Imagine you are preparing for a long road trip. How often do you pack the car, check for missing essentials, hit the bathroom, and fill the gasoline tank with water before heading out of town? Never, I hope! Why? Because cars don’t run on water! Automobiles use gasoline as fuel, and depending on the vehicle, they require a specific octane rating for optimal performance.
Similarly, an athlete, specifically a female athlete, should take the same fueling approach.
It’s important for the female athlete to understand their unique physiology. It is critical to pair nutrition and fitness for optimal performance and health. The longer and more intense the session, the more critical fueling becomes to your performance and ability to adapt to the demands. Establish a fuel/hydration plan in training and follow the “nothing new on race day” approach. The female body changes throughout the monthly cycle, and how that affects performance must be considered. Finally, a recovery fuel snack post workout is non-negotiable after a key training session.
Topping off the tank – Pre-Workout
Assuming you’re eating a balanced diet most of the time, let’s start with what to eat before a training session/event.
Pre-training fuel guidelines:
-Choose a carb-based, low fiber, low fat, with moderate protein, easy to digest food.
-Avoid high fat and high fiber since it delays gastric emptying and may lead to GI distress.
-Avoid foods/products high in fructose because it takes the gut longer to digest and may lead to GI distress. (Bananas have ~ 7 g fructose, which is okay).
–Fun Fact: females are more prone to GI issues than men due to our hormonal fluctuations. Runners are the most susceptible because of higher heart rates and the jostling effect.
First thing in the morning
The time-starved athlete who has an early morning 60- to 120-minute training session often goes into this session fasted – because either they don’t feel hungry that early in the morning or the end goal is to get leaner.
Both of these methods almost always backfire. Why? Because training in a fasted state adds stress to the body, which releases cortisol, which adds insult to injury since cortisol levels are highest in the morning. Elevated cortisol levels stimulate fat storage! To make matters worse, it is physically harder to dig deep and execute high-quality workouts in a fasted state, so you might as well stay in bed.
-What to eat:
Before an easy or low stress early morning workout, I recommend 20-30 g easy to digest carbohydrate (CHO). Examples: ½ cup applesauce, 10 saltine crackers, 1 cup grits, 1 medium banana, 1 slice low fiber bread with jam, 1 large rice cake with jam, a handful of grapes, or a sports nutrition product with water.
Fueling before a key (intense and/or long) workout training session/event
Use these nutrition guidelines as a template to test drive what works for you before a workout or event. Ideally, go with real food when possible. What and how much to eat all depends on how far in advance the meal is from the start. The further out you are able to eat, the more you can consume. Ideally, before an event, at least 2-2.5 hours is best. If before a workout, eating 2 hours or more out from the start is not always possible. If that is the case, eat a smaller snack and forgo fueling for the first 45 minutes of the workout while keeping the intensity low. Also sip water to allow adequate time for digestion.
3-4 hours before, eat a larger meal: 400-800 calories, (3-4 g carb/kg body weight)
1.5-3 hours before, eat a medium-sized meal: 250-400 calories, (1.5-3 g carb/kg)
30-90 min before, eat a small meal/snack: 100-250 calories, (0.5-1.5 g carb/kg)
-What to eat:
Good choices are: waffles, oatmeal, grits, gluten-free bagel or toast (because it is easier to digest) with jam and/or nut butter, English muffin, banana, grapes, oranges, berries, and non-fat yogurt.
Use this pre-event meal designed for a 125-pound (57 kg) female athlete 2-2.5 hours before an endurance event to give you inspiration.
1 plain bagel (53 g carbs, 9 g pro, 1 g fat, 1 g fiber)
1 medium banana (23 g carbs, 1.3 g pro, 3.1 g fiber)
½ cup nonfat vanilla Greek yogurt (12 g carbs, 18 g pro)
1 TBSP peanut butter (3 g carbs, 8 g fat, 4 g pro, 1 g fiber)
1 TBSP jam (13 g carbs)
Total: 104 g carbs, 32 g protein, 9 g fat, 5.1 g fiber
Don’t stress if the pre-race jitters have messed with your stomach. The pre-event meal is intended to top off stores and replace what was used overnight. What’s more important is how well you fuel in the 48 hours before the event.
Eat as tolerated and stay well hydrated but don’t go overboard.
During Event/Training Fueling
There is a lot of confusion around what brands and types of fuel are best – and for a good reason. The market is flooded with a variety of sports nutrition products. What works for one athlete won’t necessarily work for another. This means it is all the more important to test drive the products for yourself. The goal is that come race day, your fuel plan is ironclad.
Easy workout – defined as <60 minutes easy run, recovery swim, or aerobic-based ride of <90 minutes.
If this is your only workout of the day and you have eaten regular meals, water with electrolytes or just water is sufficient. This is dependent on your training phase and if your sweat rate is sufficient. There are many products on the market to consider. One consideration is that some carbs assist electrolytes, namely sodium, with absorption.
Moderate to high intensity lasting up to 75 min.
Go with a small amount of carbs from a sports drink with electrolytes. (30-40 g carb/hr. – estimation).
Endurance, high-intensity exercise lasting up to 2.5 hours.
Go with liquid calories over solids and aim for 30-60 g carb/hour. If you have a sensitive GI system, look for a lower fructose option. Learning to read labels will come in handy
Endurance to ultra-endurance exercise lasting 2.5 hours or longer.
Go with solids, semi-solids, and liquids since the effort is steady state and aerobic. Start in training with 60-70 g carbs/hr to train the gut to improve gastric emptying and absorption.
