It’s a common expression that we’ve all likely heard countless times, but when it comes to female athletes and their higher risk of sustaining sports injuries, it couldn’t be truer.
Why do young female athletes follow the same strength and conditioning programs as their male counterparts? Of course, female athletes have equal opportunities, capabilities, and potential as men, but that doesn’t mean we should neglect the obvious physiological differences and needs of our bodies.
We are different in size, shape, muscle composition, energy metabolism, lung capacity, and skeletal muscle strength, to name a few, and if we fail to acknowledge these differences (and fail to tailor our conditioning programs to accommodate them), then we are setting up our young female athletes for sports injuries that could not only bench them for an entire season, but could echo into their adult lives, hindering their active lifestyles for years to come.
Ankle sprains and ACL tears are among the most common sports injuries seen in female athletes, and the “female athlete triad” explains three of these contributing factors. The female athlete triad refers to a condition encompassing three interrelated injury risk factors in women.
- Hormonal imbalance
- Too much activity
- Lack of nutrients
Together, this combination has dangerous consequences in terms of athletic injury, so I always make it a priority to address and, if needed, treat each of these bullet points when I see my female patients.
In addition to the female athlete triad, the “Q angle” plays a significant role in the predominance of ACL injuries and ankle sprains in females in comparison to males. The Q angle refers to lower limb alignment, and because of our flatter pelvises and wider hips, the angle from our hips to our knees and from our knees to our ankles is greater than the average Q angle in men. Greater Q angles equate to less stability in our lower limb joints, making us more susceptible to ankle and knee injuries. So what can we do to combat this risk factor and increase our strength and stability?
Tailor training and conditioning programs to build up the lower limb muscles involved. Crucially, you should target the hamstrings, the quads (in particular, the vastus medialus), and the muscles surrounding the outer ankles.
Additionally, males have an advantage when it comes to muscle hypertrophy because their bodies supply significantly more testosterone, which aids in muscle development, so instead of simply adopting the strength training programs your daughter’s school has in place for the male athletes, female athletes should practice low-impact strength training, focusing on less weight and more reps.
Also, when it comes to lifts like squats and lunges, female athletes should not go as deep as male athletes do. Male athletes are taught to squat till their knees are at a 90° angle. This is too deep for our knees—especially for young athletes whose muscles lack maturity. Instead, I’d recommend a 45-60° angle with less weight but more reps.
Finally, ankle rehab might sound like a PT program for after an injury occurs, but it can be just as beneficial for injury prevention! Ankle rehab, which involves a number of range of motion and ankle strengthening exercises, builds the muscles around the ankles to achieve greater stability, in turn, decreasing the risk for an ankle to roll or sprain.
For more information on strength training and injury prevention tips for female athletes, follow me on Twitter @MicheleSchulzMD.