, to women. The results put women at a disadvantage – when applied, misinformation can lead to injury.
Activist and writer Caroline Criado-Perez has revealed how the failure to consider the female body, means that women are 71%% more likely to be moderately injured and 47% more likely to be seriously injured. A recent review of sports science studies has also found that only 3% of articles in leading sports performance journals exclusively investigate women.
It is important to recognise that the female body responds differently in remarkedly different ways. That includes differences in carbohydrate metabolism, inflammation, incidence of injury, body temperature regulation and blood plasma levels. So why hasn’t sports science research included women in their studies? Dr Emma Ross, Co-Head of Physiology at the English Institute of Sport (EIS), explains that “doing good quality research on females is often longer and more expensive, and as such, researchers often avoid this resource-heavy approach”. Hormonal fluctuations caused by different phases of the menstrual cycle can make it difficult to interpret results that are impactful for athletes. As Ross explains, “data needs to be collected across the different phases of the menstrual cycle, when the levels of fluctuating hormones are at their peaks and troughs… allow[ing] practitioners to be able to confidently apply findings knowing how the outcomes are affected at different points in a female athlete’s menstrual cycle.”
Hormones have a significant impact on female performance. An EIS survey showed that 50% of women within the High Performance System said that their menstrual cycle affected performance, and 30% said periods were erratic or absent, increasing their risk of long term negative health effects like deteriorating bone density. A study conducted by researchers at Fitr Woman found that 88% of the 14,000 women surveyed said that their exercise performance was negatively impacted at some point of their cycle. Unfortunately, the impact of hormones on exercise performance is poorly understood. Periodising training is one solution for mitigating the impact, but few coaches are informed on the subject and often overlook these factors in their training of female athletes.
It is also common for athletes to use contraception pills to avoid menstruation on competition days. However, the effect may be counter-intuitive. Women using these methods experience an increase in negative effects, as their levels of oestrogen and progesterone are elevated. According to physiologist and nutritionist scientist Dr Stacy Sims “oral contraceptive pills invoke 6-8 times the oestrogen and progesterone levels that a naturally cycling woman has”.
Sam Impey, sport scientist at Mitchelton-Scott and Adjunct Lecturer at Edith Cowen University told Cycling Weekly, “there’s a pretty severe lack of studies done on women, particularly elites. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a travesty.”
Women-specific equipment and gear for sports like cycling, can also significantly improve women’s sports. For example, research by the EIS have shon light on issues around bike saddles. According to Ross, standard bike saddles that have not been designed with women in mind “at best, can lead to discomfort whilst riding, or at worst, chronic injury in the seat region”. Paralympian Hannah Dines drew attention to the issue when she revealed her 5 year struggle with saddle pain and consequent surgery. Former consultant at British Cycling, Phil Burt added that women in cycling are often treated as an afterthought. “I’m trying to get the industry to treat women as they need to be treated… that includes looking at women’s saddles, women’s chamois solutions, better women’s geometry, which means just smaller bikes mostly, but the geometry has to change with that so the bike handles well,” he said.
Despite the current state of women in sport, there are improvements underway to level playing field. The free app ‘Fitr Woman’ offers female-specific advice to improve athletic performance. British Cycling reported a 70% increase in the number of trained female coaches in 2017, with a continued commitment to focus on women’s cycling going forward. The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games also represent the first Olympics where there will be equal medal opportunities between men and women.
News of progression is encouraging, but Dr Bruinvels still cautions about the lack of improvement within sports science research. “Lack of research makes it hard for us to guide women, because it makes it hard to give concrete advice,” she said.