Sports nutrition for women differs from the needs of men, so why would we make the same recommendations? This post breaks down special considerations for nutrition for female runners and female athlete nutrition.
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This blog post was written by Melissa Boufounos and reviewed by Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN. It is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Consult a doctor or dietitian with specific questions about your diet or supplementation.
As a female runner, you might wonder if you have different nutritional needs than male runners. Nutrition for female runners does look different and should be treated differently.
Learn all about the key considerations for a female athlete diet to avoid under fueling and more.
Sports Nutrition for Female Athletes Key Considerations
Due to physiological and hormonal differences, female runners and athletes require different nutrition strategies than their male counterparts to optimize their performance and overall health.
Let’s review some of the differences in micronutrients needs and why they matter.
Because calcium plays a role in hormones and bone health, extra calcium for runners is recommended for postmenopausal female runners and younger female runners with absent or irregular menstruation.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for calcium for women aged 19 to 50 is 1,000 mg/day.
Women over 50 should increase their calcium intake to 1,200 mg/day as they enter perimenopause and menopause. This is because the loss of estrogen has a negative impact on bone health, as estrogen is protective of bone.
Food sources of calcium include:
- dairy products
- calcium-fortified foods (like soy milk or orange juice)
- dark leafy greens
- bok choy
- canned sardines or salmon with bones
- blackstrap molasses
Adequate vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, so female runners should pay attention to their vitamin D levels.
Attention to Vitamin D is especially important for athletes living in the northern parts of the United States and Canada where there is not enough sun exposure from October to April.
The RDA for vitamin D for women aged 19 to 70 is 600 IU/day.
Vitamin D is difficult to get through food so supplementation may be necessary, and may be part of nutrition plans for recommendations for sports nutrition for women.
Food sources of vitamin D include:
- Fatty fish (cod and salmon).
- Egg yolks.
- Fortified foods (like milk, soy, and cereals).
Iron should be a key part of any female runners diet and female athletes in general.
Iron for athletes is pivotal for performance since iron is involved in oxygen transfer, necessary for cardiovascular activity, like running.
Female runners may experience low iron levels due to a combination of factors. Strenuous exercise can decrease iron absorption, increase iron sweat loss, and contribute to the breakdown of red blood cells.
Additionally, women have higher iron requirements than men due to menstruation, which can cause regular blood loss.
Furthermore, some female runners may follow restrictive diets or unintentionally consume insufficient iron-rich foods, further exacerbating the risk of iron deficiency.
Food sources of iron include:
- eggs (eggs for runners are a nutrient powerhouse!)
- iron-fortified cereals
- kidney beans
The iron RDA for women aged 19 to 50 is 18 mg/day. Those over 50 and in menopause only need 8 mg/day since they stop losing iron via menstruation.
Inadequate Nutrition for Female Runners (RED-S)
Relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) happens when an athlete has chronic low energy availability. This means that the body doesn’t have enough calorie intake to cover the demands of exercise and sustain normal body functions.
Symptoms of RED-S can include:
- the absence of menstruation (amenorrhea)
- infrequent menstruation (oligomenorrhea)
- frequent injuries, like stress fractures and poor bone health
- poor injury recovery
- weight loss
- decreased coordination
- muscle loss.
Female runners need more calories per kilogram of fat-free mass than male runners to support their endocrine function (hormones).
The threshold for females is 30 kcal/kg FFM/day. Chronically consuming less than this threshold leads to low energy availability.
A female runners diet should provide a minimum of 45 kcal/kg/FFM daily. Our team of dietitians can help you understand your nutrition needs.
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Female distance runners are at a high risk of developing RED-S because they commonly restrict carbohydrates or calories, thinking that low body weight will improve performance.
But, thinner does not necessarily equate to faster, but instead could lead to more injuries, bone loss, muscle loss, poor performance, an obsession with food, and more.
Eating enough before and after workout sessions is a great way to stay on top of energy needs. Here are some tips of what to eat the night before a long run.
Carb Loading for Female Athletes
Because female runners generally have a lower overall calorie intake than male runners, the practicality of carb loading for running might look slightly different.
Some female runners may find it challenging to increase their carb intake to 10 or more grams per kilogram of body weight (as in the studies with male athletes), because it may compromise adequate protein and fat intake.
Female runners and athletes might find it more realistic to increase their normal carb intake (around 5g/kg) slightly during a carb-loading phase, slowly working up to 8g/kg, rather than going for it right off the bat.
