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Who trains harder: male or female pro cyclists?

Say you had access to several years worth of training data from a bunch of male and female pro road cyclists. And say you went through and meticulously analysed that training data to determine how the training of elite males and females differs. What would you expect to find?

Would you expect that men train harder than women do? Would you expect the opposite? And how would you define “harder” anyway?

As it turns out, a handful of Dutch researchers did have access to several years worth of training data, and did take the time to analyse that data in detail. The result is what they claim is the first “detailed quantification of the training demands of female pro cyclists”. The results are quite interesting.

How they went about it

The researchers, led by Teun van Erp of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, got their data from a pro cycling team with both an elite women’s and men’s squad. They don’t say which team it was, but they do say that for the four years they have data for, the women’s team finished inside the top 10 on the UCI women’s ranking, while the men’s team was a Pro Continental outfit the first year, and a WorldTour team for three years after that. (50 internet points for the first commenter to correctly identify the team).

In total, the researchers analysed 9,822 training files — 7,319 from a total of 20 male riders and 2,503 from 10 female riders. They collected heart rate, power output and “rating of perceived exertion” (how hard a ride felt) data for each ride, wherever that data was available.

They broke down each ride to determine how much time was spent in each heart rate and power output zone. Heart rate zones were calculated as a percentage of a rider’s max heart rate, while power zones were based on percentages of the rider’s functional threshold power (as per a system devised by renowned exercise physiologist Dr Andy Coggan). The researchers also looked at the total work done (in kJ) on each training ride.

From there they determined the Training Impulse (TRIMP) of each ride, a figure that reflects the volume of the training load based on time spent in the various heart rate zones. They also worked out each ride’s Training Stress Score (TSS), another measure of a ride’s difficulty, which is also based on the work of Andy Coggan. And then they multiplied each ride’s Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) by its duration in minutes to determine the session RPE (sRPE).

And then they went one step further. For each of the “ride difficulty” measurements — TRIMP, sRPE, TSS and work done — they divided those measurements by the length of the ride in kilometres, allowing the researchers to compare rides of different lengths by a common metric (e.g. TSS/km).

For anyone that’s dived into the stats of their own training and racing, none of these measures will be too unfamiliar. Indeed, most ride analysis software packages on the market today calculate these values for you automatically. Few of us have access to years worth of pro data to analyse, though.

Here’s what the researchers found when they dove into that data.

The results

Van Erp and colleagues found that, on average, male riders tended to:

– ride for longer (182 vs 145 minutes for the average training ride)
– ride further (91.9 km vs 64.1 km)
– spend more energy (2,151 vs 1,223 kJ), and
– have a higher absolute (191 watts vs 139 watts) and relative (2.64 vs 2.3 watts/kg) power output.

When they looked at TSS and TRIMP (the ride intensity metrics) though, male and female riders returned more or less equal figures:

TSS: 115.5 (men) vs 111 (women)
TRIMP: 453 (men) vs 425 (women)

And then when the researchers started looking at TSS/km and TRIMP/km — effectively ride intensity per kilometre — they found that women’s rides were actually “moderately higher” for these factors than men’s.

TSS/km: 1.23 (men) vs 1.56 (women)
TRIMP/km: 4.58 (men) vs 5.72 (women)

That is, the average kilometre of pro women’s training is harder than the average men’s. Pro women mightn’t be training for as long or riding as far as their male counterparts, but they’re making up for that with higher intensity.

Along the same lines, Van Erp and co found that the male pros spent slightly more time than their female counterparts in low heart rate and power zones during training (zones 1 and 2). Women, meanwhile, spent slightly more time than men in high-intensity heart rate and power zones (zones 4 and 5).

Interestingly though, despite the differences in training load and intensity, females and males reported virtually the same level of exertion during training — an average RPE of 12.2 for men vs 12.1 for women, as measured on the BORG scale which ranges from 6-20.

What we know about racing

Van Erp and co’s latest findings on training, published in the International journal of sports physiology and performance, line up well with what they found in an earlier paper about the demands of racing.

Men’s races are longer in both time and distance than women’s races, but as Van Erp and colleagues found, they also feature a greater percentage of time spent at lower intensities. And as in training, women’s races feature a higher percentage of time spent at higher intensities compared with men’s races.

But, the differences between men’s and women’s training are smaller than the differences on race day. “Women spent ~25% more time in high-intensity zones (HR) during races compared to men,” the researchers write, “in contrast to training where the difference is only ~13% between women and men.”

The past couple seasons world champion Annemiek van Vleuten has made headlines by joining her male counterparts at the Mitchelton-Scott pre-season training camp. Her training volume on those camps was unusually high for a pro female athlete.

But why?

So why is it that pro women train more intensely than men? To their credit, the researchers say they aren’t entirely sure — after all, their study was an analytical one, looking simply at the data rather than talking to riders about why they train like they do. But, Van Erp and friends do make some smart inferences.

Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that coaches are consciously writing training programs that correspond with the demands riders will face in races. But there could be other explanations too.

At the time this data was collected, there was no minimum wage for female pro cyclists (that scheme only started this year). The researchers opine that given a lack of financial stability for female pros, such riders had to spend more time studying or working part time compared with their male counterparts (who have long had a minimum wage).

“Therefore, it could be that a certain number of professional female cyclists can simply not afford to train the same training volume as men,” they write. “Furthermore, a successful training program requires a balance between overload and recovery. Not being able to live like a full-time professional could interfere with recovery, with a lower overall training volume as result.”

If we follow that logic, it might just be that female pros automatically compensate for this relatively lower training volume by increasing the intensity of that training.

Another explanation might be found in the difference between race calendars. A typical men’s season might feature 70-90 race days, while a typical pro women’s calendar might feature 40-55 days.

“Therefore, a higher percentage of the training sessions in a male training program would consist of low intensity and recovery rides as it is common to plan an easy or a recovery training after a race,” Van Erp and co write. “This might contribute to the increased time spent at lower intensity zones in men’s training compared to the women’s training.”

In summary

So what can we take from this? Well, pro men tend to train for longer, cover more ground, and expend more energy by riding at higher average power outputs. But when we take into account the intensity of that training relative to distance, it would seem that pro women train harder.

Of course it doesn’t really matter who’s training harder; what matters is that the training serves to adequately prepare each rider for the racing they’ll end up doing. And along the same lines, there’s probably an important reminder in there for all of us, too: do the training that’s right for you and your goals, not the training you see others doing.

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