Jan 26, 2024
It was an absolute thrill to chat with journalist and author Christine Yu about her groundbreaking new book “Up to Speed: The Groundbreaking Science of Female Athletes”.
This epic 500+ page volume comprehensively synthesizes the latest science around optimising women’s health and performance in sport. The wide range of topics explored span physiology, hormones, nutrition, injury prevention, mental health, sexuality, sports equipment design, policy reform and much more.
As Christine dug into many hundreds of studies and interviews over 18 months of intensive research for the book, some clear and concerning themes emerged:
- We are only just beginning to unravel even basic functional knowledge around the intricacies of the female body and how sex differences impact all aspects of human performance and experience. Research specifically exploring female physiology and health remains largely underfunded compared to males.
- Outdated paternalistic attitudes have actively constrained women’s athletic participation for centuries. While some progress is being made, we still have a long way left to go to fully dismantle lingering stigma, unconscious bias and stubborn inequality across all sporting arenas.
- Female athletes for far too long have suffered in silence, downplaying serious health issues while being forced to adapt to equipment, conditions and contexts designed primarily by and for men. There is an urgent need for more holistic, tailored strategies that specifically meet the needs of female competitors.
- General lack of education around the menstrual cycle and female hormonal fluctuations sets girls and women up to disconnect from and distrust their own bodies. A vital first step is to intentionally get back in touch with these unique biological rhythms along with warning signs and optimal training responses.
- While interest is surging among female athletes in highly specific nutrition and training recommendations tied to menstrual phases, Christine notes that quality evidence to support firm guidelines remains very limited and mixed at this stage. Rather than chasing rigid prescriptions, her advice is for each individual to conduct their own experiments and determine what strategies work best for their body.
Some of the fascinating new discoveries
Up until only 2014, women were outright banned from competing in Olympic ski jumping events over baseless myths and fears that their uterus would somehow “burst” or prolapse on landing. The levels of utterly absurd nonsense used to constrain women’s athletic participation over the years is truly mind-boggling!
We take the concept of sports bras for granted now, but they only first emerged in the 1970’s alongside the boom in women’s running participation.
Yet beyond compression, critical considerations around breast biomechanics and muscle/skin/tissue support remain overlooked regarding impacts on performance, comfort and injury risk. Well-fitted, supportive bras can help many females avoid needless breast pain and embarrassment that discourages ongoing sports participation.
Innate differences in neck strength architecture alongside brain matter distribution patterns leave women up to 10 times more susceptible to debilitating concussions compared to men.
Even more, women metabolise drugs used in treatment plans differently by sex. Yet typical guidance on concussion identification and management protocols fails to take this into account.
Use of oral contraceptives or hormonal implants often conveniently masks underlying dysfunction occurring in a woman’s delicate reproductive axis.
When properly screened off such medications, up to half of physically active women can display bloodwork and symptom irregularities strongly suggesting a state of Low Energy Availability Reducing or halting ovulation and menstruation. This demands far more careful and consistent screening of athletes than current practice.
The biggest lightbulb moment reading “Up to Speed” was grasping just how thoroughly for decades we have encouraged – even forced – women to essentially leave our intrinsic “femaleness” behind in order to prove ourselves as legitimate athletes. Yet actively rejecting and denying one’s innate biology and hiding individual needs is ultimately self-sabotage!
The Future Trajectory
While enormous gains are steadily being made to provide women equitable opportunities to participate in sport as well as supply them training and healthcare support structures that nurture long-term wellbeing and excellence, glaring gaps remain.
Christine hopes her book “Up to Speed” continues opening eyes and provoking thought around how much scope we have left to promote greater research investment, coach education, media coverage, and provision of tailored protocols, equipment and environments aligned to optimise female athletic physiology.
Critically, she passionately advocates that all girls and women urgently reconnect with and chart what is occurring in their own bodies as a first step.
Gain an understanding of your menstrual cycle variations and learn how this impacts your health, hormones and training adaptations.
Then conduct mindful self-experiments to determine what strategies work best for you as a uniquely complex system.
For too long, female athletes have endured dismissal, exclusion and silence. But momentum continues building strongly.