Being a girl can be tough. Every day you are faced with images and expectations of what a girl should be. And as an athlete, while you love how much fun you have, you probably feel extra pressures and expectations. The best thing for you is to know YOUR body and then learn how to make it work for YOU, in the safest, healthiest, and strongest way.
We want to share a few things with you to help you learn more: how your body and response to exercise is different, what are some injuries & problems that are more common in girl athletes, and what we can do about it! In the future, we will feature more specifics on how to limit your chance of injuries, how to fuel your body with nutrients, and how to improve your image of yourself and your amazing, capable, powerful body!
How is the female body different?
As we learned, probably before kindergarten, the female body is different. So how does that change the way we respond to physical activity or sport?
Because girls are relatively 'new to sport', there is a little less research on how a female's body responds to activity. But let's see what we know:
- Females have less dense bones compared to males
- This is why nutrition and injury prevention is so important for female athletes
- And, while nutrition is important for all athletes, girls need more iron and calcium than boys
- While males are weigh more on average, females tend to have more fat tissue
- Women need a higher level of 'essential fat' to help organs, the nervous system, and muscles to function
- Females are, on average, 3-4 inches shorter than men
- Advantage: us short girls have a lower center of gravity and better balance
- Before puberty, girls & boys have the same aerobic capacity; after puberty, girls have less due to changes in body
- Good news: training can improve your aerobic capacity
- In puberty, while boys' shoulders get broader, girls get broader hips
- Unfortunately wider hips, weaker glute muscles, dominance of the quadricep muscles, and an often shorter femur changes the mechanics of the way girls run and land when jumping, creating more risk for injury
- Good news: research shows training can help prevent some of these injuries
- Girls are more flexible than boys, and after puberty, there is even a bigger difference
- Advantage: flexibility helps girls rock at sports that require increased flexibility like dancing, gymnastics, and figure skating
- Disadvantage: ligaments are looser and can cause injury like sprains or tears
What are some common injuries I need to be aware of as a girl athlete?
Because of these differences in our own body structures, the female athlete can be more prone to certain injuries.
- Ankle sprains or plantar fasciitis
- Knee injuries, like patellofemoral pain or ACL tears
- Stress fractures or other overuse injuries
- Rotator cuff or shoulder instability
And of course, all athletes, regardless of gender, are often exposed to injuries based on the sport or activity in which they participate. Some examples:
- Concussions - most common in soccer and football, but could happen in figure skating & gymnastics too
- Eye injuries - lacrosse, tennis, basketball
- Shoulder or elbow injuries - basketball, volleyball, tennis, softball, swimming
- Hand or finger injuries - basketball, volleyball, soccer goalie
- Back injuries - baseball or softball, diving, gymnastics, figure skating, dancing, soccer
- Hip injuries - gymnastics, dancing, sports that involve jumping or sprinting like track and field
- Knee injuries - sports that involve running, jumping, kicking, cutting, or twisting, like tennis, soccer, gymnastics, or lacrosse
- Ankle or foot injuries - sports that involve jumping, landing, running, unstable surfaces (grass), or balancing, like gymnastics, dancing, figure skating, basketball, and soccer
So this sounds like bad news, potential sprains, strains, or more. But the risk of not staying active? Much greater, and leads to things that are a little more challenging to fix!
But here's the really good news. A lot of these injuries can be limited or even prevented by appropriate sport-specific training, proper footwear and equipment, a safe area to practice, play, or perform, adequate rest and recovery time, and a well-rounded injury prevention program that can address imbalances or deficits in strength, flexibility, balance, alignment, endurance, nutrition, energy and more.
What are some other common challenges with girl athletes?
One of the biggest challenges of girl athletes is the pressure - the pressure to have your body look a certain way, the pressure to keep training and keep training, the pressure to perform your best every time. This pressure can be internal and external. Unfortunately sometimes this can lead to something called "The Female Athlete Triad" or "Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports". This was recognized as more and more girls began exercising and running, and doctors noted that stress fractures kept happening. The doctors put it together that these three things - energy availability, menstrual function, and bone mineral density - when working well can make you healthy, but when not, can lead to injury and decreased ability to perform and participate in your sports.
What this means for you: it is really important to keep up your energy through food! Skipping meals, not eating enough, or binging on foods are not good habits. As we mentioned earlier, girls tend to have less iron and calcium, so these are important, and of course foods that give you lots of protein that give you energy for longer bursts of time. Remember, the more that you exercise, the more you need to fuel your body! Your energy will be better and so will your performance!
What should I take from this?
- Your female body is different, but you can use differences to your advantage to improve your performance.
- Each female body is different too, and don't let anyone tell you there is no perfect female body type. Think about all the variation of body types there are in your favorite athletes, and how each one makes their body work for them!
- You should learn your risks of injury related to your body and the sports you participate in and find out what you can do to minimize them.
- You need to care for your body from all aspects. This includes giving your body the rest and nutrition it needs, and also making sure you have enough strength, balance, and flexibility to perform the best and safest way possible.
- If you are developing bad habits with not eating enough or giving your body good nutrition, please talk to a nutritionist to help you learn what you can do!
- If you want to learn more about injury prevention and your own body or even start a new fitness program, talk to a physical therapist to start getting on a stronger, healthier, and more balanced path!