Episode 113 - Female Athlete Series: Part 2: Coaching Female Athletes with Liz Blatchford

Female Athlete Series: Part 2: Coaching Female Athletes with Liz Blatchford

Welcoming the legendary Liz Blatchford back on the podcast for Part 2 of our Female Athlete Series! In this episode, she is sharing her immense knowledge and experience not only as an elite female athlete with a long and prosperous 18 year professional career but now also as a triathlon coach to women. If you haven’t yet, go back and listen to Part 1 - episode 107.

In this episode, we dive into:

  • Why do women need to train differently from men?
  • Practical strategies to listen to your body and adjust training if needed
  • How do you plan a program for a female athlete?
  • Considerations for training during different phases of the menstrual cycle and for those taking Oral Contraceptive
  • Coaching perimenopausal and menopausal women
  • Training differences of older vs. younger triathletes 
  • The importance of open communication with your coach
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Episode Transcription

Episode 113: Female Athlete Series: Part 2: Coaching Female Athletes with Liz Blatchford

Taryn Richardson  00:00

On today's episode, I'm back with the legendary Liz Blachford the amount of uproar I've gotten from the last episode that we did together for why didn't you keep talking to her, you cut that off way too early. We need to hear from Liz. So I've asked her to come back and this time she's joining me for part two of my female athlete series. And what I wanted to do is get some of her insight about coaching females. Now that she is transitioned to the coaching space but also her experience as a female professional triathlete for the majority of her life. She had a very long and prosperous triathlon career. She did 18 years of professional racing and has been doing triathlons since she was 13. She represented Australia and Great Britain in the Commonwealth Games, and then she debuted into long course, where she won her 70.3 debut, and Ironman and many more podiums. After that. She is now a mum of two and has turned to coaching with RPG coaching. It's great to have her back and I'm looking forward to hearing our conversation today.

Taryn Richardson  1:14

Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. The show designed to serve you up evidence-based sports nutrition advice from the experts. Hi, I'm your host Taryn, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Advanced Sports Dietitian and founder of Dietitian Approved. Listen as I break down the latest evidence to give you practical, easy-to-digest strategies to train hard, recover faster and perform at your best. You have so much potential, and I want to help you unlock that with the power of nutrition. Let's get into it.

Taryn Richardson  01:52

Welcome back to the podcast, Liz Blatchford.

Liz Blatchford  01:57

Hey Taryn, nice to be back.

Taryn Richardson  01:58

Our last episode together all about how much fuel you're having on the bike in an Ironman went off like people were so interested to hear how you did that. And I had so many calls for why didn't you keep talking to her and bring her back? Hurry up. So I'm glad to have you back the podcast today. Thanks for joining me.

Liz Blatchford  02:17

Thanks, Karen. Good to be back. Good to delve a little deeper.

Taryn Richardson  02:21

Everyone wants to hear more from Liz. So today we're gonna dive into a little bit about training and coaching. As a female athlete, I've started a little bit of a series around female athletes, it's just something that is exploding over the last probably three years, research is starting to happen that just hasn't happened for all eternity. And people are really interested in understanding female physiology and how we coach and train and do nutrition for female. So I'm looking forward to getting your perspective like one as a female athlete, ex-professional that has done triathlon for pretty much your entire life. And to now flipping that to coaching females through RPG coaching. I think you probably know more than you think, you know, but some really good practical things that we can talk about just about how we do training females.

Liz Blatchford  03:13

Yeah, thanks, Taryn. Yeah, I think it's really, it's excellent that the attention is turning towards female athletes, it's needed. It's a bit late, but never too late. I know, having been involved in elite sport for a long time, the early days of my career, there was very little discussion on many light female factors. And I did see that start to change towards the end of my racing career. But as you say, these last few years, more research studies, and there needs to be much, much more, but long last, the attention is turning where it needs to be.

