Kerri Strug, two-time Olympic medalist and part of the U.S.A. Women’s Gymnastics team known as the Magnificent Seven, helped secure the 1996 Olympic Gold medal by attempting the vault with two torn ligaments in her left ankle.
Lindsey Vonn, three-time Olympic medalist known for ski racing, has experienced multiple injuries and surgeries, ranging from a concussion to blowing out her ACL.
Serena Williams, four-time Olympic gold medalist and ranked by the Women’s Tennis Association as No.1 in singles ten times, most recently struggled with shoulder and knee injuries.
While it’s not recommended to push through a serious athletic injury, to say women like the above are resilient, is an understatement.
So, are women more prone to sports injury?
Female athletes who participate in individual sports that include jumping, landing and cutting or sharp movements have a higher rate of injury since they typically require a physically lean physique or endurance. These sports can include gymnastics, figure skating, cross country, skiing or diving.
Because women are more dominant with their quadriceps than men, “they have roughly 3 times higher incidence of ACL tears compared to males,” said Dr. Beau Gedrick, assistant professor of Augusta University Emergency Medicine and Primary Care Sports Medicine. “Studies suggest that females prepare for landing with decreased hip and knee flexion, increased quadriceps activation, and decreased hamstring activation, which may result in increased ACL strain and the risk for noncontact ACL injury,” he said. “Anatomically the pelvic bones tend to be wider in females than males, which can change the angle of muscular attachment in the lower extremity, increasing stress on the ACL with certain movements and activities.”
Female athletes also have a higher frequency of concussion at high school and college levels, mainly seen in contact sports such as women’s soccer, ice hockey and basketball.
How to prevent injury
Studies show that training athletes, specifically females, how to jump and land has decreased the rate of ACL tears. Training has also enabled an increased focus on quadriceps and hamstring strength.
As hormones and genetics between males and females differ, a female’s muscular strength in her neck is weaker, said Gedrick. While the neck is often overlooked in strength training efforts, incorporating neck-strengthening exercises can help increase your overall neck strength and help prevent future risk for concussion.
Also, while many female sports require a physically lean physique, it is important to ensure you’re consuming the necessary nutrients to fuel your body. Without the right calories, vitamins and other nutrients your body may experience reduced energy availability or an imbalance between intake and output of calories which can lead to muscle fatigue or even burnout.
All workouts are not created equal
While there are few differences in injury risk between male and female athletes, prior to participating in a sport it is important to identify possible activities that may put the athlete at risk for a particular injury. “Any findings can then have a focused and planned routine to correct any particular risk,” Gedrick said. This can be conducted by a qualified coach, certified athletic trainer or physician familiar with musculoskeletal medicine.
As many sports involve several injury risks, the body’s muscles react to various exercises differently, and testosterone and estrogen also play a role in muscle composition. “Generally, male muscles are more susceptible to fatigue than female muscles, but have the capacity to grow much larger,” Gedrick said.
Follow Dr. Gedricks guide below to help safely and gradually increase your athletic goal.
- To increase muscle mass, do fewer repetitions with more weight.
- To increase endurance and muscle tone, increase repetitions with a lower amount of weight.
Speed and agility training
- To increase endurance, increase your distance in time.
- To increase agility, aim for a shorter time with more explosive movements.
Studies show that there are more than 3,000 genes in both the male and female skeletal muscle, with evidence of slower muscle fibers in females. “The prevalence of slower fibers in females allows for increased endurance and recovery,” said Gedrick.
However, while the needed time for the body to recover is roughly the same for both men and women, the psychological and emotional response to recover can play a big factor in recovery time. Because the emotional response and need for social support vary between men and women, “women typically have longer recoveries that require muscle building, which is hormone related,” Gedrick said.