Nutrition Challenges of the Female endurance athlete
Being a female athlete comes with its perks –toned and strong bodies, being able to outrun the average guy and getting a chance to stop for plenty of coffees. However, we are also very good at pushing ourselves beyond limits, striving to get the most from our bodies. It is this drive to succeed in everything we do that often creates some added challenges that female athletes face when training for an endurance event.
These challenges can vary, however many can lead to missing out on optimal fuelling which can compromise gains in endurance, strength and speed. Not only this, but both our short- and long-term health can be negatively affected. For many, the primary reason is the difficulty in eating well with the tight time constraints that accompany the work-family-life-training ‘balance’. To add to these pressures, endurance sport encourages us to be lean and a certain body composition to maximise our performance. When these challenges are combined with the media bombardment of diet crazes such as sugar free, paleo, low carb, clean eating, gluten free, sugar free, dairy free or low fat, it is no wonder we find attaining an optimal nutrition intake confusing and very challenging.
Here is the good part – it doesn’t need to be complicated and you CAN balance intake with all other time commitments you have on a daily basis. Eating well can be done on almost any budget and with the tightest of time schedules. There are just some key principles to keep in mind when getting the balance right between food intake and training requirements.
Poor Energy Availability
This is first on the list for a very good reason – it is a common issue in many female endurance athletes. Recently renamed ‘Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport’ (or RED-S), the syndrome encompasses not only what was previously known as the Female Athlete Triad, but also recognises the complexity of symptoms that are related to an imbalance between dietary intake and energy expenditure (Food vs. Training). Energy availability is the term used to explain the amount of dietary energy remaining after all your metabolic processes and needs for exercise training have been accounted for. Athletes may be in a state of low energy availability due to a number of factors, whether this be intentionally (to achieve a specific body composition for performance), inadvertently (not adjusting intake to match increase needs from activity increases) or compulsively (due to disordered eating patterns).
If energy availability is consistently restricted – both acutely (to make racing weight) or chronically – we may not have enough energy to cover the costs of our training, daily living and metabolic demands. This can impact your metabolic rate, bone health, immune function and also the wellbeing of your heart and mental health. Some of the signs and symptoms to be aware of and to follow-up with your medical professional include:
- Amenorrhoea (cessation of menstruation for more than 3 months); and/or
- Delayed menarche in young active females (absence of your first menstruation by age 16); and/or
- Disordered eating patterns that may include overly restricting intake such as skipping meals or using unsafe weight loss methods; and/or
- Poor bone health with a below normal Bone Mineral Density (BMD); and/or
- Depressed mood or irritability; and/or
- Susceptibility to ongoing illness.
To optimise health and maximise gains in performance, it is important to balance energy availability in your dietary intake to cope with the added energy costs of training and daily living. This is best done in consultation with an Accredited Sports Dietitian and will focus on prioritising fuelling around sessions, increasing total energy intake and optimising the spread of nutrients over the day.
As an active female, your nutrient needs tend to be similar to the more sedentary population. However, increased activity does influence the amount of some nutrients needed by female athletes. In general, active females will need more energy and fluid than non-athletic females, along with being more vigilant with vitamin and mineral intake. Fortunately, most of these nutrients are reached without any adjustments required if choosing a balanced diet and increased energy needs are met. However, some key nutrients may require special attention:
Calcium: Calcium is required for the normal maintenance and development of bone and teeth. Therefore, requirements during periods of growth (e.g. childhood, adolescence and pregnancy) and higher training loads (due to additional losses) are increased. It is recommended that adolescent females consume 1000-1300mg of calcium per day, while adult females consume 1000mg. In females with amenorrhoea, due to the effect of this on bone mass, it is recommended that intake is increased to 1300-1500mg per day. The best source of calcium is gained from dairy, so if for any reason you include minimal or no dairy in your daily intake, it is important to choose calcium fortified products where possible.
Iron: Iron is not required at increased levels for the female athlete, however can often be limited in the daily dietary habits of women and can be depleted in athletes due to higher iron turnover. As iron is involved in energy production and plays a key role in training capacity and health status, optimising iron levels should be prioritised for both health and performance. Iron is found in a range of foods, with red meat (beef, lamb, veal) having a higher content than chicken or seafood. It is possible to meet iron needs with non-meat sources; however absorption is less efficient and therefore total iron intakes need to be increased to ensure levels are optimised.