Taryn Richardson  03:44

It's really crazy. I've been doing lots of reading around the female athlete over the last couple of years. And do you know this, the history of sport was when men were starting to get weak, because there was no wars or something like that. And so, as countries, they got men into sport so that they could be fit and robust if something did happen. Well, I did not know that. So that yeah, they weren't like weaklings, and then, you know, females weren't even allowed to exercise not that long ago, like 100 - 150 years ago, which is just crazy. Like, tell me I can't do something and I want to do something more. Right?

Liz Blatchford  04:17

Yeah, absolutely. That's pretty nuts. It did not know that factor. Very interesting.

Taryn Richardson  04:22

Yeah, there's so much stuff. So if you haven't listened to part one of my new female athlete series, go back and listen to that. I talked about what we kind of know about the difference physiologically of males versus females. I think it was episode 107. It's about six back from that. So go back and listen to that first, before diving into today's episode with Liz but I really wanted you to share some of your insights about your career as a female because you would have seen some of this evolve as well over time and have been through a number of coaches. Did any of them treat you differently as a female athlete or did you kind of just get thrown into the same sort of programming is a male. 

Liz Blatchford  05:01

Look, I think I had some great coaches. And there's probably an element that a lot of them were aware of female factors and potentially a good coach, they don't always tell you every aspect of what they're applying to your training. So I know some coaches and even within like the English Institute of Sport and that side of things, they were definitely considering female factors within our training. But it was probably an after thought. And that's not a reflection of these people. It's probably a reflection of the era and the lack of research to inform a practice. So I would say that there was practitioners, doctors along the way that were well informed, and in my sort of interactions with them did end up changing things and impacting the way I trained, and the way I ate and things like that and paid attention to my cycle and what should and shouldn't be happening and how it can affect me as a female and my performance as well. So there was some coaches, some practitioners along the journey that were definitely aware and definitely took steps, but probably not enough. And yeah, look, I think some of those impacted me and I had injuries and things like that, that potentially could have been avoided, had it been better educated or just made it a priority.

Liz Blatchford  06:16

So like anything in life, you learn probably more from your mistakes than your successes. So I have, you know, that knowledge now from some of the mistakes I made throughout my own career, things like energy availability, and how it can affect your periods, and then your bone density and all of that sort of side of things. And then again, when I went through pregnancy and breastfeeding, and getting back into training after that, and the mistakes that I made there, you know, I definitely learned some hard lessons at the time. But yeah, things that have made me learn and evolve as a coach and as an athlete at the time.

Taryn Richardson  06:51

Yeah, hindsight is a beautiful thing. There's no way that you can dwell on that and think, you know, I could have done this differently, because we just don't know and we still don't know. Like, I guess, knowing what you do know now and coaching females, too. Is there anything that you would have changed for yourself back then? 

Liz Blatchford  07:05

Look, I think there's long been history of being very lean, very light, especially in short course racing. And I think there was a few years where I definitely was on that edge, you know, and I know it affected things. And I've got bone density tests to prove that. So, you know, they affected me at the time with stress fractures and they may continue to affect me later in life. So maybe, I don't like to say I have regrets but yeah, I hope I don't regret it too much later on in life. And if I could go back and again there would be some factors I would change there. And then, as I said, coming out of post birth, and how I got back into my training at that point. And even though I thought I was doing reduced load, either not having the information or maybe being too stubborn you

Taryn Richardson  07:49

Probably the latter

Liz Blatchford  07:52

An aspect of that, just about the intensity of training and energy availability, with breastfeeding, and all of those factors. So yeah, I wouldn't say regrets, but things that you have potentially could have done a little better, so that...

Taryn Richardson  08:04

It's so hard to know. And like your mind is there, because you're an elite athlete, you've got this high performance mindset. So you're like, I can just slot straight back into this stuff. But then we kind of forget how huge and impact being pregnant and then the demands of breastfeeding is on our body when it just seems so simple and so natural, because your requirements actually higher breastfeeding than they are in the third trimester when you're growing this foreign thing in your body.

