Periodized Nutrition for Female Athletes: Optimizing Training & Performance

by | Aug 21, 2023

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Optimizing nutrition for female athletes, especially runners, involves utilizing a specific periodized nutrition strategy unique to each individual woman, her body, and her racing goals.

I touched a little on nutrition periodization in How Your Period Affects Your Workout: Hormone Health & Athletic Performance, but there’s a lot more to it than just eating more carbs during certain times of your cycle. If you really want to maximize performance gains, dialing in nutrition and playing around with nutrient timing can be a game changer to move the needle forward.

I do want to preface that if you’re currently not eating enough to maintain baseline needs, you want to start there before moving on to the strategies I discuss here. Without adequate nutrition, playing around with what and how you eat is not going to make much difference.

The hierarchy of performance nutrition needs starts with energy balance. Making sure calories in matches calories that are moved out. Then we look at macros, vitamins, minerals, food timing, and targeted supplementation – IN THAT ORDER!

That being said, let’s talk nutrition periodization for those ready to really dial in their performance nutrition needs.

What is Periodized Nutrition?

Periodized nutrition for female athletes is a strategic approach to fueling and optimizing performance throughout different phases of training and racing. The concept of periodization is widely used in training, where athletes manipulate training variables over specific periods to achieve peak performance during important events. Similarly, periodized nutrition takes into account the varying energy demands, nutrient requirements, hormone fluctuations, and physiological changes that occur during different training phases.

Where to Start with Periodized Nutrition

Here are some key principles and considerations for periodized nutrition for female athletes:

Base Nutritional Needs: As I mentioned earlier, establishing a solid foundation of daily nutritional needs that meet the athlete’s energy requirements is the first step. Then we look at macronutrient (carbohydrates, proteins, fats) needs, and micronutrient (vitamins, minerals) needs. This step is essential to support overall health and performance!

Female athletes need to ensure they are consuming enough calories to support their training demands and overall energy needs. Chronic caloric deficits can lead to decreased performance, increased risk of injury, and hormonal imbalances.

Training Phases: Athletes go through different training phases such as the off-season, pre-season, in-season, and post-season. Each phase has different demands on the body, and nutritional strategies may vary accordingly. Focusing on base nutrition needs in the off-season or maintenance phase of training will go a long way to set the body up for success.

Energy Balance: Adjust energy intake to match energy expenditure during different training phases. For example, during intense training periods, caloric intake may need to increase to prevent energy deficits. Again, this is why maintaining baseline needs is important. If you aren’t starting with enough, it will be harder to increase needs to meet the nutrition demands of peak training.

How To Periodize Nutrition for Active Women

Carbohydrate Periodization: Carbohydrates are a primary fuel source during high-intensity activities. Carbohydrate periodization involves adjusting carbohydrate intake based on the training phase and daily training load. Higher carbohydrate intake may be warranted during intense training phases to support glycogen replenishment and performance.

This is also where menstrual cycle phases play an important role. During the follicular phase and into ovulation, carbohydrate oxidation increases which means carbs are more easily converted to usable energy. However, rising estrogen levels make it harder for glycogen to be stored and accessed later for energy. The best time to access these glycogen stores are when estrogen levels are low during menstruation and immediately after ovulation.

During the luteal phase, carbohydrate oxidation decreases meaning carbs are less easily converted, and as estrogen rises closer to menstruation, glycogen storage also gets progressively harder, making carb loading strategies less effective. Increased energy needs from the metabolic effects of rising estrogen also increase carbohydrate needs in this phase, so making sure to take adequate carbohydrates both before, during, and after activity is important.

Protein Intake: Protein is crucial for muscle repair and recovery. Ensure an adequate protein intake throughout all training phases, with potential adjustments based on training volume and goals.

Protein is crucial for muscle repair and recovery. Female athletes should aim to consume enough protein to support their training goals and maintain lean muscle mass. Including a mix of animal and plant-based protein sources can be beneficial.

Spreading protein intake out evenly across meals throughout the day will also significantly help with muscle gains in the luteal phase as protein and fat oxidation increases with hormone shifts.

Hydration: Proper hydration is vital for performance and overall health. Monitor fluid intake, especially during training and competition, and adjust according to environmental conditions and sweat losses.

Summer training obviously increases hydration and electrolyte needs for performance, but many athletes underestimate fluid needs in cooler months. Monitoring sweat losses and electrolyte needs is important year round, and outside of training factors also play a role, including stress levels, nervous system status, energy intake, and menstrual cycle status.

Micronutrient Considerations: Pay attention to vitamins and minerals that are important for bone health, iron status, and overall immune function. Focusing on adding colorful produce to each meal as well as supporting digestion and absorption of nutrients with fiber intake will go a long way to support micronutrient utilization. More on micronutrient needs can be found HERE.

Periodized Nutrition for Racing

Pre-Race Nutrition: Plan nutrition strategies for the day leading up to competition or important training sessions. This may include proper pre-event meals and hydration strategies.

Carbohydrate needs significantly increase as race day approaches, and protein, fat, and fiber needs decrease to maintain energy balance. Hydration and electrolyte needs are also increased depending on estimated sweat losses, weather considerations, and race duration.

Recovery Nutrition: Optimize post-race nutrition to enhance recovery and minimize muscle soreness. Adequate protein intake, along with carbohydrates, can help replenish glycogen stores and promote muscle repair.

If not hungry after activity, know this is normal due to hormone shifts to maximize performance efforts. You still want to replenish lost glycogen stores and support muscle repair with a 3:1 carb to protein ratio snack. Later when hunger begins to return, having a balanced meal with carbohydrates, proteins, and fats will continue the recovery process and prevent energy deficits going into the next training cycle.

Individualization: Every athlete is different, so it’s essential to individualize nutrition plans based on specific needs, goals, training loads, and any dietary restrictions.

Consult Professionals: Work with a registered sports dietitian or nutritionist who has experience working with female athletes to create a personalized periodized nutrition plan. Remember that nutrition is a crucial component of an athlete’s overall training program, and an individualized periodized nutrition plan can contribute significantly to maximizing training adaptations and performance for female athletes. For more on my coaching process and nutrition offerings for athletes, click over here.

Optimizing nutrition for female athletes requires a comprehensive and individualized approach that considers their specific needs, training goals, and overall health. A balanced and well-planned diet, along with attention to key nutrients, can support optimal performance and overall well-being for female athletes.

Further Resources for Periodized Nutrition for Female Runners

Hi, I’m Stephanie! I help everyday active women nourish their goals and fuel their lives.

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