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NZ a hotbed of research into female athletes

This story was originally published in LockerRoom at Newsroom.co.nz and is republished with permission.

In the second part of LockerRoom’s series looking at the development of our sportswomen, Ashley Stanley delves into the hotbed of research here into what makes female athletes tick, and what can make them stronger and faster.  

Tucked away in the back of the Kolmar sports complex in south Auckland is the Papatoetoe Weightlifting Club.

Upstairs above the gym is a multi-purpose room, where a group of female lifters and some of their family members gather once a month to support each other.

The topic of discussion in October focused on resilience, given the turbulent year with Covid-19. In November, the group listened to a PhD student, who’s hoping to work with some of the club’s athletes, talk about menstrual cycles and sport.

The idea of bringing the group together was based on an observation made by the club’s coach, Simon Kent, who saw a surge in the number of young female lifters.

“I saw the dynamic change, not just in our gym at Papatoetoe, but in the sport as a whole and this big proliferation of women – especially young women – coming into the sport. And as a coach it made me think ‘Ok we can keep just training them as we have the men all this time, or we can actually accept that physiologically, women are obviously different and therefore have different needs’,” says Kent, who has a strength and conditioning background in athlete development in rugby and more recently, powerlifting sports.

There is a ton of research on athlete development. But most of it is based on men.

Now it seems New Zealand is in the perfect position to make in-roads in fields specific to women in sport.

New Zealand is hosting three women’s World Cups over the next three years and the IWG Conference for Women in Sport (its legacy will be a digital hub collecting global research into women’s sport).  On top of these major events, there’s a steady increase of research focused on female athletes being carried out in our corner of the world.

There’s research on building strength in female athletes and how it impacts their performance. And does menstruation play a part?

There’s a large global study into experiences with injury prevention in women’s rugby. And research in the secondary school space on sprinting speed in young females during maturation, and how it can be improved.

The first part in LockerRoom’s athlete development series focused on New Zealand’s two big codes, netball and rugby, and what they are doing to nurture the development of female athletes.

Now, we look at a handful of research projects going on in New Zealand, honing in on the development of female athletes.

Strength and the menstrual cycle

Kent was introduced to PhD candidate Kimberly Santabarbara through Dr Stacy Sims, who’s renowned for her academic work in human performance specific to sex differences and behind the saying ‘Women are not small men’.

Santabarbara’s PhD is focused on strength in females – how to build it and what can improve strength training outcomes. She wants to study strong athletes from a variety of codes, including weightlifting. 

Tokyo Olympic hopeful Megan Gifford is part of the wave of women at the Papatoetoe Weightlifting Club. Photo: arthurimages.com

She’s in the opening stages of her research after moving from the United States to New Zealand early this year to complete her degree.

Santabarbara says there have been many studies which have looked at what cisgender women (assigned female at birth) in strength or power performance have done at various times in their menstrual cycle, but there is no clear difference.

She says women have won gold medals at any time of their cycle, but where it can differ is at the individual level and experiences. “There’s going to be plenty of women who are fine and some others who are not as much,” she says.

As with any research, findings can differ and be inconclusive because of the variety of factors either considered or excluded. In Santabarbara’s case, its factors like whether participants are using birth control, are pre or post menopausal and the difficulty in undertaking a study of this nature.

“But I’m more interested in how do we actually train someone better? How do we make sure their training is as beneficial as possible and can actually help to create more muscle mass, more strength and more power,” says Santabarbara.

At high school, Santabarbara played a variety of sports and believes most of her injuries could have been prevented if she’d had strength building in her training programme.

Getting to the bottom of injuries in women’s rugby

Dr Sims is involved in the largest international research project on injuries in women’s rugby.

The findings will be of interest to both academics and governing bodies across sporting codes. It highlights issues experienced by female athletes, the information provided to them before first taking up the sport and how their performance might be affected by menstrual cycles.

