In order to maintain training and performance, female athletes of any age must consume enough calories to cover the energy cost of daily living and training. In addition, premenopausal women have the added energy cost of menstruation and reproductive function, and younger females have the additional energy cost of growth and development (Manore, Meyer, & Thompson, 2009). But like most women in our society, female athletes are often concerned with body weight and shape and many may restrict caloric intake and/or eliminate certain foods completely from their diet to attain this ideal. What these athletes need to understand are the nutritional needs of the active body and the health consequences that may arise from chronic caloric and nutritional restriction.
To maintain body weight, female athletes who train 6 to 10 hours/week typically require 2200 to 2500 kcal/day, while highly competitive athletes training 10 to 20 hours/week need at least 2500 to 2800 and may require more (Beals & Manore, 2007). Female athletes who have low energy intake, typically do not consume enough protein to repair muscle tissue or enough carbohydrate to replenish glycogen stores used during training. In addition, if fat intake is too low, absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids may also be low. Consuming enough micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) is particularly important for bone mineral density because majority of total bone mineral density is laid down by age 17, and peak bone density occurs between the ages of 25 to 30 (Krichner, Lewis, & O’Connor, 1995). Finally, athletes with poor nutrient intake, may complain of fatigue, frequent injury and illness, menstrual dysfunction, or exhibit a decline in performance. If an athlete experiences any of these signs or symptoms, it is important to recommend them to a sports nutritionist for guidance.
Female athletes should also understand the long term consequences of energy restriction. Weight loss, and particularly accelerated weight loss, achieved from caloric restriction leads to a decline in muscle mass and subsequently a slower metabolism (Manore, Meyer, & Thompson, 2009). Consequently, the decreased muscle mass means athletes will not be able to push themselves as hard during training and competition, and a slower metabolism means the daily energy requirement decreases causing weight to increase much more quickly when an athlete returns to normal energy intake.
Aside from general caloric intake, here are a few guidelines for female athletes to meet adequate energy intake, recover properly from training and competition, build strength, and perform at their best.
- Never skip meals or let yourself go hungry. It is important for the body to be adequately fed throughout the day for recovery and preparation for future training sessions.
- Consume a small meal or snack 2 to 4 and as close as 1 hour prior to exercise. This meal should be higher in carbohydrate and easily digestible. This will help to minimize fatigue during exercise.
- Make sure to eat within 60 min following exercise. This meal or snack should have a mix of carbohydrate and protein for glycogen and muscle synthesis (Burke, 2006).
- Don’t always restrict yourself of your favorite foods. Enjoy in moderation! There is nothing better than a cheeseburger or ice cream after a tough game or race 🙂
- Strategize! Always have good food available for when you get hungry. Just like a game plan, you need a nutrition plan.
- Seek out help. A sports dietician will help you create the best plan to meet you nutrition and performance goals.
Beals K., Manore, M.M. Nutritional considerations for the female athlete. In: Spurway N., MacLaren D. eds. Advances in sport and exercise science series: nutrition and sport. Philadelphia: Elsevier, 2007; 187-206.
Burke, L. Nutrition for recovery and training and competition. In: Burke, L. Deakin, V. eds. Clinical sports nutrition, 3rd ed. Sydney: McGraw-Hill, 2006; 415-440.
Kirchner E.M., Lewis, R.D., O’Connor, P.J. Bone mineral density and dietary intake of female college gymnasts. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1995;27:542-549.
Manore, M.M., Meyer, N.L., Thompson, J. Nutrition and the active female. In: Manore, M.M., Meyer, N.L., Thompson, J. Sport nutrition for health and performance, 2nd ed. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2009; 449-476.
By: Lauren Higgins, MS, CSCS, FMS-level1