Education And Debate

ABC of Sports Medicine: Female Athletes

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 23 July 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:254
  1. R Carbon

    Female athletes now compete in virtually all the main sporting arenas of the world in which the physical differences between the sexes are largely irrelevant because women only compete against men in certain technique events. Social and historical influences remain the most important factors determining the participation and success of female athletes. A Chinese woman, Zhang Chan, scored a perfect 200 in the skeet (clay pigeon) shooting competition to take the gold medal and world record at the Barcelona Olympics, but will be unable to defend her title when the event is an all male contest in Atlanta in 1996.

    Physical differences between the sexes

    Women are, on average, 10% smaller than men in most physical variables including cardiac size, blood volume, and haemoglobin concentration. However, they carry twice the body fat of men. The net result is a lower total aerobic capacity of some 40%. Yet if maximal oxygen uptake is expressed as a percentage of lean body weight the difference is less than 10%. Women are capable of appreciable improvements in muscle strength without demonstrable increases in muscle bulk in the early stages of weight training as a result of improved neuromuscular recruitment. In general, however, muscle strength is equivalent in both sexes for the same cross sectional area of muscle.

    The effect of power and aerobic training results in physical adaptation whereby the differences between male and female trained athletes are far less than those between sedentary men and women. Women excel in ultra-endurance events and currently hold most of the world records in long distance swimming. The physiology of this supremacy is not well understood but may relate to improved fat metabolism, local muscle endurance at low workloads, tolerance of temperature extremes, and greater bouyancy in water.

    As women have historically been prohibited from playing body contact sports they do not …

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