“Nutrition research has a problem: fit women are severely underrepresented”
Nutritional guides tend to provide a kind of one size fits all approach, which stands to leave significant holes in your diet depending on whether you’re male or female. At the most basic level athletes training for the same sport at the same levels have similar nutritional needs, however, as always the devil is in the details, and these details can have a massive impact on outcomes. Men and women train with different target metrics in mind, from their ideal swim times to how much they’d like to be able to lift and weigh. Different target metrics and hormonal fluctuations mean that the nutritional needs of men and women are different and will fluctuate. In this two-part series, we’ll be unpacking what male and female swimmers should be doing differently when it comes to nutrition.
The gender gap:
“Nutrition research has a problem: fit women are severely underrepresented.” – Examine. Until recently sports nutrition has primarily been focused on male athletes, in part because there weren’t many female volunteers, and many weren’t training with weights to the extent that is normal now. The other major reason for this gender gap was aimed to control for hormone fluctuations, which have been identified as the cause for the largest differences in nutritional needs. The majority of gender-focused research has so far been “centered on the unique medical and musculoskeletal aspects of the female athlete,” according to an article in the Journal for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America. As research continues to evolve more athletes and institutions are calling out for more gender-dependent nutrition research, in the meantime, there are some very clear blind spots in the American diet that female swimmers should specifically be aware of. Given that female athletes are underrepresented in the research we’re going to start with them.
Female athletes’ nutritional needs vary more than males:
The menstrual cycle is a key factor for consideration in female athletes, and how they should fuel their bodies. According to Examine’s review of the currently available peer-reviewed research, “no two women are exactly the same when it comes to menstrual cycle lengths and symptoms.” Given that the menstrual cycle places additional demands on the body, a one size fits all approach to nutrition is not enough to address the variation in nutritional needs, especially for competitive athletes.
Caution for calorie counters:
Calorie requirements are based on body size and activity levels, regardless of gender. However, adhering to a strict caloric diet can do more harm than good, especially when it encourages disordered eating. “More than 30% of athletes report suffering from disordered eating – and while women are more at risk, men are becoming a larger portion of the affected count,” according to My Fitness Pal. Swimmers adhering to strict dietary restrictions with a focus on reducing caloric intake geared towards preventing weight and muscle gains run a variety of risks, that can run into the realm of injury and overtraining. Not fueling with adequate carbohydrates and proteins can cause the body to enter a catabolic state in which it seeks out glucose, or protein, or other nutrients from sources such as muscles, which is not only less efficient but also puts you at higher risk for injury. Insufficient nutrient intake because of calorie concerns can result in delayed recovery, higher risks for stress-fractures, and hormonal imbalances, amongst other issues.
Strength training matters
“Runners and swimmers and divers demonstrated some deficits in site-specific Bone Mineral Density (BMD) values when compared to athletes in other sports,” according to the study published in the Journal of Athletic Training. This suggests that college-level female athletes need to pay extra attention to not only getting bone-healthy nutrients, but also on incorporating cross-training that will help build BMD. Athletes and coaches alike are being cautioned to be wary of overtraining and to keep in mind the high incidence of low BMD in female swimmers. One of the ways female athletes can improve their BMD is through resistance weight training, which may also help to prevent stress fractures. “Stress fractures are a common problem for female athletes, and osteoporosis is reported to affect 44 million adults, of whom 80% are female” according to the study, which also noted that strength-based and high impact sports are associated with higher BMD.
Fueling for success – the nutrients female athletes need more of:
Iron is a trace mineral that is vital for various biologic pathways including that it is a component of hemoglobin, which is responsible for transporting oxygen in the blood. In addition, athletes may be more prone to iron deficiency due to exercise-induced ischemia, foot strike hemolysis, and sweat losses. Female swimmers are at a higher risk for iron deficiencies, because of their menstrual cycles. A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found around 15-35% of female athletes were iron-deficient compared to the 5-11% of male athletes.
What happens when you don’t get enough:
Insufficient iron intake can impact immune function, and lead to higher fatigue, which ultimately impacts training. Insufficient iron can result in anemia, a condition in which you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to oxygenate your body’s tissues effectively.
Try to get more: spinach, lean protein (lean red meat or turkey), iron-fortified cereals, beans and kale. Pair with foods high in Vitamin C: such as oranges, strawberries, green and red bell peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower, as vitamin C aids the absorption of non-heme iron into the body.
Looking to supplement: a daily vitamin like the P2Life’s Sport Multivitamin for Women is an easy way to get the needed Daily Values of vitamins and minerals, or the P2Life NutriBoost Shake, which can be taken as a post-training snack to help jumpstart recovery. For all you competitive athletes out there, P2Life batch tests all of its products to be free of banned and illegal substances.
Calcium is essential for building and maintaining strong bones and teeth, but it also plays a vital role in muscle contraction and relaxation.
What happens when you don’t get enough:
Inadequate calcium can result in muscle twitches, cramps, and fatigue. However, 99% of calcium is stored in the skeletal system, namely your bones and teeth. A less well-known fact is that bone density fluctuates, and than if muscle cells do not have adequate calcium they may draw on the vast reserves stored in bone tissue. If this pattern persists over time, the body’s calcium reserves can become lower, which can predispose athletes to injuries and potentially to osteoporosis later in life. A study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology also found the supplementation of calcium to be “an effective method for reducing mood disorders during PMS.” In addition, calcium is directly related to the sleep cycle, an element of recovery that is critical for athletes. Calcium helps to regulate muscle contraction and nerve conduction. Given this role, if you’re someone who struggles with muscle cramps you may benefit from taking some time to review your diet and assess whether you’re getting enough calcium.