Liz Blatchford  08:28

Yeah, absolutely. And then, if you go and try to train for an Ironman, on top of it, it's pretty unsustainable or things just need to be done differently. And I think now, as a coach, if I'm going to coach someone through that experience, I'm going to be really aware of it, I'm going to be like proactive about it. Whereas I didn't actually have anyone in my corner at that point. And I was more self coached, I had a bit of a mentor. But that's something that I can take into my coaching now. Having that journey and paid more attention, read more, learn more about it.

Taryn Richardson  09:02

Yeah. So what are some of the things that you are going to take into coaching females now? Like, have you got any key principles or things that you'd like to do with a female athlete to set them up for success?

Liz Blatchford  09:12

Look, I think, sort of those underlying principles around the menstrual cycle, and you know, how it affects us physically. They're great to know and to have as an underlying basis. But you know, we talk about research quite often and not being done on specific groups. And although there has been some research, albeit limited on the menstrual cycle and how it affects performance in training, not a lot of it's done probably on athletes that train to the level the people I'm coaching are doing. You know, like, even if they're an age grouper and they say they're slow, they're still way up in that top percentile of some of the fittest people on the planet. And a lot of the studies that will have been done on, you know, women that recreationally exercise.

Liz Blatchford  09:54

So I think there's an element of having that underlying knowledge and basis but then just really personalising it and getting to know my own athletes, how their cycle affects them. And every woman you'll talk to is different in their own menstrual cycle and how they feel on different days of their period. And there'll be some women that sail through it and potentially don't fluctuate too much. And there's other women that can't get out of their own way on day one, or the few premenstrual days. But then there's also the upswing of life, you know, those amazing weeks when you can push harder, and you can get more out of yourself. So I think just A, having that underlying kind of knowledge, but also making it personal and learning about my own athletes. Yeah, I think that's the way I'm functioning at the moment incorporating both aspects. 

Taryn Richardson  10:42

I think that's really important. Make sure a good coach, a good practitioner is looking at the person in front of you, and then applying what we do know, to date to their situation, because there's no point trying to shove a circle into a square hole, we have to actually apply it to that person, how they're feeling and their life stage as well. And one of the things that I love about you is that you didn't have all this data that we have available to us today for training. So you're actually really good at listening to your body and training on feel, and maybe pulling back when you need to, sometimes not. But sometimes, yes, I think that's a really good skill that you can take to coaching females too is saying, hang stop for a second, like, you don't need this watch to tell you that you're under recovered, like listen to your body because that's one of the key things that we want to do with nutrition in particular is catched up quickly, not put yourself into a massive hole and then go, ah, shit, I should have done something differently, like two weeks ago.

Liz Blatchford  11:39

Yeah, of course, and, you know, similar can be applied for female factors, you know, just being proactive preemptive. If you know that around your period, you don't feel good, or whatever, just planning, training, planning nutrition, planning whatever it is in your life to, you know, not set yourself up for failure. Yeah, and just there. Obviously, in any given day, any given training session, any given training program, there's so many factors, right? And I think just the female side of it adds another layer but just being aware of those can help you understand that potentially why you don't feel 100% today, but then also, you know, as I mentioned, the flip side of it, like when you can push, oh, you know, when would be a great time to load certain aspects of your training and whatnot.

Taryn Richardson  12:22

Do you have any strategies that you get your female athletes to do to listen to their body and to feel those sorts of things and like your feedback loop to understand how they're feeling versus what training they need to do, or it's planned, and then how to adapt it and adjust it for them. 

