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Women Are Not Small Men: The Self-Defense Edition

women playing sports
Women are strong, fast, fierce and capable, on the field and off. Its time to take it to the next level by working WITH our physiology, not against it.

Part One: The Problem - I thought I wasn’t training hard enough….

Things started crashing in April, 2019. I was 48 years old and in the best shape of my life. I was training hard 4-5 days a week. From a routine EKG, fully aware that my family has a history of heart issues, my doctor told me I had the heart of a 20-year-old. At the gym I was outperforming many folks half my age. I couldn’t have been happier.

Then I got greedy. The faster I got, the faster I wanted to go. The stronger I got, the stronger I wanted to be. Push, push, push.

With decades of training in various martial arts disciplines, over the last few years I have focused on judo. Hours of throwing and being thrown to the ground made me happy. Only until I got home and into the next day would I find those workouts catching up to me. Athletic the night before, stiff and achy the next day, I’d find myself pressing my hands to my thighs just to stand up. I made sure to eat well — lots of veggies, lean meats and a treat of two small pieces of chocolate before bed.

women master athlete
This was taken right after a race and when I was feeling on top of the world. Little did I know I was fueling all wrong, not training for my physiology and headed for a crash.

My focus in judo was skill development while I attended Performance Training (PT) classes to focus on fitness and performance-related goals. The more I trained, the weaker, slower and fatter I got. Prepping for a judo tournament only exacerbated these problems. I wanted to cut weight and train hard, but I got nowhere.

I did the judo tournament in April — competing against and beating women 20+ years younger than me. Then I came home. My body crashed. I thought the answer was to cut back on judo and increase my PT and cardio, but I couldn’t pull myself out of that hole.

Around this time other areas of my life were competing for my attention. My husband had been recently diagnosed with epilepsy. Seizures were a traumatic event that knocked him out physically and me out emotionally, sometimes for days. My day job was going well, but managing a team tackling some big projects was demanding. Plus, my own business was taking off, getting lots of attention from the media and new customers.

Through it all, as I did during other trying periods, I worked out to release the stress and stay grounded. Now that was failing me, too, and I felt helpless.

Part Two: The Solution - Learning that "women are not small men"

Sometime during the chaos, the book ROAR came across my radar. Written by Dr. Stacy Sims, Senior Research Scientist at the University of Waikato, the book focuses on nutrition and performance for the female athlete. Dr. Sims is an applied researcher in human performance, specifically sex differences in training, nutrition and environmental conditions. While at Stanford from 2007-2012, she served as an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist where she specialized in sex differences of environmental and nutritional considerations for recovery and performance.

The lens of Sims’ research is a true paradigm shift. With her tagline “Women are not small men,” she is on a mission to equip women with the resources they need to fuel their endeavors and get stronger. For a taste of her work, check out her TED talk.

Reading, then re-reading ROAR, I went on to consume anything I could find that she had written. In fact, I recently completed her Women are Not Small Men online certification course.

Diving into Sims’ work, I quickly came to understand how most of the “knowledge” women have for nutrition and training is generalized from studies on men. The few studies that do include women don’t adequately account for a woman’s monthly hormone cycle. Further still, scant studies look at peri, menopausal and post-menopausal women who are physically active. Most studies of this group are of sedentary and often clinically obese women. So, all this boils down to is that women are following guidelines generalized for men.

Women have no real insight into what is really best for women.

dear mother nature drop dead
This image from a 1970's era Kotex ad reflected the culture at that time. Growing up during this time I came to view "mother nature" as an obstacle in the way of all the fun stuff I wanted to do.

Sims’ approach was a revelation for me as a GenX-er. I had spent years in the gym, defiant and determined to train as hard as any man. Losing my period was a point of pride and a sign of how hard I was working.

Going through Sims’ course, which is loosely organized around the lifelong, chronological path of a woman’s hormonal cycle, forced me to look back over my training experiences and see the short- and long-term price I paid for trying to train like a man.

Part Three:

Women are not small men: The parallels to self-defense

In addition to my own performance goals and challenges, the mantra “Women are not small men” resonated with me as a self-defense instructor. The field of self-defense is currently under-going a renaissance. Its leaders are acknowledging that the personal safety goals of women are not always reflected in what is becoming “traditional self-defense,” where the majority of the problems presented in class are ones where the solution is a punch to the face or a knee to the groin.

