Female athletes are special because we can process oxygen more quickly than males, which means we’re naturally more athletic. Yes men have more testosterone and so find it easier to build muscle, but our oestrogen and progesterone means we’re more suited to endurance exercise. Not only that but these female sex hormones if kept in the right balance help keep our bones strong, protect against heart disease, and improve mood. Diet is key in helping our bodies produce these hormones.
I regularly see girls and women in my nutrition clinic who have lost this advantage as a result of under-fuelling, and start to suffer the consequences of reduced hormone production. The traditional view of under-fuelling female athletes was full blown eating disorder, leading to periods stopping, and osteoporosis with subsequent recurrent bone fractures. But I often see Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, or RED-S in a more subtle way. No deliberate restriction in eating, but an increased training schedule not matched by increased nutrition intake (often due to lack of time), causing more coughs and colds, low mood, muscle strain, stress fractures, and much, much frustration!
So how do you know if you have RED-S? As women we can keep a check on our hormone production from our menstrual cycle. Teenagers should have started their periods by the age of 15, cycle length should be 28days – longer or shorter could indicate RED-S. Lack of periods in athletes should never been seen as a badge of honour gained from intensive training, but a warning sign that injury and poor health may be just around the corner. Supplementing iron or calcium may be necessary, but more important is getting the calorie balance right, so increasing diet intake, or reducing training until normal periods return.
So where do we get the extra food from, and how do we know how much? As a general rule of thumb I recommend eating an additional meal with every additional daily training session. Rest days can be 3 meals with fruit between meals, one training session a day and one of those snacks turns into a mini meal e.g. a sandwich or bowl of cereal, two sessions a day and add in an extra full meal on top of that e.g. two breakfasts – one before a morning training session, and another after.
Another great way to sneak in the extra calories when you’re training hard but too busy or tired to eat and prepare food all the time is a smoothie. I call these catch up smoothies as I often recommend a smoothie at the end of the day to catch up on calories as well as other key nutrients: calcium for bones, vitamins for immunity, protein to rebuild muscle, carbs to refuel glycogen stores, healthy fats to reduce inflammation after training. This recipe contains 20g protein which is the ideal amount for our bodies to process after exercise. Gulp one of these within your 30minute recovery window after exercise and be reassured you’re Refuelling, Rebuilding, Rehydrating, and most importantly providing the calories your body needs to produce our precious hormones that keep up so healthy, fit and strong.
- 200ml milk
- 3 tbsp natural bio yoghurt
- 2 tbsp frozen berries
- 1 banana
- 1 tbsp linseeds
- Put ingredients into blender. Blend!
- If you're vegan replace dairy with calcium-fortified dairy alternatives. Even better if you're peri-menopausal replace with soya for added phyto-oestrogens which may help to ease hot flushes.