Liz Blatchford  12:38

So it's, it's pretty natural, I wouldn't say it's anything too high tickets. First of all, it's just initiating those conversations. And also, what I found is like different women, more or less receptive to it, and some people like, like to fully delve into their, you know, how their cycle effects things, and other people are less interested. And as a coach, you're probably a psychologist, and it's your job also to respect those boundaries. So, you know, just asking those questions quite simply asking, and then plotting your period into your training peaks, if that's what we use, and just knowing when you're going to expect to have your period and things like that. And I can just gently try and make training work with the period, as opposed to against it, you know, the menstrual cycle side of it's just one aspect, I think there's other things to consider, like, even where people are on their hormonal journey, like, you know, I'm coaching athletes that are no longer menstruating. So what that means for them and their bodies as well. So probably no strict process, it's just a matter of putting it in their notes, feedback questions, learning more and more about the athlete and trial and error. Like, I'm not gonna say to every athlete not to do intense training throughout their bleeding days, some people can handle it, and will handle it. And it's just quite personal. But it's about learning that athlete and then taking into account those female factors at the same time.

Taryn Richardson  13:56

Yeah, everyone's really different. There's a textbook 28 Day menstrual cycle, and I don't know any female, textbook 28 Day menstrual cycle. So first step is actually understanding what's going on for you and then trying to track how you feel and perform in training and some nights might be totally different to others. Same as nutrition, people have weird cravings, I find. And they, like people know specifically what day of their cycle they just want to eat a block of chocolate and you know. You can lean into that a little bit, but maybe don't smash the whole block but me. 

Liz Blatchford  14:29

Yeah, I know. And as I said, don't give yourself an excuse to potentially if you're, you know, you're on a diet plan, don't lean into the, "I need more calories, I'll need these on my cycle". Also lean into them somewhat, you know.

Taryn Richardson  14:41

Don't deprive yourself, but also like have a bit of balance to that whole mentality. I don't know if this is a stat. This is like pulling deep from my memory. But I think there's days where your calorie intake, like your requirements do spike a little bit and it's the equivalent of about an apple when I read it, I dive deep into research and make sense of it practically at the time and then I forget the details. And all I remember was thinking it's about the equivalent of an apple. So it's not a whole block of chocolate ladies.

Liz Blatchford  15:08

I do actually, I remember reading that too. And then I was thinking, Oh, wow, like, we've been more than that on a 30 minute run. So then training kind of plays into a bigger effect than those hormonal factors. So taking on this information, but like you say, applying it practically.

Taryn Richardson  15:23

There's a lot of women listening that are in that phase of life where they're pre-menopausal, and their hormones are just gone roller coaster, post that as well, like menopause is anything in particular that you would do for women in that phase, or anything that you found works for them. 

Liz Blatchford  15:38

Oh, and I'm still learning as well in this space. But just that strength element, as we get older, I think becomes more and more important, especially like if these people have been lifetime athletes, they've got this incredible endurance base, potentially don't need as much Zone 2 training, but just really being aware of a big strength component of their training plans. That's probably specific to males, too. If if I'm honest, as you get older, that strength component, but yeah, that's one thing I apply to my athletes in Peri and post menopause.

Taryn Richardson  16:09

Is it different to younger athletes? Like do you plan reps differently? Or sessions differently compared to younger athletes? 

Liz Blatchford  16:16

Yeah, absolutely. Just even the strength element of their entire triathlon program is like a larger, more important component versus younger athletes. It's more of a maintenance, a sort of injury prevention, that sort of focus in strength training. And yeah, like, I can reflect on that, like, I remember in my 20s, being able to do, like ridiculous run miles off very, very minimal core training and strength training. And then just yeah, as you get older, you know that muscle retention and muscle building ability becomes more tricky. So yeah, we do need to pay attention to that and incorporate that into the training.

Taryn Richardson  16:54

We also get protein resistance as we get older, too. So as we're getting into the more mature years of our life, making sure that we do prioritize protein, I know that's quite a loud message in the female space at the moment, which I think is really good. Because I know a lot of females don't get enough protein just in life, we need to be really mindful of that, as we get older that we do need a bit more to get the same bang for buck as when we were younger. And then timing for that is really important around those strengths session. So I'm actually going to dive into that in a whole another episode. All about female athlete nutrition, like where we're at now. So I won't get you to talk about that less.

