Sport playing catch up on women's physiology

It’s roughly 50 years since runner Kathrine Switzer was attacked during the Boston Marathon because she was a woman – 1967 - and since the FA lifted a ban on women playing football on ‘men’s’ grounds in England – 1971.

Thankfully, women’s sport has made massive strides in terms of participation in nearly all sports with 48% of athletes at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 identifying as female.

However, research lags way behind with the vast majority of sport science studies still very much focused on males.

A symposium in Liverpool this week set out to raise the profile of research into female-specific issues in sport, notably nutrition, pregnancy, menstruation, menopause and HRT.

Organised by the Cellular and Molecular Physiology for Lifelong Health Research Group in RISES, the Women’s Physiology and Nutrition Symposium attracted academics and practitioners from across the globe to the Spine Building in the Knowledge Quarter.

Facilitators Dr Jen Barrett and Dr Kelsie Johnson set the scene by stating that just 12% or so of physiology studies related to women.

“In 2019 a mere 4% of studies published were exclusively related to females,” explained Jen. “That rose to 12% in 2022 but we are a long way from where we should be in supporting women.

Dina Asher-Smith specifically cited menstrual cycle issues for her under-performance in Munich last year and called for more research into cramping issues.

Dr Johnson said: “Not only should we do more research – high quality research – but we need to ensure that studies involving women are adapted methodologically for women.”

Among studies discussed were Dr Jose Areta’s work on fuelling in women’s sport, Dr Juliette Strauss’s research on overcoming carbohydrate fear in female fuelling, and doctoral researcher Sam McHaffie’s work on the diets of adolescent footballers.

The keynote was delivered by Professor Anthony Hackney from the University of North Carolina.

An exciting part of the day was the “Athlete and Practitioner Expert Panel” made up of Dr Rebecca Randell, Dr Carl Langan-Evans, Dr Amelia Woodhouse (LFC ladies club doctor), Aimee O’Keeffe (Man United ladies lead nutritionist) and Jess Piasecki (the second fastest female in British marathon history). The panel shared experiences of working first-hand with female athletes, competing as a female athlete, and the considerations they have to make.


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