As a female athlete in the world of running, cycling, and other outdoor adventures, I’ve firsthand felt the challenges that come with developing a nutrition plan to support athletic goals and achievements. Further, for us as women, food is all too often acknowledged only as calories and how it directly correlates to our appearance, adding a social complexity to an area that already holds ambiguity.
It gets even more intricate when you consider the ever-changing landscape of our hormonal cycles, which dictate the macronutrients we need to support our bodies as they build and repair.
In the realm of sports nutrition, female hormones have often been sidelined and overlooked when it comes to research and design around women-based nutrition. It’s time to change that narrative and ensure our nutritional needs are accounted for. So, whether you are training for a marathon, frequenting the gym, walking the dog, or just getting out on the weekends, I hope to really add to the conversation on what and how much food you need to sustain and support your body as you reach your athletic goals.
First, let’s talk about hormones. Estrogen and progesterone are the two key players in the female reproductive cycle. Put simply, women have a low and high hormone phase of their cycle, the follicular and the luteal phase, respectively. During the high hormone phase, there is a large amount of building and breaking down tissue; thus, the bodily demands for proper nutrition go up. In the 10 days preceding menstruation, many women may feel fatigued and less inclined to engage in strenuous workouts.
Support with sufficient carbohydrates and protein becomes crucial during this period. It’s important to tailor workouts to align with this high hormonal state, focusing on flexibility, technique drills, and low-intensity exercises. Additionally, the high hormone phase brings increased water retention, disrupting electrolyte balance and underscoring the importance of proper hydration.
As the cycle shifts to the low hormone phase, including the menstrual period, this becomes the opportune time for more intense and demanding training.
However, women engaging in high-intensity workouts should adopt a 2 days on, 2 days off routine to facilitate full recovery and reduce the risk of deprivation and catabolic states – a topic we will explore in greater detail later on.
Now, let’s dive into the powerhouse of nutrition for female athletes: protein. New research is showing that women typically utilize higher amounts of amino and free fatty acids during workouts when compared to men, emphasizing the importance of reevaluating traditional protein consumption guidelines.
While the general recommendation hovers around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (or 0.36 grams per pound), recent research suggests that women, especially those engaged in athletic pursuits, may benefit from a higher intake ranging between 1.4 to 2.3 grams per kilogram daily. For a 150-pound individual, this translates to a daily protein intake of 95.2 to 156.4 grams daily, with adjustments based on hormonal fluctuations—higher in the luteal phase (high hormone) and towards the lower end during the follicular phase (low hormone).
The key is to evenly distribute this protein intake throughout the day, ideally in 3–4-hour increments, with special emphasis on post-workout replenishment.
While protein often takes the spotlight, it’s essential to shine a light on its partner in performance—carbohydrates. Despite societal trends that may cast a shadow on carb consumption, these macronutrients are vital as they serve as the primary source of usable fuel for our bodies.
A significant sex difference between men and women lies in our ability to function in a carbohydrate-deficient state. Within just four days of reduced nutritional intake, women experience a shift in hormonal and neuronal systems toward a conservative state, downregulating key catabolic hormones like progesterone and thyroid as well as many other enzymatic processes. This downshift can result in fatigue, brain fog, menstrual irregularities, and overall poorer athletic outcomes.
Moreover, during high-intensity exercise, women may face micro-levels carbohydrate deprivation, where the gut lining doesn’t absorb nutrients as readily, emphasizing the importance of strategic fueling around workouts to prevent the body from entering a stressed state.
Transitioning from the crucial role of carbohydrates to the practical application of these nutritional insights, let’s explore how strategic fueling before and after workouts becomes a game-changer for female athletes. Consuming at least 120-130 calories within 2 hours before your exercise.
Consuming at least 120-130 calories within 2 hours before your exercise session is crucial, especially during the low hormone phase, as it enhances overall performance and reduces the body falling into a deprivation state. Remember, the biggest fitness improvements aren’t made during a training session itself but rather during recovery.
After your workout, prioritize a quick metabolic return to baseline by consuming 20-30g of protein within the first 30 minutes. This is key to preventing post-workout fatigue and halting the breakdown state.
Additionally, jumpstart the replacement of carbohydrates within 90 minutes post-workout to replenish glycogen stores and support overall recovery. These time-sensitive nutritional strategies play a pivotal role in optimizing your athletic outcomes and ensuring your body can rise up to the demands of training on top of its baseline metabolic demands.
In the world of sports nutrition, understanding the impact of female hormones is often overlooked. This insight into your menstrual cycle, protein needs, and the importance of carbohydrates aims to change that. Whatever your athletic goals or endeavors are, I hope you can use these practical tips to personalize your nutrition plan. Knowledge is power, and with the right fuel, celebrate your strength and resilience in every athletic pursuit. Cheers to a well-nourished, empowered you!
Shout-out to the amazing women in research who continue to challenge the nutrition norms and research hard things so that we can continue to thrive and shine in all of our daily and athletic pursuits.
If you would like to take a more personalized approach to your nutrition and diet as an athlete, I would be glad to work with you here at AIM.