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Do Women Need Special Training Plans?

BY Gale Bernhardt

The trend towards women-specific clothing and equipment continues to grow. Does this trend extend to training principles for women? Learn more from expert coach Gale Bernhardt.

With gender-specific equipment and clothing available, some triathletes and cyclists might wonder if women need special training plans? Should women’s plans be different than those designed for men? It’s a good question.

The bottom line is no- women don’t need women-only or female-specific training plans. The only time women should train less than, or differently than, men is if the goal event is shorter for women than it is for men. This can be the case for some cycling events. I have never known a triathlon or running event to schedule shorter races for women, than men.


In over 25 years of coaching endurance athletes, I’ve never designed a training plan in a special way because the athlete was a woman versus a man doing the same event. There are women that can handle more training volume and intensity than some men. The amount of training volume and intensity that an individual athlete can handle is not related to gender. It is more related to past athletic history, current fitness, individual athlete speed, cycling power, the ability of the athlete to recover, lifestyle demands and event distance or race goals – to name a few.

Selecting the Right Plan

When trying to find the right training plan for you, first consider your current level of fitness. For example, an athlete that is running twice per week for 30 minutes, not swimming at all and doing a couple of indoor cycling classes needs a different plan than an athlete that is currently swimming twice per week, cycling three times per week and running four days per week.

Many coaches offer an athlete profile for their training plans. Take a look at that description. Also look at the sample workouts for the training plan and the training volume for week one. In general, the volume of the first week of the plan should not be more than 20 percent of your current training volume.

The 20 percent rule isn’t cast in stone. For example, if you are currently doing nothing and you want to begin a fitness program, your first week of training will far exceed the 20 percent value.

Coming Off of a Layoff

If it has been awhile since you’ve done anything, begin with a plan that has low volume and intensity the first few weeks. For triathletes, this means around 30 to 45 minutes of swimming one to two days per week. Cycling volume is 30 to 60 minutes a couple of days per week. Running, or perhaps a run-walk combination, a couple of days per week. Running or run-walking can begin quite low, at around 10 minutes total workout time.

For those looking to a cycling goal, a good beginning point is to look at a plan that has you riding three days per week for 30 to 60 minutes each day that first week.

The main goal for these plans is to build fitness, while minimizing injury risk. Additionally, you want to select a plan that allows you to be consistent with training – a plan you are eager to complete.

Goal Events

Once you’ve established your current fitness level, the next thing to consider is the number of weeks between right now and your goal race or event – and the distance of your goal event. For some, the timing is perfect. For others, adjustments need to be made.

Whenever possible, select a training plan that has fewer weeks than the time to your goal event. For example, if your goal is 15 weeks out, I prefer people select a plan that is 12 weeks long rather than one that is 20 weeks long.

The reason is that TrainingPeaks premium subscription allows you to copy and move individual workouts or a week’s worth of workouts. For example, what you can do is copy the first three weeks of the training plan and cycle through them twice, giving yourself a 15-week plan.  

Before you set about manipulating workouts, print out a copy of the original plan. That way, if you mess up or somehow get lost in the copy, cut and paste process, you can see how the original plan was laid out.

Keep in mind it is best to have your plan cycle through two or three weeks of “work” and then include one week of recovery.

Getting Fast

I am proud to say that I know many fast female athletes. If you are currently fit and looking to be faster, select a training plan that includes more intensity. The intensity should be based on your individual training zones – power or heart rate. For getting faster, the plan may or may not include more volume than you are currently accustomed to.

If you want to change your fitness, you must change your training.


Few athletes will have the opportunity to train for endurance sports as a full-time activity. More than likely you have a job, family, friends, social obligations, a work commute and the list goes on. Select a training plan that is manageable for your current lifestyle. Do not plan to deprive yourself of sleep in order to train more hours.

Women, like men, need a training plan that takes them from where they are now to where they want to be. I have no doubt that with the right plan, you will reach your goals.

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About Gale Bernhardt

Gale Bernhardt has coached Olympic road racers, triathletes, World Cup mountain bike riders and Leadville 100 racers. Some want to go faster, some want to cross the finish line and others want endurance sport as a lifestyle. TrainingPeaks hosts many of Gale’s ready-to-use, easy-to-follow training plans for cycling and triathlon.

Visit Gale Bernhardt's Coach Profile