“When we look at concussion and concussion recovery, incidence of illness and the return to play, it’s all still based on male data. And that’s not appropriate for women,” Sims says.

Black Ferns legend Portia Woodman has made a successful return from injury this season. Photo: Getty Images. 

“The whole driving force behind it is to get an anonymous perspective from the players themselves, to see how they feel – from how they’ve been taken care of, what return to play is, and do they drop off if they get an injury?” says Sims, who’s also supervising a number of PhD students researching topics in rugby sevens and cycling.

“We also kind of get into the culture of the sport itself, because if we don’t understand the inner workings from an athletic perspective and how the athletes feel, then we can’t really implement change.”

Her personal drive to be involved in the project comes from seeing the same issues in sport when she was a competitive cyclist.

“I think when you’ve been an athlete and then you get out and start to work and still see plenty of years later the discrepancy between the care women get versus men, it comes from this passionate drive to stop it,” says Sims.

“We need to make sure that our women have the best available care and can achieve their performance potential.”

So what does an ideal athlete development programme look like?

“It’s more the health orientation stuff, the health practices and the testing we need to take an eye towards,” Sims says.

“And then there’s the socio-cultural side of things. Not just the psychological, but really understanding where do these athletes come from, how do they grow up, what drives them and what do nutritional choices mean to them?

“Because if you put someone in a culture – primarily right now a toxic sport culture – it just creates all these pathological things that we see with female athletes, where you have RED-S, amenorrhea, psychological issues and body image issues.

“If we were to take that trans-disciplinary approach where we are saying ‘This is a culture, this is how society views things, this is how the athlete feels about them’ and then you have all the traditional physiological, medical things and bring them together, it creates more of a whole environment for people to progress in sport.”

Why different movements are important

Another doctoral study in the final stages is Kaushik Talukdar’s research into the sprinting speed of young women across maturation, and the use of different training methods to see how speed can be improved.

Again, there’s been a lot of research done in this area, but most of it has been in young boys.  As a strength and conditioning manager at St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, Talukdar says young girls are quite different.

His research is one of a few studies in the world combining and comparing strength training and plyometric training (jumping exercises using maximum effort over short periods to increase power) to see if there’s an impact on speed. Most studies either focus on one type of training.

Kaushik Talukdar’s research found the longer a sprinter’s contact time with the ground, the slower they will be. Photo: Getty Images

Over seven weeks, three groups were tested with different training programmes. Strength, speed and power measures were taken before and after the St Cuthbert’s students did the testing.

Talukdar found contact time on the ground was the biggest marker affecting speed.

“That’s basically how much time is spent on the ground when they’re sprinting. That makes sense because the longer time spent on the ground, the slower you’ll be. So strategies in building less time on the ground will be useful tools,” says Talukdar, who played cricket competitively in India before moving to New Zealand to study sport science.

“And then with the plyometrics, we found horizontal training was the most effective and actually improved all sprinting variables.”

Talukdar believes in the early stages of sporting participation, children should simply start with a variety of movements, before being introduced to the technical training of sport. 

“We need to build up and be exposed to a movement vocabulary without any gender bias,” he says. “The social construction needs to change slightly, because we relate certain movements with gender type, which is not necessary at all.”

He has experience in athlete development programmes such as Sport New Zealand’s ‘Pathway to Podium’ and working with the Black Caps and Auckland Aces during his previous role with New Zealand Cricket.

“Everyone should be able to be exposed to different movements because that’s where we can build resilience in young girls,” he says.

“I think that’s the number one thing before anything else, before even getting into the strength and conditioning side of things. If we can create that holistic experience, where it’s more about the process of actually exploring and being exposed to different movements, then that’s a great start.

“Today we have a lot of young people specialising [in a sport] too early. And there are a lot of things happening like injuries and burn-out, so we need that exposure to a variety of movements from a young age.”

* Next week: How can we improve the development of female athletes?

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