8 nutrition tips for female runners

The lament comes from my friend Shelly, but it could’ve come from thousands of other women: “I know my diet isn’t perfect,” says Shelly. “But between my family (including a newborn), my work and my running, I just feel tired a lot. I don’t know, maybe there’s something missing in my diet that would give me the energy I used to have.”

Busy women like Shelly often find themselves skipping meals, eating “empty” snacks, skimping on vitamins and overstuffing with fat- free foods. Women also have to realise that what works for men may not work for them. We have different nutritional requirements. To help you meet those requirements, here are eight nutrition tips.


Take it from me, eating frequently during the day is good for you. Research shows that women who keep their weight steady are usually those who eat at least four times a day and who don’t skip meals. This “grazing” may improve your work performance, too, as one study of men and women showed that eating a snack in the afternoon improved memory and cognitive skills later in the day. On the other hand, skipping meals can leave you feeling drained, unable to concentrate and lackluster about your evening workout. Also, missing meals earlier in the day often leads to overeating in the afternoon and evening. At that point, you’ll be more likely to select foods that are high in fat, sugar and kilojoules. Try to eat around five times a day–that’s three meals and two snacks. If you have a busy schedule, you’ll need to plan ahead. Get in the habit of stowing snacks in your workout bag, or bring healthful munchies to work for mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacking. Dried fruit, energy bars, canned vegetable juice and small boxes of ready-to-eat breakfast cereal are all good choices that are high in carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins and minerals.


B2, or riboflavin, assists in the breakdown of carbohydrates and fats for energy for working muscles. It’s no surprise, therefore, that this vitamin plays a crucial role during endurance exercise. Because research on women shows that 30 minutes of daily exercise lowers riboflavin levels in the body, you should try to get at least the RDA (1.3 milligrams for women). You might want to talk to your doctor about whether or not you need more than the RDA, especially if you do high-mileage training. Most dairy products are good sources of riboflavin. Go for 1 per cent or skim milk, nonfat yoghurt or other low-fat dairy foods. Breads, cereals and other grain products are also good sources.


Getting enough calcium and protein is particularly crucial for women, who are susceptible to osteoporosis. Though activities such as running and weight training help build stronger bones, if you are amenorrheic (you frequently miss your menstrual period), you can lose bone mass despite regular exercise. That’s because amenorrheic women have lower levels of estrogen, a hormone that plays a key role in building and maintaining bone calcium. An estimated 25 per cent of women runners become amenorrheic at some point. Some are helped only by estrogen-replacement therapy. In other cases, a simple dietary change does the trick–especially if you’ve been skimping on calcium and protein. Research suggests that the calcium RDA of 800 milligrams for women over the age of 24 is insufficient, particularly for amenorrheic athletes. Around 1,200 milligrams, the equivalent of four servings of milk, looks to be more appropriate. As for protein, women vegetarians should know that a low intake may put them at higher risk for amenorrhea. So be sure you get regular servings of dairy products, calcium-rich tofu and greens, and calcium-fortified orange juice. Also, eat lean meat and/or high- quality protein combinations such as pinto beans and rice. Avoid fibre supplements: these bind calcium and other minerals in the intestinal tract, thus decreasing the absorption of essential nutrients.


Many women have found that being a vegetarian is a good way to reduce fat intake, boost carbohydrate intake and improve health. Further, research shows that vegetarians are generally healthier than meat-eaters, that they have a lower incidence of cancer and heart disease and that they have leaner bodies. But being a vegetarian doesn’t guarantee improved health. A study of vegetarian women showed that compared to nonvegetarians, they took in less calcium, zinc and vitamin B12. Those in the study ate less than half the RDA for B12, a vitamin crucial for healthy red blood cells and nerve fibers. Since B12 is found only in animal products (red meat, fish, shellfish, eggs and milk are good sources) strict vegetarians (or “vegans”) must look for foods, such as soy milk, that are fortified with this vitamin. Zinc, which is needed for a strong immune system, is found almost exclusively in meat (oysters are an especially rich source). An exception is whole grains (once they get refined they lose their zinc content). Wheat germ is one of the best zinc sources; add a tablespoon or two to hot cereals, casseroles, soups or blender drinks.


Green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale and certain dark- green lettuces are loaded with folate, another B vitamin. Most women don’t get enough of this vitamin, and the deficiency is linked to severe neural-tube defects in newborns. This connection is so strong that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now recommend that women take in 400 micrograms of folate daily, which is more than twice the current RDA. There’s also talk by the FDA of fortifying grains with folate (as is already done with the B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin and niacin). Adding folate to breads and pastas would boost folate intake by an estimated 30 to 70 per cent. Until this happens, try to eat good sources of folate daily. In addition to leafy greens, citrus fruits are also high in this vitamin.


One of every two women will die of cardiovascular disease. And although women on average are a decade older than men when the disease first strikes, it kills as many women as it does men. (Ten times more women die of heart disease than die of breast cancer each year.) Fortunately, research has shown that people who eat regular servings of soybean products such as tofu and miso are at a lower risk of heart disease. Soybeans contain substances called phytoestrogens, which research has shown can significantly lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise “good” HDL cholesterol. Add soybeans to soups and casseroles as you would other dried beans. Tofu works well in salads, pasta dishes and sandwiches. And though soybeans are somewhat higher in fat than other beans, that fat is primarily the cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated and polyunsaturated types.


Studies show that more than 50 per cent of all women runners are deficient in iron. Sagging iron levels result in fatigue and poor endurance, since the blood is unable to carry oxygen as efficiently to working muscles. Feeling chilled or cold may be another sign that iron is low. Though losses of this important mineral occur during menstruation and in a few other small ways, lack of iron in the diet is the most likely cause of deficiency, as studies show that women distance runners usually get less than the RDA of 15 milligrams. The solution is simple: eat more iron-rich foods. Lean red meat and dark poultry are two of the best sources, in part because the form of iron they contain is easy to absorb. Women often shy away from red meat due to its fat content, but by choosing lean cuts you can get your iron while still maintaining a low-fat diet. Two good nonmeat sources are lentils and iron-fortified breakfast cereals. Another point to remember: the tannins that are in coffee and tea block iron uptake from food, so drink these beverages between meals, not with them. Before turning to supplementation as your source, check with your doctor. Too much iron has its drawbacks: it can limit the absorption of zinc and may also cause constipation.


Thousands of fat-free and reduced-fat products have hit the market in recent years. But this fat-free frenzy has a downside. Many people think that because a food is fat-free they can eat as much of it as they want. Not true. Fat-free doesn’t mean calorie-free. Many of these foods are loaded with sugar and calories, so gorging on them will cause weight gain. Loading up on fat-free goodies may also starve you of important vitamins and minerals, since many fat-free products are refined and therefore low in key nutrients. Many are also lower in fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects against age-related diseases. Research shows that women who switch to a low-fat diet (less than 30 per cent fat kilojoules) often fall below their requirement for vitamin E. To beat the fat-free nutrition blues, make sure you’re getting several servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day. To get your vitamin E, eat plenty of whole grains, and try to use small amounts of vitamin E-rich oils, such as corn oil or walnut oil, for cooking or on salads. Check food labels for kilojoule amounts even when you’re buying fat-free foods. And remember, if it’s weight loss you’re after, you simply need to take in fewer kilojoules than you burn.

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