Pasta dishes can be a great way to do this – pasta for runners is usually recommended because of it’s high carb content!
Women should find ones they like to prevent glycogen depletion in their muscles, which will impact muscle recovery.
Carb loading for women over 50 may look also different and it should. There is never one size fits all.
Things to consider will be how active a woman over 50 is, how rigorous her training is, whether or not she is pre or peri-menopausal, any hormonal imbalances (ie – thyroid), food preferences, genetics and more!
Vegan and Vegetarian Female Runners
Female runners who follow vegan or vegetarian diets also have some additional nutrition considerations to be aware of.
Protein – Plant-based and vegan runners may be at risk of insufficient protein intake if they don’t eat a wide variety of plant-based protein foods.
Some good sources of plant proteins include legumes (beans, lentils, peas), soy products, grains, and pseudo-grains (quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat).
A protein intake of 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight per day is generally recommended for endurance athletes.
Since plant protein isn’t as well digested and absorbed as animal protein, vegan runners may want to consider eating on the higher end of that range to meet daily requirements.
Since many plant-based proteins are high in fiber, runners should be mindful of their meal timing around training sessions and races to avoid gastrointestinal issues.
These ideas for vegan breakfast meal prep can help with low-fiber breakfast ideas before running.
Additionally, following this vegan ultra runner meal plan may provide some ideas.
While women are generally more susceptible to iron deficiency than men, research has shown that plant-based eaters who eat a well-balanced diet are not at a greater risk of iron-deficiency anemia compared to meat-eaters.
Since iron can be toxic, you should only supplement with iron if you have been diagnosed with a deficiency and have been recommended to do so by a medical provider.
Vitamin B12 – Vegan runners are at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency since it is not found in any plant sources.
Vegans can eat vitamin B12 fortified foods a few times daily, including fortified plant milks, nutritional yeast, or fortified cereals.
A vitamin B12 supplement is recommended if you don’t consume these foods regularly.
Overall, the nutrition needs of female runners can be fully met through a well-planned plant-based diet.
Supplements for Female Runners
As mentioned above, there is no one-size-fits-all, blanket recommendations for supplements for female runners.
These should be considered on an individual basis based on a person’s needs.
Common supplements, like Vitamin D, fish oil, and even Vitamin B12 for vegan athletes, may be recommended.
Multivitamins are not usually necessary for female athletes unless there are deficiencies. Therefore, it’s usually helpful to do labwork a few times a year to keep track.
Taking vitamins and minerals above daily requirements will not enhance your performance or health.
In fact, high doses of some vitamins and minerals can be harmful.
Nutrition should be approached from a food-first mentality.
Work with a sports nutrition practitioner or dietitian to adjust your diet before reaching for supplements.
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If you are going to supplement, do so with the guidance of a healthcare practitioner.
Be sure to avoid products that contain more than 100% of the daily intake of any mineral.
Here are some other things to keep in mind for an adequate female athlete diet.
Hydration – While many females may not sweat as much as men, some females may be salty sweaters and need extra consideration for electrolytes.
Hydration for females is just as important.
Women should also consider that menstrual cycles can influence body water status by increasing total body weight. Those who have high fluid needs should consider hydration packs for longer runs.
If women prefer flavors other than plain water, electrolyte enhancements can be a great option, as well as recovery drinks for running.
Alcohol – Women may also find that alcohol affects them differently than men, especially as they age. Alcohol after running may impact women differently on an empty stomach or with inadequate nutrition.
It’s important to adequately hydrate and get nutrients and calories from food before alcohol, which will impede recovery and nutrition.
Collagen – Again, nutrition for female athletes over 50 may warrant additional needs. For example, these runners who have constant injuries or joint pain may also want to consider supplementing with collagen.
While collagen for runners won’t drastically improve performance, it may be helpful for certain populations.
Magnesium – Magnesium for runners is very important, and many fall short of this key mineral in the diet.
Magnesium is found in many foods and is a cofactor in over 300 chemical reactions in the body. Therefore, magnesium for runners is important for optimal performance and ensuring all systems are working properly. Getting enough magnesium will affect performance.
Female runners may need to adjust their nutrition to support their unique physiological and hormonal needs so they can stay healthy and optimize their performance.
Female runners should pay attention to their calcium, vitamin D, and iron intakes and eat enough calories to support the demands of endurance training.
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