Some women just breeze through their menstrual cycle with no symptoms or issues. For other women, it can be much more of a challenge. Our female gender does not change the fact that we are still individuals, meaning we must take an individual approach to understand our nutritional needs.
Assuming you have a healthy regular menstrual cycle (and not taking any form of contraception), your nutrition needs may change during various phases of the menstrual cycle as a result of the fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone, which influences energy and nutrient metabolism. Your nutrition intake may also be influenced by the symptoms experienced before and during your period.
At Uphill Athlete, we encourage our athletes to eat well to support the high-energy demands of training for mountain sports and big mountain days. This is additionally important for female athletes in order to support their menstrual cycle.
There has been an exciting upsurge in nutrition research and guidance specific to the female athlete that is beginning to demonstrate changes in energy and nutrient metabolism with fluctuating hormones throughout the menstruation cycle (assuming the female athlete has a healthy menstrual cycle and is not on any oral contraception).
But before you focus on how the changing levels of estrogen and progesterone throughout the menstrual cycle affect energy and nutrient metabolism, there are first some key fundamental principles to health and performance that all female athletes of menstruating age must make sure they have dialed in consistently.
UPHILL ATHLETE TRAINING GROUP
Eat enough to meet the daily energy needs to support health, training, and recovery.
Adjusting your nutrition intake based on the phase of your menstrual cycle will not significantly affect your training and performance if you are not eating enough daily to support your menstrual cycle’s basic functioning.
Consuming enough calories daily to support the needs of your health, training, and performance is the number one nutrition strategy to protect your menstrual health (and optimize your training and performance).
Inadequate daily caloric intake can, over time, lead to low energy availability (your body not having enough energy to support its general day-to-day functioning) and the associated risks to health and performance, e.g., menstrual irregularities, poor recovery, impaired training response, reduced bone mass, poor digestion, fatigue, and changes in mood.
Reasons you may not be meeting your daily needed caloric intake:
- Restricts food intake or control portions and food choices to try and keep your weight down.
- Consistently dieting and tracking intake to create an energy deficit or eating just the minimum of what you think you need.
- Denying yourself eating full portions of food to control your weight, e.g., skipping meals, purposefully not finishing meals or snacks, consciously plating small portions, or going long periods without eating so you can “treat yourself.”
- Restrict your carbohydrate foods because you think they will make you put weight on.
- Following restrictive eating practices, like low carbohydrate, dairy-free, gluten-free, and no sugar.
- Not fuelling your training sessions or long days out in the mountains to burn extra calories.
- Improperly or inadequately fueling your training session because you don’t know when and how, or what best to fuel with during training.
- Switching to healthier food options, but as a result, you’ve lost weight and don’t know what else you can add in.
Besides changes in your usual period (lighter or irregular) or your period stopping entirely, other signs that your nutrition isn’t adequate can present themselves as persistent nagging injuries, bone fractures, poor digestion, low mood. If you find yourself with reduced motivation to train, being incapable of putting in a good level of effort during training, or suffering daily fatigue and longer recovery from training, it may be there is an issue that can be tracked back to your nutrition. Women also experience these changes in motivation, etc., due to changes in hormones not always associated with nutrition.
HOW TO EAT ENOUGH
1. Eat Carbohydrates
Ensure you eat at least 150g of carbohydrates per day, e.g., oats/oatmeal, potatoes, rice, whole grain bread, fruit, quinoa, and even pasta (this amount per day will vary for each individual). 150g of carbohydrate = 1 large banana and 1 fist size sweet potato, and 1-2 fist sizes of cooked rice.
Carbohydrates are vital for:
- Helping to meet your daily energy needs.
- The regulation of your hormones for optimal thyroid function and energy metabolism and to support your bone health.
- To fuel your exercise to give you the energy you need to train well, get the most out of your session, and help you maximize performance.
As a starting point, general guidance is to include a minimum of 1-2 fist-size portions of carbohydrates in your pre-training and post-training recovery meal. Additionally, all other meals should contain a minimum of 1 fist-size of carbohydrates in all other meals.
