As a Female Athlete, How Should I Eat to Optimize Performance in the Gym?
Updated: Jan 10
We all know movement is an important aspect of a balanced lifestyle. But for female athletes, what is the best way to nourish the body for optimal performance and efficient muscle building? First, I want to define athlete. We all think of an athlete as someone who competes in some type of organized sport and often trains for many hours a week on this sport. While this is true, anyone can be an athlete! If you’re training for an hour or more per day, multiple times per week, you will more than likely have increased needs compared to someone who engages in physical activity in a more casual manner.
General nutrition recommendations are great as a starting point, but as an athlete, these recommendations change based on the type of physical activity you are doing and for how long you are doing them. While there aren’t major differences in the way we utilize energy as females compared to males, there are some slight differences that could affect performance. However, there are few studies on these differences, which is why guidelines for athletes are not categorized by gender at this point in time.
Our body’s primary source of energy is glucose, which comes from carbohydrates. Current evidence shows that women have an increased use of intramuscular triglyceride stores during strength training compared to men, who use more glycogen. Triglycerides are a component of fat, while glycogen is how our muscles store carbs that our body doesn’t immediately need for energy. Essentially, while women do utilize glycogen stores, they’re also using more fat stores than men do during a training session. Hormonal differences, body size, or fitness level may cause these differences.
So how does this information change the way female athletes should fuel their bodies? First, we must discuss eating ENOUGH. Female athletes are often known to under eat and over train, as teammates, coaches, or media often criticize their bodies. This can cause muscle loss, fatigue, amenorrhea (loss of a period), and even a higher body fat percentage. This is known as the female athlete triad and is unfortunately not uncommon in female athletes and non-athletes alike. Every body is different, meaning your energy needs will differ from your teammates or your training partner’s needs. While I cannot provide medical advice or personalized nutrition advice, If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, 1. talk with your healthcare provider and 2. try adding more food to your meals or adding in a snack balanced with protein and carbs before and/or after a workout.
As I said earlier, carbs are essential for our body to function properly. Protein intake is essential to repair and grow muscles and for other essential bodily functions. Athletes will need more carbs and protein than the general population and needs will vary based on if you are endurance or resistance training. We can’t forget about fat either. Fat is important for hormone health, fat-soluble vitamin storage, and as we found out, can be an important fuel source, especially in women. While necessary amounts of each macronutrient WILL vary based on type and duration of training, where a menstruating person is in their cycle may also play a role in which fuel source is utilized at that point in time and nearing menstruation may require more fuel.
As a female athlete, you need more fuel than your non-athlete counterparts. General guidelines are a good starting point, but you will probably need to add additional snacks or increase the size of your meals to optimally perform.
Females use more fat stores than men during resistance training, so decreasing consumption of fats as a part of your regimen isn’t recommended.
If you menstruate, your body will utilize nutrients differently throughout your cycle. You may need more nutrients closer to menstruation.
Not a lot of research is done specifically on female athletes. More research needs to be done to make any formal recommendations that are specific to females.
If you feel stuck or need guidance on what works for your body, seek out a dietitian who can guide you in the right direction!
*This blog should not be used as a substitute for advice from your healthcare provider.
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Wohlgemuth KJ, Arieta LR, Brewer GJ, Hoselton AL, Gould LM, Smith-Ryan AE. Sex differences and considerations for female specific nutritional strategies: a narrative review. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2021;18(1):27. Published 2021 Apr 1. doi:10.1186/s12970-021-00422-8
Volek JS, Forsythe CE, Kraemer WJ. Nutritional aspects of women strength athletes. Br J Sports Med. 2006;40(9):742-748. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2004.016709