Should males and females train differently? The charge sheet on female athletes says that they don’t recover from hard training as well as males do. This ‘slur’ on females does make a certain amount of physiological sense. After all, the primary male sex hormone, testosterone, is a potent bone and muscle builder and connective-tissue reconstructor. Oestrogen, the main female hormone, has more limited effects on lean-tissue construction. Theoretically, after a rugged workout in which heavy stress is placed on muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones, males should be able to rebuild those parts of the body more quickly. Taking all this into account, many coaches design training programmes for their female athletes which are quite different from those for males. The usual difference is for the male schedule to contain more hard, high-intensity interval work, with the female programme more geared to lower-intensity, continuous, non-interval efforts. For example, Jack Daniels, PhD, one of the most successful collegiate coaches in the US, often has his female charges running 20-25 minute ‘tempo runs’ at a pace which is 10-15 seconds per mile slower than 10k race speed, instead of carrying out lots of fast, short intervals on the track at paces faster than 10k speed. Daniels is tremendously well-respected by his peers, but other coaches do often contend that his programme works ‘much better for females than for males’. Their implication is that males can recover more readily from tougher training routines and need such high-intensity programmes to reach their true potential. But do male athletes really recover from rugged exertions more quickly? Males pride themselves on their toughness, durability and resilience, but the scientific evidence supporting quicker male recoveries is actually pretty weak. In fact, new research suggests that females actually lose less strength than males during the course of a rigorous workout and recover their muscular prowess more rapidly after an exhausting bout of exercise. In studies carried out at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, for example, 10 male and nine female strength athletes (powerlifters and body-builders) performed 20 maximal squat lifts, with three minutes of recovery between each lift. After the 20 lifts, the fatigued leg muscles of both males and females had lost about 20-24% of their maximal strength. However, various indicators of muscular power favoured the females. For one thing, the ‘force-time curve’ – an indicator of muscles’ ability to contract powerfully and quickly – changed negatively by 28% in the males over the course of the workout but dropped by only 19% in the females. Females also recovered from the 20-lift session more quickly. One hour after the workout, female lifters’ leg muscles could generate about 92% as much force as before the session, whereas male muscles were just 79% as strong.

Why was the fatigue greater and recovery slower in males? Part of the problem seemed to be that the male lifters’ nervous systems became less responsive over the course of the workout. From the first to the 20 lift, activation of leg muscles by nerve cells fell by 20-25% in males but held fairly steady in females. While it’s not clear why male nerve activation should deteriorate more quickly, it is clear that females lose less of their muscular power during heavy-duty resistance training and seem to recover more rapidly once a tough session is over.

(‘Neuromuscular Fatigue and Recovery in Male and Female Athletes during Heavy Resistance Exercise’, International Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 14(2), pp. 53-59, 1993)