If you are a female endurance runner, it’s super important to make sure that you’re getting all of the proper nutrients and calories that you need to be healthy and maximize performance. Nutrition plays a huge role in how you feel before, during, and after training, how often you get injured, and how well you perform.
Nutrition Concerns for Female Runners
There are a few nutrition concerns that we should consider when thinking about female runners. First and foremost, low energy availability and inadequate consumption of healthy fats, complex carbs, and quality proteins. There are other nutrient concerns that female runners should be aware off too like iron, vitamin D, and calcium.
Low Energy Availability
Even though running demands a ton of energy, many endurance runners tend to keep their total energy intake very low in an attempt to shed body fat and weight. It’s a common belief that the lighter a runner weights, the better they will perform. This is much too simplistic and can even even hurt performance and lead to injuries and nutritional deficiencies. Getting in enough calories as well as enough healthy fats, complex carbs, and quality protein is absolutely essential if you want to be a successful runner.
More than half of your body’s iron is incorporated into hemoglobin and myoglobin, two proteins responsible for the transport and storage of oxygen throughout the body. Female athletes are susceptible to iron deficiency for a number of reasons. For example, if a female athlete is underfueling, they are likely depriving themselves of a variety of nutrients, including iron. And if they’re vegetarian or vegan, they’re likely to be deficient because plant-based sources of iron are significantly less bioavailable than animal-based sources. Female runners are also susceptible to iron deficiency due to the regular loss of iron during their menstrual cycle.
Vitamin D and Calcium
Both vitamin D and calcium play an important role in general health, training, and performance. While these two nutrients are particularly well known for their effects on bone health, they can also support immune and muscle functions.
Unfortunately there aren’t a ton of foods that are a good source of vitamin D. The best sources are swordfish, sockeye salmon, and tuna. You can also find vitamin D in fortified foods like orange juice, milk, and yogurt. Because the options are fairly limited when it comes to getting your vitamin D naturally from foods or through fortified foods, most people have to rely on other sources of vitamin D like sunlight and supplementation.
The body needs calcium for things like vascular muscle function, nerve transmission, and hormonal secretion. Some athletes have a high percentage of calcium in their sweat. Because of this, athletes sweating heavily or an extended training session might have higher calcium requirements. In addition to that, female athletes suffering from amenorrhea can require up to an additional 500 mg/day to maintain calcium balance.
Best Foods For Female Runners
So what are the best foods for female runners? I’ve compiled a list of foods below that you should consider incorporating into your diet as a female runner. It’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s a great place to get started!
Eggs are a nutrient powerhouse! One large egg has 78 calories, 6g protein, 5g fat, less than 1g carbs, 26% Daily Value (%DV) of choline, 22% DV selenium, and 11% DV vitamin D. Having a few eggs with a handful of roasted sweet potatoes or a slice of toasted sourdough bread is a great way to get in some quality protein and much-needed carbs.
Bananas have been a tried-and-true favorite amongst runners for longer than I can remember. One large banana has 120 calories, 31g carbs, 3.5g fiber, less than 1g of fat, 1.5g protein, 25% DV vitamin B6, 20% DV vitamin C, 18% DV manganese, and 14% DV potassium. Having a banana before your training session is a super convenient way to get some carbs and potassium before a hard workout.
You can’t go wrong adding salmon to your meal rotation! One 4 ounce serving of sockeye salmon has 173 calories, 0 carbs, 8g fat, 25g protein, 1.4g omega-3 fatty acids, 147% DV vitamin B12, 99% DV vitamin D, and 48% DV selenium. So not only are you getting some high quality protein and nearly all of your vitamin D for the day, but you’re also getting a ton of omega-3 fatty acids which are important for managing inflammation.
Looking for a fun way to load up on carbs before your next race? Sweet potatoes are definitely the way to go! One large sweet potato has 37g carbs, 6g fiber, less than 1g fat, 3.5g protein, almost 700% DV vitamin A, 58 %DV vitamin C, and 25% DV potassium. While there’s nothing wrong with a good old fashioned bowl of pasta to carb-load before a race, a sweet potato is another good option if you want to shake things up!
What Do Professional Female Runners Actually Eat?
Check out this great article from Women’s Running. To find out what professional female runners actually eat, they went right to the source and asked Deena Kastor, Kara Goucher and Lauren Fleshman what they eat. They love everything from farm-fresh eggs, whole milk yogurt, and spinach to buffalo meat and dates rolled in coconut!
Looking for some tried-and-true recipes that are designed for active women? World-class marathoner and 4-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan and chef Elyse Kopecky put out two cookbooks for runners. They show that fat is essential for both flavor and performance and that obsessing over food and restricting does far more harm than good. You can check out the cookbooks here and here. Shalane even gives seasonal sample meal plans that include some of her favorite dishes that fueled her while she was training for the NYC marathon.
The Superhero Muffins are a regular in my kitchen because they’re absolutely delicious with a cup of chai tea. Plus they’re loaded with zucchini, carrots, rolled oats, almond meal, and chopped dates. Talk about nutrient dense, am I right? And I’m a huge fan of their homemade sports drink! I love the combo of potassium-packed coconut water and mineral-rich blackstrap molasses.