Approaches to health should always acknowledge the uniqueness of every individual. When it comes to general human physiology, here are some fundamental differences between males and females, which are worthwhile considering to most effectively support your health and wellbeing as a female athlete.
Being such a physically demanding sport, these differences are particularly important to be aware of and manage appropriately to ensure good health and optimal performance as a triathlete. Interestingly, these differences can also be utilised to your advantage to get the most out of your training and performance.
So, what makes females unique?
The most obvious and fundamental difference between male and females are the reproductive organs in the body and the sex hormones they produce. The production and release of these hormones occurs in a very different pattern than males. This pattern underpins key differences in body functioning between males and females.
For a quick anatomy lesson, the female reproductive organs include the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus and vagina. Ovaries produce hormones (predominantly progesterone and oestrogen, with small amounts of testosterone) which are released in the body throughout the menstrual cycle. These each impact the body in vastly different ways (such as fertility, our moods, energy levels and the way our body functions in general).
A quick overview of the menstrual cycle
Often viewed as a hindrance to training and performance, a well-understood menstrual cycle can provide a thorough understanding of your body and how it may change throughout your cycle. This can significantly benefit to your training and performance.
The menstrual cycle comprises of four phases, and the total cycle typically ranges anywhere from 28-32 days, however this can vary significantly amongst females. Your menstrual cycle length is measured from the first day of your period until the day before your next period. The four phases are menstruation, follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase (as shown in below diagram).
Each of these phases are associated with different symptoms, which will all impact the way you feel and function. The specific symptoms and effects on the body and training across these phases is covered in greater detail in the Nutrition for Female Athletes module of our Nutrition for Triathletes Online Course.
In this module we also discuss the benefit of regularly tracking your menstrual cycle and how you can start doing so yourself. In short, menstrual cycle tracking puts the power in your hands to identify your unique patterns and individual impacts on training and performance throughout the cycle. This will allow you to better plan your training and understand your body’s unique needs.
Important nutrients for female athletes
So now we understand a little bit about why females are so unique in their physiology, let’s consider the specific nutrition considerations important for female athletes. There are two nutrients which are of particular importance for female athletes – calcium and iron.
Calcium is an important nutrient for good bone health and it’s also needed in body fluids. When the body doesn’t receive enough calcium through diet, the required calcium is taken from the bones. This can contribute to weakening of bones, which can leave you at greater risk of stress fractures and other injuries. It’s important to include a range of calcium containing foods including: dairy products, leafy greens and other foods such as soy products, fish, nuts & seeds and calcium fortified foods.
Iron is an essential nutrient involved in transporting oxygen around the body via the red blood cells, which is particularly important when exercising. It’s found in foods such as red and white meat, beans, whole grains, tofu and fortified cereals.
Due to blood losses during menstruation, iron requirements are higher for females, combined with a further increase in requirements for female athletes with high physical demands. This places female athletes at an increased risk of iron deficiency. However, iron levels can be monitored through blood tests. The exact amount of required iron differs in females based on age and menstruation. Iron deficiency can lead to negative symptoms such as fatigue, poor sleep, poor appetite and poorer sports performance.
3. Low energy availability
Another important consideration for female triathletes is ensuring that you are providing your body with enough energy to meet the fuel demands of your training load. As the intensity or duration of exercise increases, the body uses and therefore requires more fuel (specifically fuel from carbohydrates).
Failing to fuel your energy demands can have some serious and undesirable impacts on your health and performance. Some common symptoms of low energy availability include fatigue, increased injury risk, decreased strength, plateau in performance, recurrent illness and altered menstrual cycle. If this continues, it can develop into more serious conditions with significant impacts on short and long-term health. Find more on training nutrition here.