Body Composition Goals
Endurance sports often also means entering into discussions that relate to body fat percentages and power-to-weight ratios. All of this can lead us to think that leaner must equal better in terms of performance, however this isn’t always the case and it’s often a fine line in finding the balance in achieving a body composition which gives you the maximum performance and also the best in health. When considering weight loss, it’s important that you have thought about your motivations to do so and to keep in mind the genetic and environmental (Energy intake, training, appetite, social and growth stages) factors that influence your ability to achieve your ideal body composition. By considering these factors, you’ll be able to recognise that goals or practices that are recommended by your peers may not necessarily be right for you. Instead, make goals that fit in with your lifestyle, time commitments that are realistic and achievable.
Reducing body fat too much can lead to the issues explained in the energy availability section, while also impairing your immune function and risking poor recovery and reduced energy levels. Everyone’s key ‘racing weight’ and body fat levels are different, so find a level where you personally feel at your best in terms of performance and energy levels.
Fuelling during training
Fuelling your training sessions is not only useful in making sure you make it home without bonking, but also offers further advantages in ‘training the gut’ and enhancing your immune system. Endurance athletes can often be guilty of trying to minimise intake during sessions so that we can either eat more later in the day or assist in weight loss. Unfortunately, this does not always work out so well – with issues of ‘hitting the wall’, illness and post workout overeating often occurring.
In events or sessions lasting over 60-90mins, carbohydrate intake should be considered. This helps to refuel your depleted muscle stores and assists in maintaining higher exercise intensity. However, many only follow this intake guide when racing and do not take the time in training to practice this intake. The gut is known to be very trainable to cope with carbohydrate intake during events and training, however to achieve optimal absorption and tolerance, it is important to train the gut during training sessions. This assists in lowering the risk of gut discomfort but can also improve performance on race day.
Intake of carbohydrates during important or endurance focused sessions can also allow you to maintain a higher intensity throughout the session. This not only leads to avoiding the dreaded ‘bonk’ but also helps get maximum quality from the session. With this said, there are times that it may be beneficial to ‘train low’ with minimal carbohydrate availability, however these sessions should be carefully planned with your coach and a Sports Dietitian to ensure you are getting maximum benefits.
Therefore, if aiming to lose weight, first prioritise fuel before, during and after your training sessions and then work on gradually reducing energy intake from other meals and snacks over the day. Instead of thinking about training so you can eat, consider food as the fuel to help you live well and perform at your best.
Food Beliefs and Food Fear
There are some real positives of living in an environment that has such diverse and freely accessible information on the internet and through social media. However, with this information comes some risks and unfortunately athletes are open to as much (if not more) misinformation about weight and dieting than the average population. With the diverse messages and conflict in recommendations, the fear and misunderstandings regarding food choices and beliefs are warranted.
As a Dietitian, we are not going to demonise all the different diets and fads that exist today. In many ways, they have some really positive things to offer – particularly those that work to limit our intake of processed and convenience foods, while increasing our reliance on fresh produce! Instead, our role is to work with each individual and optimise their intake to better suit their individual requirements and training phase. All foods have something to offer, it is just aiming to periodise your intake to match your particular goals at the time – just like your coach may periodise/phase your training for you in the lead up to race season. An example of this is carbohydrate – this is an essential component of fuelling the muscles and brain, particularly in times of higher energy expenditure. As such, if you have a high training day then you will need to increase carbohydrate to match this; and if you are in a rest day, you will need to reduce carbohydrate as you have a lower need for fuelling.
The biggest message to take home is to stop thinking of foods in ‘yes/no’ or ‘good/bad’ categories. Instead, consider all foods as having a function depending on your particular social situation at the time, training phase or personal preferences. You don’t need to be following a particular diet or fad to be eating well or meeting your body composition goals. There is nothing boring about enjoying a range of foods, without fear of particular food groups or ingredients.
Even though there are some nutrition challenges to balance as a female athlete, the benefits from being active, fits and healthy are well worth it! Focus on following your body’s appetite cues and aiming to balance your energy intake with your current training phase. Your body is pretty talented at telling you when and how much food it requires each day, it is just that we are also very good at trying to ignore or change it! By relaxing around your food choices and taking the time to listen, you can reduce the guilt and emotional attachment to food that so often guides our food choices as female athletes.
This article was written by Accredited Sports Dietitian Alicia Edge