I learned this lesson the hard way in the winter of 2001 when my collegiate cycling team was preparing for a strong performance at the Collegiate National road racing championships in late spring. Our team that year consisted of ten men and three women. At the time, I mistakenly believed that the harder I trained, the better I'd get. And what better way to train hard than riding with...men.
I was motivated to do everything right that year and win a medal at Nationals. I had my training intensity ranges carefully mapped out after intensive physiological testing, and I had a detailed training plan in place.
But after only one month of training with men everything had fallen apart. I was tired, cranky, and skipping rides due to physical and mental burnout.
My carefully balanced training regimen had turned into one day of rest followed by six days of race-pace intervals with the guys where my average heart rate hovered at around 180 beats per minute for three to five hours at a time. Sure, I was earning praise for being able to keep up with the guys, but I was struggling mightily to do it.
Physiologically, riding with men every day was taking too much out of me and psychologically, it was self-defeating. Instead of comparing my fitness to other women, I was comparing myself to men, a game that all women are set up to lose.
This is because there are some unavoidable physical disadvantages to being a woman competing against a man. In general, when he is training in the right intensity for his workout, as a woman, you will probably be training too hard for yours.
A woman's heart is smaller than a man's, which means that the volume of blood pumped with each heart beat is going to be less than a man's. Also, females, on average, have lower blood hemoglobin content, red blood cell mass, and hematocrit than males, all of which means a woman delivers less oxygen to her muscles than a man can pump to his. Combined, these factors lead to a lower aerobic capacity. It's the lower aerobic power, lower muscular strength and maximum power output in females that separates them from men.
These differences give you a good idea of the forces behind the large gap between the winning times of the best men compared to the best women at the pro-level. And this gap is why competitions in running, triathlon, cycling, and most other multi-gender sports are split into gender classifications. So if women only compete against other women in elite competition, why are so many women still training with men? Is it possible, or even smart, to join the guys and still stay true to your training plan?
The answer is "Yes." Training in groups made-up of guys can make you faster but only if you use these sessions carefully. To help you figure out when's the best time to join the y-chromosomes, a smart idea is to employ a coach.
Hiring a coach is the best way to insure that your training properly matches your current fitness level, skills and goals. Another plus to having a coach is that you have a knowledgeable and trustworthy friend in your corner to help you stick to your training plan, not the guys'. The guys don't care if you destroy your fitness by joining them. Your coach does.
I'm not going to lie to you: Training within your limits will more than likely mean that you train alone. But by training solo, you don't have to fight the urge or pressure from the men to go faster.
Don't get the wrong idea, well planned group workouts do have their benefits; they offer camaraderie for those long workouts, race simulations, and plenty of opportunities for max efforts when your training program calls for it. But if you have an interval day with very specific interval duration and intensity ranges, go solo; you'll have a more productive and effective workout. If you're lucky enough to have a spouse or boyfriend to train with, match your moderate to moderately-hard days to his easier training days so you have the best chance of actually riding together.
Your number one priority when it comes to devoting hundreds of hours to training is to look out for your best interests. Set those goals, stick with your plan and work with your coach on meeting and adjusting your daily training goals. Remember you don't want to win group training sessions on Tuesdays or Thursdays; you want to perform your best in races on the weekends, races against other women.
I learned from my mistake in college in time to salvage my season. I got a new coach, and I started training by myself the majority of the season. As a result of my focused effort, I earned a podium finish at the team time-trial event that year. Even now, 15 years later, I rarely deviate from my training program to join the guys. That's because winning medals feels so much better than being able to say, "I can keep up with the guys."
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Ivana Bisaro MS of Colorado Springs, Colorado is a Coach for Carmichael Training Systems. She's a cycling and road cycling specialist with coaching certifications from the U.S. Cycling Federation and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. She's also a NASN certified sports nutrionist.