The Sex Factor: Gender in Triathlon

In triathlon men and women race side by side. This wise policy engenders a sense of camaraderie that is one of the most appealing aspects of our sport.

But there are certain physical attributes and psychological traits specific to each sex that should not be ignored. We asked Andy Lane of Tri Coaching Wales ( for advice on how to tailor training to suit the male and female mind and body.


1. Embrace strength training

Women are often concerned that weight training will lead to bulky muscles. But if you keep the weight low and the reps high, or find the right circuits class, you'll build strong muscles without adding bulk.

"Strength training increases resistance to injury and enhances performance," says Lane. "Research shows that when carried out over 12 weeks, it can significantly improve performance above endurance training alone."

A strong body will significantly reduce the likelihood of injuries such as knee complaints and lower back pain. When recovering from injury you can maintain your resistance workouts with aqua jogging.

"It removes the high impact associated with running but recruits and trains similar muscles," says Lane.

2. Calculate your maximum heart rate accurately

Women's hearts are smaller than men's and they beat faster. The traditional, easy way of calculating maximum heart rate (MHR) is the formula '220 minus your age'.

For women this is closer to '226 minus your age', but it's still a simplistic formula so it may be worth your while using professional sports science testing to work out your specific training intensity zones. Alternatively, speak to the staff at your gym.

3. Eat cleverly

Your monthly cycle can play havoc with your energy levels. Stock up on essential iron by eating foods such as broccoli, spinach and fish.

Protein helps to steady hormones so include some in every meal: add dried fruit and seeds to your porridge; cheese to a baked sweet potato and tuna; or make hummus - chickpeas are loaded with protein.

If your aim is weight loss, make sure your calorie intake is sufficient to maintain stable energy levels and to fuel training.

Try steamed rice and vegetables with grilled fish to boost an afternoon workout, or chicken breast, quinoa and roasted butternut squash, to aid overnight recovery.

Spinach and feta filo parcels make a great snack - they're filled with protein and iron - and a blueberry smoothie is a vitamin-filled start to the day.

4. Pregnant, not idle

If you are training regularly you don't have to suddenly stop all exercise just because you're pregnant. "Always speak to your GP at the start of your pregnancy," says triathlete and doctor Kerry Lang.

"Generally speaking, doctors will not discourage women from exercising during pregnancy. However, there are always exceptions. If you have been told you can exercise, ensure you view it as just that - exercise - and not training; avoid a rigid approach and listen to your body."

Swimming is ideal for both comfort and intensity, and should you wish to cycle or jog during the early stages, make sure your heart rate stays low enough that you can easily hold a conversation.

"Do not start any type of exercise you didn't do before being pregnant. If there is any bleeding while you are exercising, stop immediately and see a doctor," says Lang.

5. Get involved on your own terms

Women sometimes hesitate when it comes to diving into sports that seem to reward aggression and be dominated by shouty men, but don't let your fears hold you back.

Triathlon's inclusiveness makes it easier to become involved but if you are nervous about competing alongside men, start with a women-only race to gain confidence.

It can be easy to unfavourably compare yourself with others on the starting line or even with your partner, if he's faster than you are. Focus on why you love triathlon. Whether it's to keep fit, challenge yourself or raise money for charity, you've put a lot into getting to that race, so be proud of your achievements.

If you come out of each experience with one thing to improve, but two things you did well, then that positive feeling will transfer to your training. As Lane puts it: "Focus on the controllables - that is, what you can influence and not what others are doing. If you have put in 100 per cent, that's all anyone can ask for."

On the next page: Training tips for men.