Nutrition is an essential piece in endurance training for both males and females. Better recovery, increased performance, sustainable training focus, etc. are heavily dependent on proper nutrition. No surprise though, nutrition for women is somewhat different.
Physiologically, there’s a natural difference between men and women. I have already written an article on why training differs for women and how to approach it. The same can be said for nutrition too. If nutrition is followed poorly, it can have detrimental effects physically as well as mentally for female athletes.
Effect of Estrogen
Hormones are a major reason that dictates how a male and a female use their energy differently. In general, women tend to use fewer carbohydrates to fuel their muscles than men. Blame it on the estrogen of you must.
Those magic years of puberty when we truly start to distinguish the growth between males and females. Up until that point, our bodies are fairly the same, with women progressing faster than men in some cases.
But during puberty, estrogen reduces a woman’s ability to burn energy after eating, resulting in more fat being stored around the body. The likely reason for this is to prime women for childbearing, according to medical studies.
That means, even if a woman is super lean with 17% body fat, for example, the male equivalent would be about 9%. Sounds pretty unfair, right? Because of this, even active women need fewer daily calories, and the type of calories may and should differ based on the individual health.
Effect of Hormones
A key consideration to nutrition for women is the fluctuation of hormones during the menstrual cycle. Some research has linked varied hormone levels to changes in athletic performance.
At the start of the cycle, female athletes may experience lower energy due to lower levels of iron, vitamins, and hormones. Estrogen also rises during this time, meaning the body is not as capable of utilizing stored carbohydrates.
Another aspect to track for females is the effect on bone mineral density. In younger years, the female skeleton can continue to increase in bone mineral density. With age, bone breakdown increases, and the creation of new bone decreases, resulting in an overall drop in the density of the bone, and potentially osteoporosis.
As females are susceptible to losing calcium during menstruation, it’s vital to eat optimum foods with calcium and other minerals as part of the nutrition for women.
The topic of nutrition is very complex and more so when we talk about nutrition for women regarding performance improvements.
Focus on carbohydrate consumption to hit higher intensity levels in racing and training. Don’t be afraid of eating healthy carbs. Otherwise, it can cause low blood pressure and prevent your body from utilizing glycogen effectively during a workout.
Female athletes should also try to reduce or avoid fasted training, unlike males. “first breakfast” before a workout becomes just as important as “second breakfast” after the workout. A banana or oatmeal is an ideal pre-workout, “first breakfast” choice.
During the workout, it’s recommended to consume around 40-45 grams of carbs per hour. Avoid sugary drinks though.
Finally, post-workout nutrition should incorporate both protein and carbs. 20-30 grams of protein and 8-10 grams of carbs within 30 minutes of training are ideal in this phase. This “second breakfast” can have eggs, yogurt, a handful of cereal, and black coffee for example.
Iron is responsible for transporting oxygen from our lungs to the working muscles, which is vital for any endurance athlete. Its deficiency can lead to chronic mental and physical fatigue, among many other issues. Since women lose a lot of iron every month through menstruation, they must consume higher iron-rich foods than men.
For females aged 19-50, the recommended dosage for iron is 18mg/day and for females aged 50+, it is 8mg/day. You can take supplements but I always prefer whole foods that provide iron such as beef, eggs, dark leafy greens, legumes, fish, tofu, etc.
Calcium and Vitamin D
For Vitamin D, the recommended dosage is a minimum of 200 IU/day. Our body does produce Vitamin D with sun exposure, but some foods aid in production such as fortified foods with Vitamin D, fatty fish, egg yolks, and cheese.
For calcium, the daily recommended dosage is around 1000-1200 mg/day. Calcium is very difficult for the body to absorb fully and dairy is the best option in this regard. Other foods such as sesame seeds, almonds, kale, broccoli, etc. are a good source of calcium to supplement with dairy products.
Protein and Water
Protein is vital for recovery and maintaining muscle in the body. Try to aim for 1.2-1.8 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight to consume daily. The protein intake should increase as your training volume also increases.
Water is an integral part of nutrition for women and men. Water helps to absorb and breakdown protein and other substances faster. It also helps to maintain a higher metabolism. Overall, it is vital for our health, joint function, organ function, fatigue levels, and so much more.
How much is too much?
Unfortunately, endurance training doesn’t give most athletes the license to eat whatever they want, even though you may feel you deserve some junk/rich food after a training session. Clean fuel and proper nutrition for women are required to reach peak performance.
If you’re frustrated with your progress in terms of racing or on the scale, keep a food log. Write down the type of calories you’re taking and the respective amount. After a certain time, you’ll find a pattern from your data and can make changes to fit your requirements.
There’s a saying that we are what we eat. Our existence depends on it, so do our athletic endeavors. The largest differences between males and females are the fiber type difference and sex hormone difference. And, in essence, they set females up to be more metabolically suited to anything.
So, what that means, you may ask.
For starters, ladies, don’t be afraid of carbs. You have better insulting sensitivity, hence the more of them you eat, the more of them you burn. Don’t fall into the trap of a low-carb diet like Keto. Click here to read why I don’t suggest the Keto diet for endurance athletes.
Secondly, don’t think you’re facing a harder time losing weight because you’re a female.
Granted, you’ll probably have to eat fewer calories than a similarly weighed male, but the primary factors in determining your calorie needs are body size, body composition, and activity level. If you’re more active than a guy who weighs the same as you, then you can eat more than him. If not, you can’t.
The right nutrition strategy, regardless of sex, can produce results and powers that are truly out of this world.