Liz Blatchford  17:32

But I love to listen to you talk about it.

Taryn Richardson  17:35

The more I learned, the more I realized we just don't know, to be honest, it's a little bit scary. But it's good to have people like you out there that are you know, flying the flag for females, but also have that experience to to draw from so that we're doing things better for us.

Liz Blatchford  17:49

Yeah, absolutely. And also just normalizing it, talking about it, it's okay to talk about it. It's great to talk about it, it's going to bring the best out of females, and it's going to lead to healthier and happier lives as well. So yeah, just setting normalizing and sharing the knowledge etc. is the way forward

Taryn Richardson  18:04

Amen, amen. What do you do differently for an athlete that might be on like an oral contraceptive pill or something like that? They don't have that beautiful flow of hormones in the month, it's they're much more stable, almost like a male. But is there anything you would do differently from a coaching perspective for athletes like that?

Liz Blatchford  18:23

It's good to have those open conversations about contraception. And like, I'm no practitioner, I'm no doctor, but just to maybe encourage them to have those conversations with like a women's health specialists or doctor about how that might help them. And you know, whether it's control heavy bleeds to regulate hormones, or whatnot, like I'm not going to push them on one way or another. I'm going and I think a beautiful thing is to harness and work with our cycle, but it's just kind of not happening and you feel like you're constantly fighting this hormonal fluctuation and, and contraception helps with that, then that's a definitely a conversation that I've had with athletes. And then yeah, like just also paying attention to what that does change in them. And yeah, obviously, they're not having those monthly fluctuations. And they, I guess it eliminates some of those female factors. But ultimately, like we're still females, and there's other female factors that aren't just controlled by our hormones changing each month. So potentially those hormonal fluctuations and how it might affect how you feeling, training, what you're able to put out and like we talked about some calorie requirements, they might be minimized, but just realizing that that it does kind of evened out those hormones throughout the month.

Taryn Richardson  19:39

It's a hard one, isn't it? Because we don't really know. And I think it's important to have that conversation like you said with your coach and have an open dialogue so that you've got a feedback loop constantly, like I feel shit today. So how do you adjust that? And then I'm feeling really good today, like how do we adjust that? 

Liz Blatchford  19:55

Yeah, and look and then like other factors, like if heavy bleeding is gonna affect iron and, you know, potentially lead to being anemic and that sort of thing like if that in itself is going to affect performance and health. That's where oral contraceptive can help with some of those factors. But yeah, like even, like looking at the studies about oral contraceptive, how it affects performance and that sort of thing, like, so inconclusive, so hard to kind of draw anything from it yet, there's probably been like some kind of indications from studies in the past, that's really put people off using it. So yeah, once again, taking any of the research with a grain of salt, personalising it coming back to what suits an individual. 

Taryn Richardson  20:35

Yeah, that's a pretty good summary of like everything female athlete right now.

Taryn Richardson  20:35

Yeah, for sure. And like you say, not wanting to ruffle any feathers and not wanting to tell the like the real scientists how to do their job, but like how much a woman will fluctuate in her hormones throughout a cycle. And just being able to test those hormones, you know, a lot more regularly and to see how it's actually affecting and changing things. That I don't think there's really been any studies that would do that, that would track it in that much depth. And that's kind of what we need if we actually want to draw any conclusions from the research. So yeah. 

Liz Blatchford  20:40

Yeah, exactly.

Taryn Richardson  20:41

Because we don't actually know a lot of the research that's being pulled around female athletes, comes from males, or actually comes from rodents, or comes from a completely different population that's not athlete specific. So we need just need to be mindful of that I don't want to like ruffle any feathers. It's pretty noisy people in this space, but we just don't know. And we're not going to know for a little bit of time. So that's why I love like having these practical conversations, because it's about listening to your athlete, talking to your coach and doing what's best for you, rather than trying to blanketly fit into something that we just don't really know about yet.

