Five Important Ways Female Athletes Need to Eat for More Success
(This is one is a series of articles about specific training information and advice from Dr. Stacy Sims’ book, Roar. If you are a female athlete, or coach female athletes, this book should be required reading. It changed everything for me as a male coach!)
I’ve been “discussing” nutrition with my teenage daughter, who is a high school swimmer.
Being a teenager, she is pretty convinced she knows everything.
Yet as her season continued, and she became more and more tired, and her pool times slow, she reluctantly started listening to me – with just 10 days left in the season.
I gave her shakes with protein and maltodextrin (glucose) prior to practice, after practice, and before bed.
She dug herself a pretty big hole, but she has gradually felt a little recovered in time for the last week of the season.
Two Fundamentals to Answer What Female Athletes Need to Eat
Female athletes need to eat more protein to build and maintain muscle, especially with the right timing before and after workouts.
So here are the two fundamentals for what female athletes need to eat for success and performance improvement.
- Consume protein before and after a workout, and then at night before bed.
- Consume some carbohydrates with protein to maximize absorption.
Women Need All Three Macronutrients: Fat, Carbohydrate, and Protein, Especially Protein
What follows is a basic nutritional understanding of the nutritional needs to help women understand what female athletes need to eat.
Carbohydrates Get a Bad Rap
With the Atkins and Keto diets, carbs have gotten a bad rap.
Carbohydrates are your body’s fuel source. And if you are working out regularly, you need to have enough carb stores to fuel the work.
And it’s easy to drain the tank since your body can only store so much glycogen.
So to answer what female athletes need to eat, you need a solid and steady supply of carbohydrates.
Two hours of low intensity training will deplete muscle glycogen, but your stores will be empty with 15 to 30 minutes of intense training.
Your brain uses up 25 percent of the body’s energy supply and 60 percent of blood glucose. Your brain is going to take what it needs, and if your workout takes the rest in 30 minutes, you will hit the wall hard a few minutes later.
Sims argues that paleo and keto diets, that seek to utilize fat instead of carbs in an effort to lose weight, aren’t going to support athletes and their workouts.
Especially for female athletes, a high-fat, very low-carb diet results in you using your muscles for fuel. That obviously is not going to help your performance!
That said, eating too many carbs can be a problem, especially as women age.
The Recommendations for What Female Athletes Need to Eat
- Sims says that female athletes should look for a daily intake of 40 to 45 percent carbohydrate, as long as you fuel with superior carbs like starchy vegetables and root vegetables. This includes white potatoes, peas, corn, winter squash, and root vegetables like parsnips. These food are superior because they are richer in glucose and get right into your system.
- Avoid fruit, mostly because it is fructose, which goes to your liver at the expense of your muscles. Fructose also can cause GI distress in women.
- A good range for workout-fueling is 0.9 to 1.13 food calories per pound of bodyweight per hour of running or 1.3 to 1.6 food calories for non-body jostling activities like cycling.
- Avoid gels as a primary source of fuel.
Good Fats are Good
Sims says, “low-fat, high-carb foods are not good for you.”
Low-fat foods can make you store belly fat and cause your cortisol and insulin levels to skyrocket.
Even saturated fats have gotten a bad rap.
But if you get these fats from whole, natural, and unprocessed sources like beef, chicken, eggs, even dark chocolate! Organic is great, but local is good as well.
For many women, getting dietary fat from fatty fish like salmon is also provides serious nutrients for your body.
Avocados, nuts, seeds, and dairy are all other good sources of fat.
Women Need MORE PROTEIN in Their Daily Fueling
Most women are simply not getting enough protein.
Female athletes need to ingest consistently more, especially with the right timing.
Protein also helps with weight loss, since protein is harder to digest so it requires more calories to burn.
Additionally, protein helps maintain muscle mass, increases immunity, improves sleep, digestion, and hormone regulation.
You can find complete protein (containing all nine essential amino acids) in meat, fish, eggs, and most dairy.
However, getting enough protein and at the right time is not always possible.
Supplementing with whey protein, particularly containing the amino acid leucine, will help build lean muscle.
Incidentally, amino acids are an effective re-hydration tool.
Sims suggests starting the day with a good dose of protein (25 to 30 grams) to restock your stores and regulate your appetite.
The Recommendations for What Female Athletes Need to Eat
- A daily benchmark is 1.0 to 1.2 grams per pound of body weight. That’s about 135 to 162 grams a day for a 135-pound woman.
- During strength and power phases of training, you need 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein/ pound
- For endurance phases, you need 0.8 to 1.0 g protein/ pound
- For optimal recovery, look to get 25 to 30 grams of protein within about 30 minutes of exercise. Additional protein prior to training also helps muscle adaptation.
- Whey protein helps protein intake without extra fat intake.
- Most of your muscle repairs happen at night when you sleep, so an additional bit of protein (15 grams) helps the amino acids get the job done.
Female Athletes Need to Eat More Protein Before and After Workouts
Sims’ biggest fueling advice is to keep food in your pocket and hydration in your bottle.
Don’t try to get your calories from your hydration.
And while every woman needs to fuel differently according to individual needs, there are some common and necessary components for an active woman’s fueling needs.
1. Consume around 20 grams of protein before workouts along with some carbohydrate calories.
2. Consume quality carbohydrates as food during long workouts
3. Consume 25 to 30 grams of protein as soon after a workout as possible, at least within 30 minutes of your workout.
4. Consume around 15 grams of protein before sleep to aid muscle recovery.
5. Have some carbohydrates with your protein to maximize restocking glycogen stores
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