Eating for Strength and Recovery: Female Athlete Diet Advice

Eating for strength and recovery

With the explosion of interest in the science of women’s physiology, there’s been a lot to learn lately about a female athlete diet and what they need to eat in order to sustain themselves.

For me, emerging from pandemic life to get back into lifting weights in a gym and racing has been an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t to help rebuild my strength and conditioning.

One of the things I’ve paid more attention to lately as a master’s athlete (I’m 46 years old) is being more consistent about getting my nutrition right in that crucial 30-45 minutes window women have after training to signal growth and repair post-training.

Here’s what happens — when I don’t eat within that window, the next day I don’t feel elastic or springy in my training session, instead, I feel dull and heavy. And when I don’t eat enough throughout the day and especially at dinner, I wake up hungry around 3-4 am, my poor body struggling to repair without enough fuel, and while I eventually fall back asleep, I wake up feeling depleted. When I don’t eat quickly after training or don’t eat enough, I also notice that my mood suffers — I feel more anxious and irritable.

It’s a common fallacy that eating less and exercising more will make you lose weight. There is plenty of research that shows any initial success you may see doesn’t last, and your body will respond by storing fat. Under-fueling is a stressful situation for our bodies that leads to problems with the thyroid, hormones, bone density, and emotional well-being. Not to mention you won’t get the gains from the training session just completed.

Even though I have known better for more than a decade, I recently found myself skimping on meals with the mental notion that this would make me leaner. It didn’t work. Not at all. I was lifting 3 days a week, but I wasn’t getting stronger. I was waking up tired. I wasn’t able to up my training volume regularly. Progress was way too slow. I know it doesn’t work, but it’s hard to break free from the mentality of limiting food that was instilled in me as a woman from a young age. You know what I’m talking about.

So I’ve gone back to the basics and become more methodical and consistent. Eat before and after training. Sleep more (a separate topic, but also important!). Eat lots of veggies and for goodness sake, carbohydrates are a source of fuel! Eat them before and after training. And protein — let’s talk more about that. I need a lot more protein than I did 5 or 10 years ago.


Women and Protein: A female athlete diet

While there still is nowhere near enough research about athletic women at all phases of life, more and more studies are showing that we need to adjust our eating as we age.

Protein in particular is something that women need more of as our hormones shift during perimenopause (approximately 5 years before menopause), menopause (after one year of no period), and then the rest of our lives post-menopause.

What does protein do?

After training hard — high intensity or heavy lifting — getting a suitable protein dose stops your body from breaking down and promotes muscle repair and development. Training is a stress on the body, which elevates cortisol. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone. Eating protein drops your cortisol levels and brings your body out of a catabolic state and promotes lean muscle mass development. So basically, in a good female athlete diet, you need to eat protein post-training to get the benefit from training!

What is a suitable dose? It depends. 

The amount of protein you need depends on several factors including intensity and duration of training, your age, where you are in your monthly cycle, where you are in your life cycle, and what you ate before training.

I have learned a lot of general and specific guidelines through Dr. Stacy Simms’ courses, Women Are Not Small Men and Menopause for Athletes. While there is quite a bit of nuance that goes beyond what I’m sharing here, these general guidelines are eye-opening and valuable and can really make a difference to the outcome of your training sessions.

Protein pre- and post-training

>Before hard workouts: 15-20g protein (unless you ate a full meal within 2 hours pre-training)
>After hard workouts: 15-25g protein
>Menopausal women: 30-40g protein after hard training sessions.

Daily protein requirement in female athlete diets

>Between 1.6-2.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day
(1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds)
>Menopausal women training hard are at the higher end and need closer to 2.3g/kg per day
>Pre-menopausal women not trying to change their body composition can be closer to 1.6g/kg

In addition to the daily protein requirement, the other important takeaway here is that women have that small window of 30-45 minutes post-training where they can get enough protein to promote gains.

What does this look like for women paddlers? We need to be organized.

By the time you’ve gotten off the water, washed your canoe, loaded it on your car, or put it away in the boathouse and changed out of your wet clothes it’s very possible that 30 minutes has already gone by!

I have a few different ways I address this using either protein powder, amino acid supplements, or a real food protein source. I can pack a water bottle with ice water in it and a shaker bottle if I’m mixing a drink, or a cooler to keep my chicken fresh. Getting one of these things in my body right away fits within that window that I have to repair my body after training.

This may sound like a lot of hassle, or maybe you still believe that waiting to eat will help you lose weight. If you aren’t sure if eating before and after training is suitable for you then one thing you can do is really start listening to your body and identify what recovery feels like.

What does listening to your body look like?

Pay attention to the way you feel depending on how you eat. When you skip eating after training, how does that feel? Try consistently eating protein after your training, and see if that feels different.

I know through my own experiences that training fasted and not fueling after training, does not work for me. I know this because I have tried it both ways and have listened to how my body felt, what my moods were like and what I was able to do day after day with different approaches to food.

I know I have to fuel aggressively for the activity that I am doing, within the right time frame, and that this is what allows my body to do its glorious job of taking me on awesome athletic adventures.

Author: Anna Mathisen

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