Female Runner Nutrition
Why It Matters More Than You Think
by Stephanie Miller
When I was in my early 20’s, I did not understand proper nutrition. I struggled between wanting to stay thin, exercising, and binge eating Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream at midnight. It wasn’t pretty. The Phish Food won every time.
Thankfully I smartened up in my 30’s, and discovered the importance of healthy eating and feeling content. I don’t diet: That word is evil in my house. My family and I eat healthy, and nothing is off limits. If someone is craving a donut, that’s OK. We love carrots and broccoli and salads, but we also love chicken wings and Kettle chips. And don’t even get me started on wine. I am a mom after all.
Now that I’m a woman in my 40’s and running and exercising regularly, proper nutrition is more important than ever. Women are wired differently than men, which is why we need to take care of our bodies differently. Jus’ Running recently hosted a series of speakers who spoke about running and nutrition, and one of the speakers was Dr. Jessica Knapp, DO and Assistant Fellowship Director for Sports Medicine at MAHEC. Jessica focuses on women athletes, and that evening as she stood in front of a room full of runners while nursing her 4-month-old baby girl, Jane, her message was very clear: Proper nutrition is key for any athlete, but it is especially important for females.
Don’t get me wrong: male athletes need their nourishment too. But female athletes do have unique energy and nutrition needs compared to their male counterparts; they need extra energy and extra calories to build and repair body tissue, prevent illness and maintain reproductive function (aka get regular periods).
Unfortunately, there is a higher rate of disordered eating in the female athlete population. Females tend to have a poor relationship with food, and instead of meeting their nutritional needs, they’re more focused on achieving a desired body size.
“It seems to happen more in sports where you are judged by how you look, like gymnastics, running, ice skating or wrestling,” Jessica says. “It happens to women and men, but in women, we have our periods – which is why we have to have extra energy.”
Jessica graduated from the University of Connecticut, where she studied female athletes and disordered eating. She also coached a high school cross country and long distance track team, and ran track in high school and college.
“We just have extra things going on compared to men, and that’s why it’s very important to get proper nutrition.”
Many women do not realize they need more calories, she explains, so they fall into a calorie deficit very easily. Look for warning signs, such as fatigue, lack of improvement in training, stress fractures, and missed periods. Other signs can be feeling stressed out, feeling down, and GI issues. Sometimes athletes naturally lose weight due to training, but if you’re losing weight and starting to have these types of symptoms, that is more concerning. (More extreme symptoms include kidney stones, anemia, brittle nails and losing hair).
For proper nutrition and calorie intake, Jessica suggests eating more fruits and vegetables, and then add meats or proteins, and plenty of carbs. As a runner, women definitely need more carbs (thank goodness), however if you’re a long distance runner, more fats and low carbs may be more beneficial. It really all depends on how much you’re exercising and what your needs are, which is why it is important to do your own research or see a sports nutritionist.
“Look for warning signs, such as fatigue, lack of improvement in training, stress fractures, and missed periods. Other signs can be feeling stressed out, feeling down, and GI issues.”
Yay for Carbs
According to Nancy Clark, a sports nutritionist and author, athletes who train for 1.5 to 2 hours a day should consume 3 to 5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight/day. For an avid athlete who weighs 150 pounds, that’s 450 to 750 grams of carbs (1,800 to 3,000 calories from grains, fruits and veggies). Source: http://nancyclarkrd.com/2018/10/11/do-you-count-calories-and-track-your-food/.
That’s usually more carbs than women think they need to consume. Another great resource Jessica likes to use is the Female Athlete Triad Coalition – a non-profit organization that promotes optimal health and well-being for female athletes and active girls and women. According to their blog, carbohydrates are particularly important for athletes because they are the body’s predominant source of fuel. They provide about 50% of the energy an athlete needs for moderate-intensity activity and up to 100% of the energy needed for high-intensity activity. Carbs also allow our bodies to use protein more effectively, and carbs from whole foods contain the added bonus of essential vitamins, fiber and minerals.
Not all carbs are equal, of course, and some carbs are better than others.
“Cheesecake is probably not the way to go,” Jessica admits. At least, not all the time. That probably also goes for Phish Food ice cream at midnight.
Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, milk and yogurt are encouraged as healthier carbs to fuel better athletic performance. Chocolate milk, for example, is a great after-workout drink that helps provide calcium and refuels muscles.
Aim for nutrients in your food
According to studies, the diets of active women tend to be low in iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D and the B-vitamins (folate, B-6, thiamin, riboflavin) especially if energy is restricted, poor food choices are made, or they are experiencing gastrointestinal issues. But Jessica doesn’t necessarily think vitamins are the answer; instead, eat a well-rounded diet rich in these types of nutrients to make your body happy.
Counting calories is also not encouraged because it can lead to a negative relationship with food.
“Calorie counting can be obsessive, along with checking your weight,” she says. “Just make sure you have a balanced diet and you’re eating until you feel satisfied. Don’t walk around with your stomach grumbling.”
It is good to note however that active females who have energy intakes less than 1,800 calories per day are not meeting their dietary needs, and more often their bodies require 2,000 to 2,500 – even 3,000 calories a day – depending on the amount of time they are training and exercising. Jessica recommends speaking to a nutrition expert to see what your body needs to perform its best.
Most importantly, be happy with yourself.
“Watch the culture in your running community. Sometimes we can feed on ourselves, and not realize you’re having negative body talk,” she says. When you talk about a runner and say things like ‘Oh they’re so good because they’re tall and thin…’ No. That’s not true. They are strong. Don’t get sucked into that.”
Recommended Recipes for Runners
Run Fast Eat Slow Cookbook. By Elyse Kopecky
The Feed Zone Cookbook by Biju Thomas with Allen Lim
Runner’s World Meals on the Run: 150 Energy-Packed Recipes in 30 minutes or Less