Female athlete health: Tips for fuelling to match your hormones
Over the past few years, there’s been more and more spotlight on female athlete health… In how we approach training, how we fuel, and how research in women is conducted.
Whilst we are learning how nutrition can differ to men, there’s a few things to remember when it comes to guidelines and taking on board new practices - just like any sort of nutrition strategy or style of eating.
The research is still very young and emerging. Much of the previous research in women hasn’t been of high quality, so we need more high quality research done to provide guidelines specific for women.
Nutrition is individualised. I am always saying this, but it’s even more important to remember for women. Each woman will feel different throughout their menstrual cycle (for example, some feel great during their period, and some feel horrible!), and even different throughout different cycles from month to month.
So, what do we know so far; and what are some things that you can apply to your eating and training, or to your athletes as coaches?
Firstly, three things I want you to take away from this are:
Carbohydrates are key!
Protein is our friend; and
Fuelling around training will help you get the most out of it and meet your goals.
Plus, listening to your own cues will help you immensely.
When we look at the menstrual cycle and hormones, typically a natural cycle (no hormonal contraceptive) will fluctuate as:
Low oestrogen and progesterone during your period
Oestrogen rises and progesterone levels increase a little around ovulation (plus or minus day 14 for many women). This will vary depending if you have a 23 day cycle, 28 day cycle, or 32, 36, 38 day cycle. All are normal if they’re normal for you!
Hormones drop slightly again, before they rise towards end of your cycle
Both oestrogen and progesterone drop at end of your cycle for menstruation to begin again
And what we know about oestrogen and progesterone is that they influence carbohydrate metabolism and use, influence protein use and muscle building/ breakdown, and influence when we naturally use more fat for fuel.
When it’s low: it helps us use more carbohydrate during exercise and day to day… so we need to eat slightly more carbohydrate before training and throughout the day
When it’s high:
Stimulates bone formation (good for bone strength!)
Decreases reliance on glycogen, so it’s harder to store and therefore harder to optimise carbohydrate loading during this time - so we need to eat more during exercise (especially endurance training/racing)
Increases natural fatty acid use for energy (this can be why you don’t feel as hungry or get as many cravings during the mid to late phase of your cycle)
Has a catabolic effect. So it causes more muscle breakdown, and that’s why we need to eat slightly more quality protein in the back end of our cycle to allow good recovery, muscle building, and keeping satiated (having enough in meals and not being hungry 1 hour later)
Increases core body temperature. So in the back end of your cycle, you can sometimes struggle to get to bed (especially in warmer months), or sweat more in training. So, increase your fluids and sodium if you’re sweating lots.
When low: can often feel stronger, and not as fatigued.
Don’t need as much protein as less breakdown happening and more building (anabolic effects) happening.
Graph from: https://womeninbalance.org/about-hormone-imbalance/
When we think about our menstrual cycle and when we bleed, there are some other nutritional things to think about too…
Loss of blood means loss of iron. So eating more iron rich foods is helpful. These are often high in protein too, which help meet your protein needs. Go for foods like: eggs, black beans, kidney beans, baked beans, meats, dried apricots; and make sure you’re taking your supplement if you need one
Discomfort and inflammation is higher in your body. Eating more anti-inflammatory foods and antioxidants is helpful for relieving this and supporting your immune system; especially when training too. Eat foods like: avocados, oily fish, nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia oil, omega-3 supplement/ fish oil if safe to do so for you. Magnesium supplements can also help relax muscles.
Getting cravings. It’s a natural thing and shouldn’t be dismissed. Try adding a little more quality carbohydrate and protein in to see if that helps (particularly in the lead up to your period and during)
Feeling bloated and “yuck”. Don’t skip the food. Stay hydrated and eat quality protein, fats, and a little less carbohydrate than normal (if this makes you feel better)l. Try to reduce or avoid processed foods.
I could keep writing and talking about this for quite a bit longer, but for now, let’s start with trialling and implementing a few things first.
My Top Tips:
TRACK how you feel! This could change each cycle, and probably throughout it. It’s always best to see how you feel and go from there. Track for at least 3 months to see if you notice some trends.
Eat more carbohydrate during your period
Eat more iron rich foods during your period to support loss from bleeding
Eat more protein in second half of your cycle
Increase carbohydrate and protein slightly when cravings are high
Eat antioxidant rich foods and anti-inflammatory foods in the lead up and during your period to help reduce inflammation (avocado, nuts, seeds, oily fish, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia oil, omega-3 supplement)
Consider taking magnesium around your period to supplement muscle relaxation
Have a cold drink before bed if you’re feeling warmer than normal (or getting hot flushes)
Have a protein rich snack before bed with 10-15g protein to support overnight recovery and muscle protein synthesis
Start the day with 30-40g protein - especially if peri- or post menopausal
Happy training and eating…and be kind to yourself,
PS. Menopause lifecycle blog coming soon :)