If you are nervous about adding more carbohydrates because you think it will lead to weight gain, you can gradually increase your carbohydrate intake by small amounts adding in 1 x banana before a training session or sipping on a sports drink during the training session, or adding in 1-2 tablespoons more of carbohydrate in the recovery meal. Hopefully, you’ll see that you will have more energy daily, recover better between training sessions, and you won’t get so tired at the end of a training week.
2. Fuel Your Training Sessions
Not adequately fueling training sessions can lead to a significant energy gap in your day and drain your tank prematurely. It’s good to fuel all strength or high-intensity training sessions that are 60 minutes or longer (e.g., intervals, Uphill Athlete’s Chamonix Mountain Fit, strength, hard effort strength, or endurance training). For long aerobic runs/hikes and all weighted hikes, ideally, anything over 90 minutes should be fuelled, start with sipping on 500ml of a sports drink per hour and adding one carbohydrate-based snack, e.g., natural energy bar, sports waffle, cooked potatoes, dried fruit, banana, and bread with nut butter.
3. Eat Enough Protein
Daily protein needs for the female endurance athlete are recommended as 1.6g per kg of body weight. Try to spread your protein intake out over 4-hour intervals through the day across your breakfast, lunch, evening meal, and your recovery and or before-bed snack.
Adequate and proper protein intake will help support recovery from training sessions, especially long or high-intensity runs, weighted hikes, or when you are progressing up levels in Cham Fit. It will also help support natural changes in body composition, helping you become leaner and stronger without restricting what you eat.
Start knowing how much protein is in the food you currently eat by checking food labels or simply adding a food item into a food diary app such as MyFitnessPal (you don’t need to track everything you eat!).
These portions provide a minimum of 20g of protein which is recommended for meal times: 1 x portion of protein shake (which provides around 20-25g protein), 1 cup of cooked lentils, 3 x eggs
3. Eat Plenty of Fruit and Vegetables Daily
Make sure you eat five different varieties/types of fruit and vegetables per day. This can be achieved by:
- One good-sized handful of berries with your breakfast or in your recovery shake
- Include 2 x different types of vegetables at lunch and evening meals – one of which being a green leafy vegetable. Aim for 2 x heaped tablespoons per vegetable.
4. Symptom Management - Track Your Menstrual Cycle and "Get to Know You"
This can be done simply by noting your energy levels, mood, and symptoms throughout your monthly menstrual cycle and noticing any patterns, e.g., increased hunger, bloating, constipation, period pain, cravings, feeling really tired, poor night’s sleep, difficulty to train well.
Here are some common menstrual cycle symptoms that some easy nutrition practices can help with:
- Constipation: Keep up good daily hydration and get your five portions of fruit and veg per day
- Bloating: Keep up good daily hydration and take a daily probiotic.
- Feeling Hungrier: Make allowances, eat more if feeling hungry, and choose higher protein snacks (e.g., yogurt + berries or boiled eggs + banana or nut butter/hummus/cottage cheese & a slice of toast or edamame beans + some lightly sweet and salty popcorn).
- Low Energy: Good hydration, eat enough food, eat enough carbohydrates, and include enough protein at meal times.
Carrying out these fundamental nutrition strategies above will support your health and training way further than trying to zoom in and adjust your nutrition intake depending on the phase of your cycle. Once you follow these fundamental principles consistently and carry out consistent good quality training, you can potentially overlap the phases of your menstrual cycle and symptoms against your current training. Review and adjust your nutrition intake based on energy and nutrient metabolism changes during the luteal and follicular phases. Even when you do this, it’s still about bolting on solid nutrition strategies to optimize nutrition intake at key times around your training, including eating more energy, fueling your training with carbohydrates, and ensuring you are recovering well with enough protein daily.
- Eat to meet your daily energy needs – if you find it helpful and does not negatively impact your mindset, you can simply track your food intake for one day here and there to check in. You don’t need to track every single day!
- Fuel your training with a source of carbohydrates – Review your training plan each week and add a note in TrainingPeaks to each session where you need to fuel and what you can begin to fuel with.
- Track your menstrual cycle and start to understand your energy levels, mood, quality of effort when training, recovery, hunger, constipation, pain, bloating, problems with sleep, etc. You can use TrainingPeaks to keep a note of this if you are already giving feedback to your coach or ticking off your training session.