Let’s just say it right out of the gate: For the most part, you do not need to determine your workouts based on your gender. “Everyone can benefit equally from aerobic training, resistance training, plyometrics, yoga, and anything else,” says Jeff Godin, Ph.D., CSCS, head of fitness education for Spartan. Take Spartan Pro real-life power couple Natalie Miano and Mark Batres, for example. “We train very similarly and often together,” says Miano.
However, men and women do have some notable physiological differences. And, having some awareness around those differences, and how they change as you age, can help you optimize your performance, no matter your gender.
Should Men and Women Train Differently?
Where Guys Have An Edge
When it comes to performing in a Spartan Race, there’s no denying that men have some physiological advantages over women. On average, in open heats men finish 20 to 30 minutes before women, says Godin. The key word though, is average. “A well-trained female will out-obstacle an untrained male all day, everyday.”
Because women produce more estrogen, which favors the deposition of fat, they generally have a higher body fat percentage than their more testosterone-producing male counterparts. For one, that means men can more easily pack on muscle.
The typical man also has a larger heart and lungs and a greater concentration of oxygen-transporting hemoglobin and myoglobin in the blood, meaning he has a higher V02 Max, higher power output, and is stronger than the typical woman, according to Godin.
There are also structural differences. “Due to a smaller shoulder girdle, women generally have about half to two thirds of the absolute upper-body strength of men,” per Godin.
PRO TIP: “For sports such as obstacle racing it makes sense for women to place some more focus on upper-body strength and power, especially movements that require lifting the body such as pull-ups and rope climbs,” Godin says.
PRO TIP: “ACL injuries are common in females,” says Godin. “There are a number of risk factors such as limb alignment, joint laxity, ligament size, and hormonal changes to name a few.” He recommends women work exercises like the forward and backward hop and hold into their program to reduce this risk.
Where Women Have the Upper Hand
Women use more fat as fuel during exercise, says Godin, which is good because fat provides more energy per gram than protein or carbohydrates do. “They also have wider hips and relatively shorter legs compared to men, which gives them an advantage when it comes to activities that require balance, like the log hop.”
Where women really have an edge is around the age of 35, when men’s testosterone, and therefore V02 Max, max heart rate, and fast-twitch muscle fibers, begins to decline.
PRO TIP: To combat the more rapid age-related changes, men will want to do more HIIT once they get into their late 30’s, per Chris Hinshaw, a top endurance coach who has worked with more than 30 CrossFit Games champions. “Women should do HIIT as well, but they can maintain a much more reliable and predictable training protocol as they age,” says Hinshaw.
A Note on the Menstrual Cycle
During certain phases of their period, women are more or less primed to perform due to fluctuating hormones. However, while some people will lead you to believe that you should train differently based on your cycle, “that would be a mistake,” according to Hinshaw. “It’s the equivalent of saying ‘I’m only going to run in tailwinds,’” he says.
That’s because you can’t time your menstrual cycle around a Spartan Race or other event. So if you don’t train as hard during particular times of the month, and end up having to compete at that time, you’re going to feel underprepared. “If you train properly, it has zero impact,” Hinshaw says. Proof: He’s trained athletes at the CrossFit games that had their period at every years' competition, and they've still gone on to win.