Male Versus Female Athletes, Part 2: Equipment and Apparel
In the first Male Versus Female Athletes blog post, I discussed nutrition and our varying caloric, vitamin and mineral needs for optimum health and performance. Men and women are not created equal (thank goodness, right?) and these differences not only affect our fueling needs, but also our selection of equipment, bikes, components and apparel. Endurance athletes, male or female, know the implications of sitting in an uncomfortable bike position for hours on end. We also know the grimacing pain of saddle sores or chafing when a jersey or shorts don't fit and rub the wrong way. It's hard enough work to be pushing our aerobic engines to the red line during training or racing. That pain is only compounded when we're not fitted with the proper equipment. Fortunately, athletic companies are catching on, especially as it pertains to female specific needs.
According to research provided by TIME Magazine, the buying power of women continues to grow in many sectors including consumer electronics, health care and online retail dollars. Women really do hold the purse strings in a majority of households and are influencing the way companies do business. This is increasingly evident in the world of cycling and endurance athletics.
For this segment, I reached out to experts, professional athletes and business owners who specialize in creating equipment and apparel specifically for women. All stress the importance of creating well-researched products that are functional, fashionable, and comfortable.
What Makes Us Different?
According to the women's cycling and product research conducted at Specialized, males and females are different in a lot of ways. “Women are not just small men and we don't approach product design that way,” stresses Specialized Women’s team product manager, Erin Sprague. “We start with scientific, medical and anatomical data for men and women, consider the ride experience and then build the frame from the ground up.” This is decidedly different than the “shrink it and pink it” mentality of designs in the past.
From an anatomical standpoint, women on average have:
Shorter height (average height for women is 5'4”, average height for men is 5'9”)
Lower weight (average weight for women is 150, average weight for men is 180)
Shorter reach (including torso length and wingspan)
Wider sit bones
Lower center of gravity
Lower ankle bones
Based on these differences, here are some factors that women should consider when shopping for cycling or triathlon equipment.
For different bikes, this can mean vastly different male and female frame designs especially as it pertains to optimizing the stack (vertical length from the bottom bracket to the top of the headtube), the reach (horizontal length from the bottom bracket to the center of the headtube), and the standover height. Even frame tubing size can vary based on the size of the frame. Typically, women’s specific frames will accommodate these differences with shorter reach, stack and standover design.
The goal with any bike purchase is to create the most ergonomic and comfortable riding experience. This not only applies to the frame design, but components and accessories as well. Because of the anatomical differences listed above, things like handlebar width, crank length, helmet style, shoes, gloves, and saddle preference also vary greatly between men and women. For instance, women tend to have wider sit bones then men. This means that there will be different pressure points on the saddle so a female specific design will have a slightly different hourglass shape and narrower nose for maximum comfort. Specialized Women’s shoes are designed with a lower collar height and narrower heel cup, and. And because women have different size hands on average, even gloves and grips are designed differently to protect the ulnar nerve.
The bottom line with bike and component purchases? Take your time and sample a wide variety of bikes and accessories. The above recommendations are averages, so it’s important to note that each individual body is different. Depending on your body, you may or may not be most comfortable on a women’s specific frame. Don't just walk in and pick the bike that looks the best on the rack. Bike shops will have sales associates and typically professional bike fitters who have been trained in the fine art of bicycle fit, and can do some high-level measurements in the store to make recommendations.
If you do opt for a full professional bike fit, it will be an extra charge, but one of the most important investments you can make in your comfort and safety A professional fitter will take your individual measurements to decide which bike will work best for you, and will help you try different handlebars, saddles, stems and other components to customize a bike to your body. Ask questions and make sure you feel good on the bike. With cycling, it's always better to feel good than to look good.
With apparel, however, feeling good and looking good are equally important, which is why there has been an uptick in women's specific performance apparel in recent years.
Kebby Holden, Founder and Designer of Coeur Sports, has made it her mission to make, “The best looking, best fitting, most functional and most comfortable clothing in the marketplace for female athletes.” She founded Coeur after years of training and racing in wildly uncomfortable clothes that were designed mostly for male athletes. “The women’s gear on the market was boring, chafed in all the wrong places and made me feel like it was the casing to my sausage,” she says. Coeur features apparel for triathlon, cycling, running and swimming that strives to be both fashionable and practical. What does this mean for differences in design? She explains, “I want you to have pockets in all the right places and in the right sizes...I want you to not have to worry about your tank riding up and exposing your stomach. I want you to have matching, cute kits that make you stand up that much straighter and stronger because you know you look your best...even while sweating up a storm.”
Feeling powerful, stylish and yet feminine are what also inspired professional triathlete Hillary Biscay and her business partner Michele Landry to start SMASH, another apparel company designed for female athletes. “ For years, we literally tried all different kinds of women's tri and cycling gear,” said Biscay. “ We finally decided to take the plunge and make what we wanted to see out there.” Needless to say, both companies are thrilled with the results and feedback they are receiving on their quality and designs. Clearly, there is a market for high-end female specific clothing and gear.
Even the designers for Specialized Women also design their apparel with both form and style in mind. They start working on men's and women's apparel the same way; building collections around rider needs such as endurance riding, training, all mountain, etc. After the designers create each style on paper, the pattern and prototype team then engineers and builds every piece of their women's collection from scratch. They base the collection around three fits: form fit, semi-form fit and relaxed fit so the rider can choose what cut fits and flatters her body the best. One of the most important connections to the bike is between the seat and the chamois, and they have engineered their women's chamois based around the knowledge and research of our body geometry system. If you compare Specialized men's and women's chamois side by side, you will see how anatomically different there are in regards to width, length and pad architecture. The women’s chamois is slightly wider on the bottom because of having wider sit bones. Also, extra material that is needed at the top of a chamois on a man is removed on a women’s chamois, removing material that would otherwise cause discomfort. To find out what style or design is best for you, read reviews, ask the sales professionals, and try on various styles. As with a bike fit, comfort is king.
What Do We Want In the End?
Men and women may be built differently, but we share many desires in our athletic pursuits. We all want power, speed and efficiency. We also want value. In general terms, we want the best possible experience during training and racing. How is this best achieved? By being comfortable and confident with how we're built, what we ride and what we wear. Fortunately, several companies have figured this out and are successfully designing products that recognize these differences and treat us as equal opportunity athletes.