Ask Stacy: How Does Recovery Differ Between Men and Women?

Our bodies do not respond to exercise in the same way—what should you be doing differently?

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I’ve spent many years researching the sex differences associated with training and performance—women are not small men, after all—and recovery is an area in which we see key differences between men and women. Before diving into that, let’s first look at what we mean by recovery.

When we discuss a recovery window it is specific to endurance activities (e.g. fuel depleting training) that are significant in their catabolic functions (that is, the activity breaks down the body). The recovery window is the time period it takes for the body to come back to its pre-exercise baseline, which is related to several factors including fuel utilization, intensity, and nutritional state (whether you were fueled or fasted) prior to exercise.

One of the little discussed issues in the sport nutrition space is sex differences. We know that women and men use a different proportion of carbohydrate, fat, and amino acids for fuel during the same relative intensity and duration of exercise. Women rely more on fat with less depletion of carbohydrate, whereas men have a heavier reliance on carbohydrate and and amino acids. We also know that it takes less time for women’s metabolism to return to pre-exercising conditions and that the hormonal responses in this recovery time are different: women have an increase in circulating glucose, insulin, and lactate, whereas men have an increase in growth hormone with a decrease in IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1, a hormone that helps promote bone and tissue growth and development). 

So what does this all mean in terms of recovery? It means men and women should approach their post-workout refueling slightly differently. For women, an emphasis on protein (25-30g) with carbohydrate (~60g) within 30-45 minutes post-exercise will enhance glycogen recovery and stimulate muscle protein synthesis. For men, an emphasis on protein (20g) within a 45-60 minute window will take advantage of the growth hormone spike and increase sensitivity for carbohydrate uptake over the course of the following 90-120 minutes. Small adjustments will maximize the acute recovery period for both sexes.

You can read more about building healthier recovery habits in this article by coach Matt Dixon, and sports nutritionist Scott Tindal gives some useful insights into building healthier nutrition habits.