• Dr. Julie Granger PT, DPT, SCCS SCS

Fueling Female Athletes: What's a girl athlete to eat? (Part 2)


Did you know that’s a thing?

You didn’t?

Well duh, that’s because I just made it a thing!

I mean, let’s be honest…anyone who knows me knows that EVERY month can be likened to Love Your Active Female Month (LYAFM). And I unabashedly intend to continue celebrating it. So join me!

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced some basic principles and insider secrets about how to optimize fueling for active females.

Go take a gander before proceeding any further. I'll wait.

February is always a highly anticipated LYAFM month for me. Aside from the Olympics (OMG! GO USA!) going on right now, I've also had the joy of catching the Women’s ACC Swimming & Diving Championships, streamed live on ESPN.com. YES!! Perhaps my favorite sports week of the year (outside of an Olympic year) is the mid-February week when my alma mater team, Duke Women’s Swimming & Diving, competes at the ACC Conference championship meet.

I have so many fond memories of that week, and it’s always so fun to watch even though I’m well into retirement and call myself a swammer now.

The conference championship is the final curtain call of the season for most swimmers. It’s feasibly what they’ve been fine-tuning and training for since August. Watching the senior swimmers in, what is for most, their final meet ever is so bittersweet (I get a little teary-eyed just writing that). The heart and camaraderie in every swimmer from every team is completely palpable.

Generally speaking, most swimmers have an exceptional meet. But not every swimmer’s meet goes as planned. I’ve been there. I had meets where I seemingly did everything right, swam my heart out and shocked myself with my performances….in both directions (good and bad). At the time, this would dumbfound me, my coaches, and anyone else watching. I was a hard worker--one of the hardest in fact (shocker, I know!)--yet sometimes the hard work did not pay off as planned.

Looking back, there were certainly factors that promoted my success, and others that contributed to my struggles. It’s utterly clear to me now what those factors were. Sometimes I wish I could go back and whisper some of those tidbits in young Julie’s ear!

Ever notice this happens to you or the girl in your life? I’d love to help you figure out why! Reach out and let's chat!

This is exactly why I’m here writing this today, in hopes that maybe someone, even just one person, out there will learn something and become more aware of how best to promote success without so much effort and so many question marks.

Success for active females is not just about hard work. It’s not just A+B=C. It’s about a lot more than that.

So if it’s not just A+B=C, then what actually goes into good performance in life?

While watching the ACC meet and seeing a handful of struggling swimmers, the wheels in my brain couldn’t help but start to turn. Injury? Illness? Problems with mental preparedness?

You probably hear about those things on TV when commentators talk about any athlete’s problems with performance. Those are obvious things that can blindside an active girl or woman unexpectedly.

But there are more subtle, nuancy things that can contribute to a girl or woman's performance, and I can assure you almost nobody is talking them about on TV. These include whether or not she is on her period or going through the premenstrual phase of her cycle, if she got not only enough fuel, but also the right kinds and combinations of fuel, and if she has gotten enough rest. And I’m not just talking about how she fuels herself and rests in and around "event" time. I’m talking about how she fuels and rests herself day in and day out for weeks, months, and even years before the meet.

Just like no ONE practice, workday or week of training will determine how a female performs at her big event, fueling and resting is an ongoing thing. And it's not only ongoing for her performance but also for her overall health in general.

Fueling and resting are like money in the bank: small investments, or the lack thereof, made over a long period of time can pay dividends later on...for better or worse.

It may seem obvious, but fueling is not just about eating and drinking; it’s also about what the athlete does to fuel and support her mind, body, and spirit.

That's where resting comes in.

What someone does to conserve energy is just as important as what she does to build it. If she has a million things on her plate and feels generally kinda stressed all the time on top of her training (which I’m guessing is the case for MOST rockstar, go-getter athletes out there!), you better believe that she’s unintentionally not doing a whole lot to conserve her energy.

Brain energy and life energy is still energy. Energy for play, fun, and joy is still energy. It’s all energy spent. That’s not to say that athletes should not be playing and using their brains…but we do need to find that sweet spot between overexerting and underexerting our energy in all of the valuable places where we exert it.

And my guess is, for girl and teen athletes, they expend energy in a LOT of places…sometimes in parts of life where they (and their very amazing parents and coaches) may not even realize that they are using energy! So if you think of energy as an investment: we can save or spend it, then it may be easier to pay attention.

Active girls and women invest energy on a daily basis in order to:

  1. Develop healthy physical, cognitive (brain!), and emotional health...growing bodies and minds are energy spending machines, whether they know it or not.

