If you’re a female athlete, or even just a woman who likes to train hard, you’ve probably wondered if your nutrition is optimal. Are the nutrition practices you follow allow you to get the most out of your training?
This is an excellent question. Most male athletes are told carbohydrates are king to sustain energy levels during intense training, but studies show that women rely more on fat sources for energy during exercise.
Women deplete muscle glycogen levels (the stored form of carbs in the muscle) more slowly than men, which means post-workout fueling needs will be different. This is just one variation in how gender affects sports nutrition needs. This article will provide ten science-based tips for female trainees who want to optimize performance.
#1: Never Slash Calories
Surveys show that 2/3 of female athletes are actively trying to cut calories in an effort to lose fat. This has led many female athletes to be in a chronic energy deficit, eating at or below their metabolic rate. This practice compromises athletic performance and increases risk of developing hormonal imbalances, menstrual irregularities, and low bone mineral density. Further, lack of calories may actually backfire, leading to higher body fat percentages due to metabolic downregulation and low muscle mass.
#2: Customize Calorie Needs For Your Sport
It’s recommended that female strength and power athletes consume 39 to 44 calories/kg of bodyweight a day. If training volume is very high, as with endurance running, female athletes may need a higher intake. Scientists recommend that women calculate their baseline caloric needs by multiplying kg of lean body mass by 45 and then adding the estimated calories burned during training on top of that value.
#3: Prioritize Healthy Fat
Due to a preoccupation with body composition, many female athletes opt for lower fat diets. Research shows that because women rely more on fat for fuel during training, they must have adequate dietary fat intake to optimize performance. Get 30 to 35 percent of your calories from healthy fat sources: Lean protein foods, nuts, seeds, nut butters, fatty fish (for example, salmon and trout), fish oil supplements, avocados, and egg yolks. Avoid all processed and trans fats.
#4: Modify Carb Intake
Because women burn less glycogen during exercise than men, they deplete glycogen less in response to the same workout. Female athletes must experiment with carb intake guidelines to identify the optimal dose since recommendations are based on male physiology. Similarly, the percentage of total calories from carbs may need to be reduced in favor of fat and protein in order for women to feel the best and get the most out of their training. Don't be afraid to experiment!
#5: Get Enough Protein
It’s commonly believed that female athletes don’t require as much protein as male athletes. In fact, women have decreased protein synthesis rates after exercise, which suggests women may need more protein after muscle-damaging training. Scientists recommend a protein intake in the range of 1.3 to 1.8 g/kg of protein for omnivorous female athletes to maintain nitrogen balance. Vegetarians may require on the upper end of this range, especially if they don’t eat eggs or dairy products frequently.
#6: Optimize Iron Intake
Iron is necessary to allow your red blood cells to effectively carry oxygen to working muscles. Women have higher iron needs than men and they tend to lose iron via blood loss during their monthly cycles. Risk of iron deficiency anemia is greatest in vegetarians because plant-sources of iron (called non-heme iron) have poor bioavailability. Get a daily intake of 11 mg of iron if you’re a meat eater or 18 mg of iron if you rely on plant-based sources (beans, leafy greens).
#7: Monitor Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency rates are high for female athletes, ranging from 33 to 42 percent and may be even higher depending on the season and type of sport. Vitamin D is necessary for muscle function and immunity in addition to bone health. Female athletes are strongly recommended to test vitamin D levels quarterly and supplement with up to 5,000 IUs to maintain a blood value of above 30 ng/ml.
#8: Ensure Adequate Calcium
Most female athletes who eat plenty of leafy greens, meat, and fish with some dairy have no problem fulfilling calcium needs. However, women who don’t get their period appear to require more calcium—at least 1000 mg/day, taken in two 500 mg doses from calcium carbonate or citrate.
#9: Try Creatine
Due to a myth that creatine will increase body weight, women almost never take advantage of the performance enhancing benefits. Research indicates that creatine will enhance anaerobic exercise performance without increases in body weight. Supplementation is particularly important for vegetarians who have deficient creatine stores, which will lead them to miss their high-intensity performance potential.
#10: Don’t Overdrink
Hydration requires adequate sodium, other electrolytes, and water. Drinking too much water alone just dehydrates you, and studies show that female endurance athletes have a tendency to overdrink without sufficient intake of hydrating electrolytes. Scientists caution you to be smart about fluid intake!
Deldicque, L. & Francaux, M. Recommendations for healthy nutrition in female endurance runners: an update. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2015. 2(17).
Escalante, Guillermo. Nutritional Considerations For Female Athletes. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2016. 58(2), 57-63.
Valliant, Melinda. The Female Athlete Triad and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2016. 58(2), 35-38.
Volek, J., et al. Nutritional aspects of women strength athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2006. 40(9):742-8.