Let me be perfectly clear here: competence in physical self-defense is an essential component of self-defense. But competence is just that, a component. Trainers must understand the various levels of threats women contend with . As detailed in “Understanding How Women Travel”, types of common day-to-day threats and levels of exposure due to their roles in family, society and as a result of pay inequality are complex. Focusing exclusively on the physical without looking at the broader context of a woman’s life renders any self-defense training incomplete.

We face long-term consequences when we do not consider a woman’s unique biology and, instead, treat it as an aberration. As a self-defense instructor I have worked with a heart-breaking number of women who think that they are weak, and inherently incapable of defending themselves. I assumed this was connected to social conditioning, but Sims’ chapter on puberty shed biological light here.

In her research, she highlighted the physiological reasons of why during puberty girls start to feel uncomfortable in their bodies, are at a greater risk of injury and may start to back off from physical activity. While they once were on equal footing with little boys, girls struggled during puberty. One example is that with widening hips re-structuring their knee alignment, basic things girls once found effortless became a challenge, while the boys exploded in strength and speed.

differences in male and female bone structure
Physiological changes during puberty mean that girls hips start to widen. This changes the alignment of their knee structure requiring them to re-learn movements they once did effortlessly.

The key takeaway here is that this biological transition is temporary. Psychological effects, on the other hand, can leave a permanent belief of “I’m clumsy,” “I’m not athletic” or an overall “I can’t” when it comes to physical activity. It’s important for those of us who work with girls at this age in any physical activity to use drills and protocols to re-teach girls functional movement – how to run, how to jump, how to land, simply how to move as they move forward with their evolving new body structure. The goal is to get girls through this transition and onto the other side as powerful, confident women.

At the other end of the spectrum are those of us well beyond puberty. Our physiology, too, still dominates performance. A huge personal takeaway for me was understanding Low Energy Availability (LEA), a condition where nutrition is not keeping up with the demands of a heavy training schedule.

Protein was key for me here. I had been using generalized guidelines for protein intake and I was finding myself constantly exhausted and never fully recovering from my workouts. Through Sims’ research I found that as a woman in peri-menopause I don’t process protein as my younger self once did. So amount (40g post workout – twice what is recommend for men and younger women!), timing (thirty minutes after a hard workout and just before bed) and type (casein is my new best friend). For my age and activity level, I was waaay under in protein because I was following generalized guidelines for women — that are done on men — regarding how women like me should be fueling. And, I was paying the price not only in my performance but in my day-to-day energy levels.

A high-profile example of this is runner Mary Cain’s experience on Nike’s running team. Cain joined the team as a successful elite runner and left the team physically and spiritually broken after being subjected to generalized nutrition guidelines while training at top levels. Now, I’m not — as most of us are not — training at Cain’s level, but we can learn important lessons here.

A parallel in the self-defense world comes from Tammy Yard-McCracken during training for Krav Maga instructor certification. Listening to her tell the story on “Born to Be a Badass” podcast, I found myself shouting, “Yes! Yes! I so get this!” and nodding my head agreement. To meet the demands of her goals, in addition to skills training, McCracken found herself in the weight room, pushing herself in unsustainable ways. For instructors, high standards are an excellent goal, but the whole experience left McCracken realizing that the average woman wasn’t going to spend her life in the weight room just to be safer — nor should she have to.

To excel in our physical goals, it’s time we stop treating women like small men.

Yes, we are absolutely capable of physically defending ourselves. Women can be and are strong, fast, ruthless and savage. When we don’t recognize our differences, we leave a lot of skills out and we leave a lot of people behind.

My own experience has taught me that our bodies have limits, whether we like it or not. Whether you are training for fun, competition or self-defense, this means the answers to challenges must be holistic and consider the full context of a person's life. So before you become a casualty of the train-and-hurt cycle, pick up Sims’ book, ROAR. Gain the real insights you need to work with your physiology, sustain your body and greater productivity from your workouts. And then start to imagine how the “women are not small men” revolution can support women in self-defense and beyond.

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