Why does an optimal training plan differ between men and women?

Dr. Laura Hottenrott & Prof. Dr. Kuno Hottenrott  




Scientific insights into training have long been derived from research results from studied male populations. Even though more women are now being included in scientific studies, there still exists a significant research gap, a so-called Gender Data Gap. Historically, women have experienced disadvantage in many sports, which has only been rectified sustainably in the last 20 years of the previous century. For instance, the women’s marathon was first included in the Olympic Games program in Los Angeles in 1984.


Physiological Differences between Women and Men
Physiological and anthropometric differences between women and men notably influence athletic performance. Compared to men, women generally have smaller stature, lower body weight, less muscle mass, smaller muscle fiber diameter, 10 to 20 times lower concentration of free testosterone, smaller hearts, greater lung diffusion capacity, lower blood volume, less hemoglobin mass, and thus reduced oxygen transport capacity and maximal oxygen uptake. Conversely, women have significantly higher intramuscular and subcutaneous fat stores than men. The resulting higher fat metabolism in women during endurance exercises has been confirmed in several studies. The higher fat oxidation rate entails lower carbohydrate metabolism, especially during long-distance runs. These mentioned differences between women and men have implications for training. For instance, in strength training, men need to train with higher loads compared to women due to their greater muscle mass to trigger a comparable training stimulus. This is well-known and practiced in the field. But what changes need to be made for running training? Can women train with the same relative heart rate (%HRmax) as men to achieve comparable training effects? In the first step, we want to address this question and then delve into other aspects such as performance and recovery behavior during high-intensity interval training (HIIT).


Women’s Hearts Beat Differently
Due to their smaller heart size, women have a higher resting heart rate and moderate endurance exercise heart rate compared to men. During maximum exertion in sports, women reach the same high heart rates as men of the same age, meaning maximum heart rate does not differ between women and men. However, there are gender differences in heart rate height when heart rate values are related to lactate concentration, as demonstrated by Hottenrott and Neumann (2012) in a study with well-trained same-aged female and male runners. The women and men included in the study underwent a field step test with lactate and heart rate determination as part of marathon preparation, 12 weeks apart. Significant gender differences were found at comparable lactate levels. Compared to male runners, female runners had a significantly higher heart rate at the same lactate concentration. The difference in heart rate averaged 10 beats/min at lactate 2 mmol/l and 7 beats/min at lactate 4 mmol/l. No gender difference was found in maximum heart rate. Consequently, female and male runners require different heart rate specifications, especially for the aerobic training zone. From these and other findings, the “Hottenrott Formula” (THF = HFmax x 0.70 x LFi x TZi x GFi x SPi) was developed. It serves for the individual determination of training heart rate (THF) for the three training zones (GA1, GA1-2, and GA2), considering age, performance and fitness level (LF), training goal (TZ), gender (GF), and sport (SP).


Differences in Performance and Recovery Behavior between Women and Men
Exciting results were found in our own randomized controlled laboratory study (Hottenrott et al., 2021), where we examined equally well-trained women and men during HIIT training on the ergometer. Significant differences between women and men were observed in repeat sprints regarding the decrease in performance from sprint to sprint. Women had a significantly lower performance loss. These differences were particularly evident with short active breaks (1 and 3 min) but also with longer breaks (10 min) between sprints. Significant differences were also found in the recovery course of heart rate, lactate, and subjective exertion.


Can Women Train Less than Men?
Women need to be less physically active to stay healthy, fit, or reduce their risk of mortality compared to men. This is the result of a brand new study that is currently making headlines, where over 400,000 individuals were surveyed about physical activity from 1997 to 2019 (Ji et al., 2024). However, this result from the health sector cannot simply be transferred to competitive sports. It does not mean that women can generally train less than men to achieve the same performance goal or the same target time; on the contrary, they need to train more for the same athletic performance of a man. This is solely due to the physiological differences mentioned earlier.


Tailored Training Plans for Women are Necessary!
Thus, training plans in sports and especially in endurance sports for women and men cannot be identical. For example, half marathon and marathon training plans with target time specifications (e.g., < 2:00 h or < 1:30 h and <4:00 h or < 3:00 h) must differ in many training parameters such as volume, intensity, interval breaks, recovery times, etc., both within individual training units and in the multi-week training cycle between women and men. In the daily support of elite athletes, this has been a matter of course for years, but it is surprising that this has not yet been taken into account in commercially available training plans or in marathon or half marathon training books. Even though much research has been done on cycle-based training in recent years and fundamental recommendations have been developed, these recommendations are still not reflected in the specific contents and design of individual training units between women and men. Therefore, we have developed training plans that incorporate the physiological peculiarities of women and scientific insights for the development of running performance.


Ji, H., Gulati, M., Huang, T. Y., Kwan, A. C., Ouyang, D., Ebinger, J. E., … & Cheng, S. (2024). Sex differences in association of physical activity with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 83(8), 783-793. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2023.12.019


Hottenrott, L., Möhle, M., Ide, A., Ketelhut, S., Stoll, O., & Hottenrott, K. (2021). Recovery from different high-intensity interval training protocols: comparing well-trained women and men. Sports, 9(3), 34. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports9030034


Hottenrott, K., Neumann, G. (2012) Geschlechtsspezifische Formel für optimale Trainingsherzfrequenzen. Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Sportmedizin und Sporttraumatologie. 60 (3), 202-205.