Nutrition for the Female Athlete 101

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Nutrition for the Female Athlete 101

Have you ever felt hopeless, overwhelmed, or lost when it comes to what you’re eating? Do you ever feel like you’re under-performing in the gym or that you’re overly tired from day to day but can’t figure out why? Maybe you eat super clean and can’t figure out why your body composition isn’t changing or, even worse, you’re gaining weight?

Join the club! There’s a plethora of information out there and sometimes it seems impossible to know where to look and what to trust. Yes, there are many factors when it comes to figuring out the answers to the above questions. While none of them should be overlooked, nutrition is far and away the biggest piece of the pie (did someone say pie?).

I’m here to set you guys straight, but this is not another quick fix nutrition guide that comes with a meal plan and macro breakdowns. Why? Because every female body functions using a different operating system (OS), aka your hormones. Your individual OS isn’t the same as the chick that works out next to you, which means that what works for her won’t necessarily work for you. There’s no way nutrition can be a one size fits all model. Figuring out what type of diet works for you takes time, effort, and introspection, but has massive pay-offs in the long run.

A healthy energy balance means that you eat enough to fuel the functions underpinning optimal health and performance. This does NOT mean eating what your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is! The BMR equation does not account for your body composition--how much lean mass you have --or your activity level. If you’re regularly exercising (3 to 4 times per week) at high intensities (think weight training, interval training, etc.), then you need to consume an additional 400 calories on top of your BMR in order to fuel your performance and aid in your body’s recovery. Female athletes training at high intensities 6 or 7 days a week will add 800 calories to her BMR every day. A female that is breastfeeding needs to add 500 more on top of that.

For example, my BMR is 1613.65. However, I exercise everyday, sometimes twice a day, and I have an active job. I’m also training for optimal performance, and I want to support my ability to recover after workouts. Therefore, I will add 800 calories to that number, putting me at 2413.65. Realistically, I’m probably eating somewhere between 2400 and 3400 every day, depending on my workout load/intensity.

When active females undereat, they don’t feel well and, more often than not, their body composition does not reflect their “low calorie diet” or activity level. Simply put, they're not healthy. Undereating messes up our OS, and our bodies want to store fat to try and preserve menstrual function in order to sustain a possible pregnancy. You’re tired, moody, and bloated. You might be gaining weight in your midsection, your workouts suck, and on top of everything, you’re stressed about all of it. So what do you do?

The first step is to do the math above and calculate your appropriate caloric intake. The next step is to actually start eating that much. It sounds silly, but eating MORE can be a daunting task. For many years, I was led to believe that 1200 to 1500 calories and working out three hours a day was the only way to look the way I wanted to. I was convinced that I was “broken” and my body wouldn’t respond to anything except drastic measures. Instead, I was chronically fatigued and hungry, my performance was suffering, and I was inexplicably gaining weight in my midsection. My joints ached all of the time and my body was incapable of recovering from workout to workout. Even so, it took a solid year and a half once I learned all of this before I trusted the process enough to actually buy in. Once I started eating more, the effects were almost immediate. My body no longer took days to recover from an intense workout. My digestive system started functioning again and I wasn’t bloated 24/7. Within a few months, I started losing body fat and gaining muscle. And the only thing I changed was how much I was eating!

When you start to properly fuel your body, it will thank you for it. However, it’s important to note that body composition changes are not immediate. It may take anywhere from 3 to 6 months for your body to start responding with external changes. This may seem like a long time, but consider this: how many times you have gained or lost weight, been on or off of a diet, or started a new exercise regime? It can either be a lifetime of yo-yo dieting and feeling frustrated in the kitchen, in the gym, with the mirror, etc. or you can devote less than a year to figuring your individual preferences, metabolism, habits, wants/needs and find out what works for you. Ditch the scale and stop relying on numbers as a measure of progress. Your body and mind will thank you for it. 

- JB