Try to get more: dairy, kale and broccoli, sardines, salmon, or calcium-fortified nut or soy milk if you’re looking for dairy-free options. You also want to ensure you’re getting sufficient protein, magnesium, vitamin C, K, D and E as they work in conjunction with calcium, and contribute towards building strong bones, absorbing and maintaining calcium levels.
Looking to supplement: get a calcium boost in your diet, the NutriBoost is an excellent source of calcium and a convenient way to jumpstart recovery after training. If you’re considering other supplements we suggest that you check whether your supplement is bioavailable and easily absorbed.
The Female Athlete Triad
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the female athlete triad is the causal relationship between inadequate energy intake, menstrual function, and bone-health. This can manifest as amenorrhea (missed periods, or irregular periods) osteoporosis or eating disorders. Amenorrhea can be caused by energy deficiency, calorie-restricted diets, or genetic abnormalities, or even stress. Symptoms of the female athlete triad include skipping family or team meals, missed periods, lightheadedness, dizziness, fainting, withdrawn or defensive attitudes about diet habits, rapid weight loss or sudden weight fluctuations, excessive training beyond the prescribed protocol. A study published in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that the female athlete triad occurs on a spectrum from optimal health to disease, noting “the triad occurs when energy intake does not adequately compensate for exercise-related energy expenditure, leading to adverse effects on reproductive, bone, and cardiovascular health.” These effects may have short or long term consequences on both the health and performance of the athlete. Diagnosing the female athlete triad can take a whole team of coaches, physicians, and support teams to diagnose, so building awareness around the existence of this issue is important for teams, coaches and female athletes.
In our experience female athletes tend to be more reluctant to supplement than their male counterparts, and this reluctance can put them at a disadvantage, especially if their competition has a more comprehensive nutrition plan, or is taking a superior supplement. It’s impossible to work off a bad diet, but sometimes even healthy, well-structured diets have holes in them, and the right supplements can be an effective tool in filling in any gaps in an athlete’s diet. Athletes who are not getting adequate nutrition are at risk for weakened immune systems and are also more prone to injuries, and are less likely to power through demanding practices. Inadequate nutrition can also manifest with longer-lasting consequences such as osteoporosis, cardiovascular problems, and even morbidity.
When it comes to supplements, many female athletes fear that protein shakes cause athletes to bulk, which is simply not the case. They also have concerns about additional calories, and whether the supplement may be tainted. P2Life’s NutriBoost shake contains a combination of three proteins and is specifically designed to build and repair lean muscle, not to add bulk, and is batch tested to be free of banned and illegal substances. The NutriBoost has undergone 35 years of research and development, and a similar formula is used by P2Life’s sister company to assist women in losing weight safely by providing complete nutrition with fewer calories. The NutriBoost is focused on providing athletes with all the nutrients the body needs to repair and recover effectively. The NutriBoost is adaptable, and suitable for athletes looking to keep off weight, but is also a popular option for the many athletes looking to put on some weight, many of whom have found that adding a scoop (or two) of ice-cream to their shakes is a delicious option.
One of P2Life’s goals is to empower athletes with information about what they’re putting into their bodies, to be transparent about what ingredients we use, and why we made the decisions to use them specifically. We recognize that the body of research in the scientific community will continue to grow, and we commit to accepting this as the opportunity to better serve athletes and to iterate our products accordingly. If you have any questions, or comments on content you would like to see us submit moving forward, please leave a note in the comments section. Keep an eye out for part two, where we unpack what male swimmers should be doing differently when it comes to their nutrition.
P2Life is a family-owned, performance-based, nutritional supplement company that was designed for swimmers, by swimmers, to protect health and promote performance. Within one year of launching, P2Life was the preferred choice for 40% of the USA Men’s National Swim at the London Olympics. Today P2Life is the dominant force in nutrition and is tried, tested, and loved by elite and aspiring athletes across all levels; high school, collegiate and masters swimmers around the globe. Every P2Life product is independently batch tested to be certified free of banned and illegal substances. P2life products have undergone +35 years of rigorous research and development, and the difference they make is evident in the numbers. With 18 Olympic medals, +800 World Records, and +100 National Age Group Records and counting, it’s clear that P2Life athletes feel the difference.
P2Life was founded by Tim Shead, a Masters Swimming Hall of Fame Inductee and +45x World Record Holder, and co-founded by Michael Shead, a former national water polo player. Tim’s expertise in swimming and years of experience and knowledge working with nutritional products, combined with Michael’s love of innovation and technical background, has enabled the P2Life team to create a technologically savvy company that is dedicated to furthering athletic potential. P2Life strives to empower athletes with the highest-quality nutritional supplements, backed by peer-reviewed scientific research, and to arm athletes and their loved ones with accurate and reliable information to make informed decisions. The whole P2Life team is working to fuel the athletes of today and tomorrow for a bright future, in which dreams become achievable goals and sustainable realities.
P2Life is a SwimSwam partner.