Calling All Ladies: Fueling Considerations for Female Endurance Athletes

By Brooke Schohl | March 24, 2015, 2:25 p.m. (ET)

athlete fuelingWhen it comes to endurance sports, you know that fueling well is hugely important. The right fuel plan can increase energy levels, improve body composition and boost performance to the next level. Athletes who pay close attention to their intake, and strive to consume a clean diet of healthy, natural foods have a leg up on the competition.

There are some sex-specific fueling strategy differences between men and women, though. Which makes sense — we have unique anatomies, different nutrient requirements and diverse fueling habits.

Don’t be left in the dark, follow these women-specific guidelines for this year’s race season, ladies!

Ensure You Are Getting Enough Vitamins and Minerals

Female athletes like you are at higher risk for iron, calcium, B vitamin and zinc deficiencies. These nutrients are responsible for building bone and muscle, as well as being involved in energy production; all of which are essential to athletes. Iron insufficiencies occur commonly due to menstrual losses, and can lead to fatigue and low energy metabolism. Follow the philosophy of food first, supplements second when preventing or addressing nutrient deficiencies.

  • Iron-rich foods (minimum of 18 mg/day): meat, dried beans, fruit and leafy green vegetables.
  • Calcium-rich foods (1,000 mg/day): dairy products, leafy green vegetables and beans
  • B vitamin-rich foods (varies): chicken, meat, tuna, eggs, milk, yogurt, spinach, mushrooms, oranges, apples, potatoes and peanut butter
  • Zinc-rich foods (8 mg/day): meat, shellfish, oysters and whole grains

Ensure You Are Getting Enough Calories

Inadequate daily caloric intake is more common among female athletes than males, especially in sports that encourage a lean physique (running, triathlon, cycling). By setting daily caloric intake too low, your energy levels and performance can be negatively impacted. The Female Athlete Triad is a syndrome of three conditions that results from inadequate energy intake: energy deficiency, amenorrhea and bone loss/osteoporosis. Caloric requirements change over the course of a season. Meet with a sports dietitian to ensure you are getting enough calories and the right balance of carbohydrates, fat and protein. Find that balance between looking great and performing at your highest level.

Ensure You Are Getting Enough Protein

Athletes require more protein than their non-athlete counterparts — you must repair muscle tissue damaged during exercise and also have a higher amount of lean muscle mass to support. Female athletes who are restricting their energy intake or follow a vegetarian/vegan diet are more likely to be deficient. Protein requirements are the same for male and female endurance athletes (1.2-1.8 g/kg/d), but women often have a harder time meeting the minimum recommendations due to dietary restrictions or preferences. No matter the type of diet you follow — carnivorous, vegetarian, vegan — there are plenty of protein sources available to meet minimum daily goals. Calculate your minimum protein requirement and ensure you are meeting this number on a daily basis.

  • Protein-rich foods: chicken, turkey, seafood, beef, pork, eggs, beans/lentils, tofu, dairy products, nuts/seeds and vegetables 

You are a strong woman — an endurance athlete! Make sure to stay this way by consuming all of the great nutrients you need on a daily basis. Pay close attention to iron intake, protein intake and total energy intake.

Contact Brooke Schohl, MS, RD, METS Level II if you’d like help getting your fuel plan dialed in. Brooke is a registered sports dietitian and the owner of Fuel to the Finish Endurance Nutrition Coaching in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is an avid triathlete, having completed many triathlons of all distances including three IRONMAN races. She integrates that personal experience and knowledge into developing customized, sport-specific, metabolically efficient fueling plans for her clients. Brooke and her husband, John, own Destination Kona Triathlon Store in south Scottsdale, Arizona. For more information on services and offerings, visit her website at fueltothefinish.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.