Nutrition Challenges of the Female Triathlete

By Alicia Edge, AdvSD.


Despite the numerous advantages to being a female triathlete, the drive to achieve and succeed within the sport can create some unique nutrition challenges. Suboptimal nutrition intake can affect both long- and short-term health by impacting hormonal balance, bone density, fertility and compromising performance gains. Achieving ideal balance can be difficult due to the time constraints that accompany the work-life-family-training ‘balance’. Then additional to these pressures, triathletes can be exposed to internal and external pressures to be lean or a certain body composition. Combining these demands with the constant 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.

However, 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

Poor energy availability is a common issue in many female athletes, including triathletes. 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, 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 (absence of menstrual periods); delayed menarche in young active females; disordered eating patterns; poor bone health; depressed mood/irritability; and or susceptibility to illness.


Important Nutrients

Increased activity can influence the amount of nutrients needed for optimal functioning. Female athletes will need more energy and fluid than non-active females, along with needing to be 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.

Iron: Iron is not required at increased levels for the female athlete, however can be limited in the daily dietary habits of women (particularly those who avoid or limit red meat) 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.


Body Composition Goals

Entering the triathlon world, 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 a fine line in finding the balance in achieving the body composition that gives you maximum performance but also the best health. When considering weight loss, it’s important that you consider your motivations to do so and to keep in mind genetic and environmental (energy intake, training, appetite, social and growth stages) factors that influence your ability to achieve your ideal body composition.


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. 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. The gut is known to be very trainable to cope with carbohydrate intake during events, however to achieve optimal absorption, it is important to train the gut during training sessions.  This assists in lowering the risk of gut discomfort can also improve performance on race day.


Food Beliefs and Food Fear

With the diverse messages and conflict in recommendations that the internet and social media provides, the fear and misunderstandings regarding food choices are warranted. As a Sports Dietitian, we are not going to demonise the range of different diets and fads that exist today. Instead, our role is to work with each athlete to optimise their intake to best suit their individual requirements and training phase. Accredited Sports Dietitians work with you to periodise what you eat and drink to match your training and body composition goals – just like your coach periodises your training program. This allows you to effectively fuel performance, maximise training adaptations and achieve the body composition that is right for you.

Therefore, it is important to consider all foods as having a function depending on your training phase, personal preferences and social situation. There’s no need to follow any particular fad or trendy diet to eat well, train well and meet your body composition goals. There is nothing boring about enjoying a range of foods, without fear of particular food groups or ingredients!!

Even though female triathletes have some unique nutrition challenges that need to be balanced, the benefits from being active, fit and healthy are well worth it! Focus on following your body’s appetite cues and aim 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 too often guides our food choices as female athletes.