  2. Do their best in sports, performing arts, or other activities...sometimes this is the only type of energy investment we think about because it's the most tangible for active girls and women.

  3. Maintain steady, normal menstrual cycles. This may seem like somewhat of an annoyance to them now, but is another one of those “investment” pieces forother things in life: like good strong bones, healthy fertility (I know what you may be thinking and no!!! I’m not talking about now! I’m talking about WAY later!)

  4. Prevent or heal from tissue damage (i.e. injuries) and illness...every athlete’s worst nightmare!

  5. Rest and digest…assuming she is doing much of either of these things. Fun fact: you actually need energy in order to digest…and you need digestion in order to have energy. And guess what you need for both? That’s right, rest.

  6. Succeeding in the classroom…and we all know that the expectations and stakes are HIGH--pretty much from the moment she sets foot in preschool—for her to be a high achiever!

  7. Building a strong psychological and social web of support: friendships, relationships, family…it all takes energy (sometimes way more than we want, right?)

  8. Prioritize joy, fun, and play. We only get one life, why waste it doing anything but enjoying it?

Soooo...is your head spinning a bit?

Maybe you're thinking “WHOA, that’s a lot of energy to manage?”

Yeah, me too. And I do this for a living!

But I’m also a female, and an active one at that. Even I have to be very very mindful to manage my energy, which is one reason why it took me over a month to write this very blog! Sometimes energy for other important things comes first, and I'm ok with that.

Chances are, most girl athletes are spending more energy than they’re investing.

Our society, especially our culture among women, places a high value in being chronically busy. It can be a badge of honor. It can be a point of competition among women and girls to see who is the most stressed. I know! I can't even believe I am writing that out, but we'd all be lying if we tried to act like at some point we haven't been swept into that subtle one-upping conversation of "Wow, you think YOU'RE STRESSED? Let me tell you about MY stress!" We likely do it in order to relate to and empathize with each other, but hidden underneath is a subtle tone of victimhood: as if the things we sign up for or put on our plates were forced upon us.

For girls and teens, because their bodies and minds are developing, they are more resilient and they may appear more healthy. But they're also learning these subtle "it's ok to be chronically busy" messages from the adults in their lives.

Is that what we want for them?

Amidst all of those activities and busy-ness, no matter how amazing and wonderful they all are and how much she loves each one, something’s gotta give at some point. My guess is that for most go-getter girls and women, fueling, nutrition, rest, joy, play, and social time are likely being sacrificed…even if only a little bit…to allow for her energy to be devoted to being a rock star at every other point.

And you know what?

Those little sacrifices add up over weeks, months, and years. Despite her best efforts, they may catch up to her when she least expects it. Say, for example, at her championship meet or biggest competition or event of the year.

So what can we do about it?

Ah, my favorite part of any blog. The “doing” part.

I have good news for you.

Managing an active girl or teen's energy and fueling may sound complicated, but it really doesn’t have to be.

There are some beautiful ways to COMBINE all of those principles and allow for optimizing points 1-8…and it all really centers around using her menstrual cycle as the road map for proper fueling.

That’s right, you can potentially kill all 8 birds with one stone.

Sound too good to be true?

It isn’t at all!

But it does mean more talk about <gasp!> periods in her everyday life. That means talking about it with her at the dinner table, during carpool, and/or before she goes to bed at night.

I can feel you cringing a little bit.

Not sure on how best to talk about this with the girl in your life (or perhaps with yourself)? I've got some tips! Let's chat--reach out for support!

Sure, period talk can be a little (or maybe a LOT) awkward and taboo if you don’t talk about it a lot. But once you practice—just like anything else in life—it gets a lot easier and less awkward. So let’s talk about it!

The key is to go back to health class 101 (assuming you even had health class in school!) and understand a little bit about periods in general. No, I’m not talking about the where-do-babies-come-from information, I’m talking about what goes on during the entire female hormone cycle.

Oh wait, you didn’t get that in school? That’s right, neither did I!!!

So allow me to indulge you a little bit:

Health class flash back: Cycle 101

The cycle is roughly 28 days long (give or take 7 days). The “start” of the cycle is the “menstrual” or “period” part, which lasts for about 5 days. This is generally the only part most people pay attention to. Whether you notice it or not, it can wear you down just a bit. For the next week or so, your body recovers and then starts to build its energy back up naturally. Then there is an energy surge right around days 14-17, which is usually right around when a girl or woman is ovulating. After that, from days 17-28, energy gradually lowers until it may drop sharply around days 25-28.