Tip: If your sports nutrition products contain maltodextrin, a polysaccharide made with the building blocks of glucose, it may cause GI distress. Maltodextrin is used in sports fuel because it doesn’t affect the osmolality and is tasteless in flavor, but there is one issue. Because it overloads a key gate in the small intestines, it creates the same high-osmolality environment as fructose. Therefore, a worst-case scenario would be the energy boost you had intended is insufficient, hydration could be compromised, and you’ve subjected yourself to an upset tummy. It may not affect every athlete the same way, but it’s important to take note if you have a history of GI distress.
Dehydration is the primary cause of early fatigue. Once an athlete reaches a 2% body weight loss, performance will start to decline, and at 4% loss, the athlete is unable to execute as intended.
It’s common for an athlete to think they are bonking (hitting the wall) when in fact they are becoming dehydrated. Dehydration results in a decrease in blood plasma volume, which reduces thermoregulation, so the body isn’t able to efficiently cool off via sweat. Thus, there is an increase in the rate of perceived exertion (RPE), and HR rises because the heart has to work harder to circulate the thickened blood. It’s a disaster and an easily avoidable one
However, drinking only water isn’t an efficient hydration strategy either. Water contains no electrolytes or carbs to promote absorption, so it will just slosh around in the stomach not being absorbed fast enough. Far too many athletes have taken the more is better approach and overhydrated with water. The consequences can be life threatening in the form of hyponatremia, which is dangerously low blood sodium.
Symptoms of hyponatremia include nausea and vomiting, headache, confusion, loss of energy and fatigue, irritability, muscle weakness, spasms or cramps, seizures, and coma.
-What to drink:
– Solution with 6% concentration or less (14.4 g carb per 8 oz)
– Sugars from glucose and sucrose
– Sodium: 180-225 mg/8 oz
– Potassium: 60-75 mg (another fluid co-transporter to help with sodium absorption)
There are plenty of products on the market, so find one that works for you.
Aim for 20-32 oz/hr and 500-900 mg sodium/hr during endurance or high intensity exercise.
Rather than drinking to thirst, remind yourself to sip frequently. Smaller, more frequent sips are easier to absorb as opposed to drinking half the bottle at once to make up for sips missed.
The post workout/event recovery fuel is designed to speed up the repair of damaged muscle tissue, replace glycogen/energy stores, and promote physical adaptation. Muscle cells are open and ready to absorb simple sugar and protein soon after exercise, so the quicker you refuel, the better. The ideal recovery window is 30 min post session. As time ticks on, insulin sensitivity declines, and it takes the muscles longer to absorb glucose from the bloodstream. Therefore, glycogen storage is less than optimal. This creates a stressful environment for the body.
To be clear, it’s not essential to fuel after an easy recovery workout or a walk with the dogs. Recovery fuel is intended for an intense, long, or tough workout where you are left feeling depleted and wrung out or between multiple workouts in one day.
-What to eat:
Within 30 min – aim for a 2:1 carb to protein ratio. Historically, the ratio was 3:1, but women need a tighter ratio immediately following for an anabolic trigger for muscle growth and repair.
Restock within 30 min with 20-30 g of protein containing BCAA, 40-60 g of carbs, and sipping 16-24 oz of fluids.
It’s common to have a decreased appetite after a hard effort. Therefore, go with a cold liquid that sounds refreshing such as:
Smoothie with 20 g of whey protein (cocoa elite whey)
Chocolate milk with some nuts or Greek yogurt for added protein
Greek yogurt with a banana
Cocoa Elite Complete Body Protein with added milk or yogurt (my personal go-to product)
Peanut butter and jelly sandwich for vegans
This is perhaps one of the most overlooked opportunities for athletes. Quality sleep and overnight recovery should be made part of your training regiment. Think of it this way: would you go 8 hours without eating during the day? Probably not. So find a product that works for you. Consider Cocoa Elite’s Sleepy Time Recovery. It is low in calories and high in protein. It is ideal due to its casein protein. Casein is a slow absorbing protein that aids in repairing muscle tissue while you sleep. It also has tart cherry, which has some additional benefits for athletes.
Hormonal phases and effects on performance
The follicular phase, the low hormone phase, lasts from day one of your period to day 14. During this time, females feel less pain, recover faster, and feel the strongest. If you are in the building part of your training phase, prioritize intensity and strength training sessions during this time.
The luteal phase, the high hormone phase, lasts from days 15-28 (assuming you have a 28-day cycle). During this phase, breathing rates increase, blood sugar fluctuates, you feel more pain and feel weaker, plasma volume decreases, and sodium levels decrease. Therefore, you need more sodium, fluids, and carbs for training, and bloating and headaches increase, along with mood swings and a greater chance of GI distress. Sounds like fun huh?
There are a few remedies that help ward off symptoms. For headaches, stay hydrated and increase your intake of nitric oxide-rich foods, such as beets, pomegranate, watermelon, and spinach in the 5-7 days leading up to your period.
For menstrual cramping, mood, and fatigue, take 250 mg of magnesium, 45 mg of zinc, 80 mg of aspirin (baby aspirin), and 1000 mg of omega 3-fatty acid each night before your period starts. Be patient and stick it out for 3-4 cycles for best results.
Susan Kitchen has a Master’s in Public Health and Nutrition. She is a registered and licensed dietitian and a certified sports dietitian. Susan is a USA Triathlon Level II endurance coach and an IRONMAN Certified Coach. Susan is also on the United States Olympic Committee sports dietitian registry.
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