Approaches to health should always acknowledge the uniqueness of every individual. When it comes to general human physiology, there are some fundamental differences between males and females which are worthwhile considering to most effectively support your health and wellbeing as female athletes. When it comes to demanding sport, these differences are particularly important to be aware of and manage appropriately. This will ensure good health and optimal performance as a female athlete. In fact, these differences can actually be utilised to your advantage, to help you get the most from your training and performance.
What makes females unique?
The most obvious and fundamental difference between males and females are the reproductive organs in the body and the sex hormones they produce. The production and release of these hormones occurs in very different patterns in females compared with males. This pattern underpins key differences in body functioning between them.
Let’s begin with a quick anatomy lesson. The female reproductive organs include the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus and vagina. Ovaries produce hormones (predominantly progesterone and oestrogen, with small amounts of testosterone) which are released into the body throughout the menstrual cycle. Each of these hormones impacts the body in vastly different ways in terms of fertility, mood, energy levels and the way the body functions in general.
Often viewed as a hindrance to training and performance, a well-understood menstrual cycle can provide a thorough understanding of your body and how it may change throughout your cycle. Knowing these facts can significantly benefit your training and performance.
The menstrual cycle occurs in four phases, and the full cycle typically takes anywhere from 28-32 days, but this can vary significantly. The length of your menstrual cycle is measured from the first day of your period until the day before your next period. The four phases are menstruation, follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase.
3 things all female athletes should know about nutrition
Now that we understand a little bit more about why females are so unique in their physiology, let’s consider the specific nutrition considerations important for female athletes.
Calcium is an important nutrient for good bone health and it’s also needed in body fluids. When the body doesn’t receive enough calcium through the diet, the required calcium is taken from the bones. This can contribute to weakening bones, which can leave you at greater risk of stress fractures and other injuries. It’s important to include a range of calcium-containing foods including dairy products, leafy greens and other foods such as soy products, fish, nuts, seeds and calcium fortified foods.
Iron is an essential nutrient involved in transporting oxygen around the body via the red blood cells. This process is particularly important when exercising. Iron-rich foods include red and white meat, beans, wholegrains, tofu and fortified cereals.
Due to blood losses during menstruation, iron requirements are higher for females. Combined with a further increase in requirements for female athletes with high physical demands, this places female athletes at an increased risk of iron deficiency. However, iron levels can be monitored through blood tests. The exact amount of required iron differs in females based on age and menstruation. Iron deficiency can lead to negative symptoms such as fatigue, poor sleep, poor appetite and poorer sports performance.
3. LOW ENERGY AVAILABILITY
Another important consideration for female athletes is ensuring that you are providing your body with enough energy to meet the fuel demands of your training load. As the intensity or duration of exercise increases, the body uses and, therefore, requires more fuel, specifically fuel from carbohydrates.
Failing to fuel your energy demands can have some serious and undesirable impacts on your health and performance. Some common symptoms of low energy availability include fatigue, increased injury risk, decreased strength, plateau in performance, recurrent illness and altered menstrual cycle. If this continues, it can develop into more serious conditions with significant impacts on short and long-term health.
If you’re a female athlete and you’re looking for the best performance possible for you, I have assembled a group of incredible female dietitians at my Telehealth clinic, Verde Nutrition Co. Click here to book your appointment with one of them today!