Taryn Richardson  21:47

It's a hard one, because females are so hard to study, which is why they've kind of been avoided, but also historically, research was in males. So that was one of the other things I was reading is because people wanted to study like the fittest people on the planet to get good data, they were actually looking to athletes, and that was happening at the time where females weren't allowed to exercise. So that's kind of historically where researchers evolve to, it's just amazing when you start to actually dive into why we do the things that it all came from so long ago that thankfully, that paradigm is shifting, thankfully. But you know, it feels late. But I guess the next generation is going to benefit from everything that we're doing right now. 

Liz Blatchford  22:28

Yeah, absolutely. And I just think it's going to be an ever evolving space and never assuming like that, that basic knowledge is there, you know, potentially some of the basic knowledge that people are taught about nutrition or just about training, adaptation and whatnot like that basic knowledge about female athletes and their hormones and energy availability. Like, it might seem basic to like maybe you and I, Taryn, but there's plenty of people that are completely unaware of that. So yeah, just really having those conversations and keep having them and sharing that knowledge.

Taryn Richardson  22:57

So good. So if people do want to get coached by the Great Liz Blatchford, how do they go about working with you?

Liz Blatchford  23:08

So yeah, through RPG website, there's an intake form. Yeah, working with RPG for a year and a half. Now I really enjoy that community. But yeah, that's how you contact me. 

Taryn Richardson  23:24

I'll drop that link in the show notes. Do you think females should be coached by females and males should be coached by males? Do you think that's where we're heading? Or do you think we just need to educate males better about how to manage and coach the female form?

Liz Blatchford  23:39

Oh, definitely don't think it needs to be segregated like that. I think as we talked about, education is key. You know, like, there's plenty of barriers to women getting into sport both as athletes and as coaches. But it needs to be a knowledge base that everyone has, it needs to be shared, because any female athletes journey, they might have a female coach, but there's other people within their journey that are not going to be female, and it just needs to be common knowledge and openly talked about. So yeah, it does not need to be specific. And I think as I mentioned before, just the normalizing it, there's probably male coaches and males within sport that have been uncomfortable to talk about this, but anyone's uncomfortable talking about a new topic that doesn't relate to them initially, but the more you do it, the more you learn that relationship between athlete and coach and nothing's taboo, it's female athlete health and performance so it shouldn't be ignored and everyone needs to know about it.

Taryn Richardson  24:36

Yeah, I agree. Find somebody you're comfortable with talking about menstrual cycle. Same as I have to talk to dudes about sex drive, energy availability, like the more you do it, the more it becomes natural. 

Taryn Richardson  24:47

Yeah, maybe the first time you like had a nervous giggle, Taryn.

Taryn Richardson  24:49

I still have a nervous giggle talking about sex. You know, it's important conversation to have because it is a piece of the puzzle and yeah, it's just about creating that open dialogue like who We've said a number of times today, Liz. Awesome. Oh, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast and oh, there's going to be allowed rod to be like, Why didn't you keep this conversation going, but we both have to do kindy pick up again. And I honestly could talk to Liz forever. She's got so much knowledge in that brain of hers. Maybe we'll just get you back again to talk about something else in a few months time.

Liz Blatchford  25:20

Likewise, Taryn love talking to you like picking your brain. We chat as much offline as we do on so love being here and thank you for having me.

Taryn Richardson  25:28

You're welcome. Thanks, Liz.

Liz Blatchford 25:29

See you.

Taryn Richardson  25:30

Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions or want to share with me what you've learned, email me at [email protected]. You can also spread the word by leaving me a review and taking a screenshot of you listening to the show. Don't forget to tag me on social media, @dietitian.approved, so I can give you a shout out, too. If you want to learn more about what we do, head to dietitianapproved.com. And if you want to learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program, head to dietitianapproved.com/academy. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to helping you smashed in the fourth leg - nutrition! 

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