Now that you have your Cycle 101 expertise intact, here’s the highlight reel on how to best support yourself or the girl in your life during the menstrual cycle! Below I will talk about optimizing her intake (what she's taking in, i.e. eating and drinking), output (both in energy and in literal output, ie peeing and pooping!), movement, mind, body and spirit health and other little tidbits like cravings and pain.

I go into a lot more detail of using the menstrual cycle to guide fueling for active females in my new e-book, Fueled and Fabulous, which you can get your hands on here!

Days 1-5 (Menstruation)

She naturally may feel a dip in energy, her mood may dwindle, and she may feel more or less hungry depending on her menstrual symptoms. Now is the time to emphasize loving on herself!

Intake: Emphasize hydration, protein, iron, and vitamin C intake.

Output: Getting plenty of magnesium (you may supplement this), ginger, fiber and water is really important to keep your GI system regular.

Pain & body temperature changes: Use turmeric (paired with black pepper and a sport-friendly fat for best absorption) and garlic to decrease inflammation.

Chocolate cravings: consider 70% or more dark chocolate as this provides rich antioxidant benefits

Mind and Spirit: Help her be alert, mindful & aware of interactions with others that may trigger her to feel more emotional. Leave time for mindfulness, journaling, creativity, one-on-one debriefing time with family members or close friends, extra sleep, rest, and recovery

Movement: If possible, allow for extra recovery time and build in extra mindful movement practices such a stretching, yoga, meditation, and Pilates.

Days 5-14 (Follicular Phase)

She’ll be recovering from menstruation from days 5-9, so continue to gradually returning to more intense energy activities. From days 9-14, she will start to feel her energy surge!

Intake: Emphasize sport-friendly fats and foods which naturally boost estrogen and testosterone, like seeds (flax, sesame, chia), legumes (lentils, peas, pinto beans), olives and olive oil, chickpeas, organic soy products (tofu, miso, and soy yogurt), fruits (apricots, oranges, strawberries), veggies (sweet potato, carrots, sprouts, kale)

Output: Continue to facilitate good bowel and bladder function with ample amounts of fiber, gained through dense carbs like oats, quinoa, wild rice, and root vegetables in addition to ample hydration.

Mind and Spirit: Toward mid-cycle and ovulation (around day 14), she’ll feel more brave, energized, and on top of the world. This is a great time to do something bold, like ace a test, give a speech, have a tough conversation. But there’s a caveat to this: all that courage may manifest itself into more risky and less mindful behaviors too…something to take particular note of in teens and girls! She may also need reminders not to get herself too busy and overcommitted with all of that energy, because she’ll need it when she gets to the next phase!

Movement: She will feel a little sluggish at first, but toward the end of the follicular phase she will be full of energy to totally NAIL a sports competition or performing arts event. She may feel like doing more power activities or weight lifting, and have increased focus for agility and skills work.

Days 14-28 (Luteal phase)

During this phase, she will start out days 14-21 with higher energy, and then her energy will slowly begin to taper as she approaches menstruation (days 21-28). She will see a rise in progesterone, which is a great hormone for so many reasons…and can sometimes get us in trouble for another reason: bringing us to a higher risk for injuries.

Intake: Build proteins, continue to build fiber & hydration: it’s an investment for the menstrual phase! Progesterone-friendly foods include Leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (Brussels, broccoli, cauliflower), salmon, tuna, bananas, spinach, walnuts, beef, chicken, sweet potato, beans and prunes.

Output: Consider building in some extra magnesium (also great during an Epsom salt bath, another great recovery technique!) and fluids toward the end of the luteal phase.

Mind and spirit: Build mindfulness, meditation, introspection, journaling practice (start off 1-2x/week, and build from there). Be mindful of boundaries and tendency towards overcommitments coming out of the high energy, risk-taking phase of ovulation: learn how to say no! Emphasize creativity and connectivity with friends and loved ones as she naturally begins to decrease her energy and become more in tune with her emotions.

Movement: At the beginning of this phase, she may be full of energy, just like the end of the follicular phase. By day 21-25, she may start to feel a little more sluggish and less focused, which puts her at risk for injury! It’s important during the 2nd half of the cycle, when she’s naturally more at risk for injury, and during menstruation, when she is more tired, that she pay extra close attention to her form, technique, and skills so that she can stay healthy!

Ready, Set, Go!

Now that you have a roadmap and guide to creating optimal fueling for sports performance, I bet you’re ready to dive in headfirst, totally hit all the high points, and optimize your cycle and sports performance overnight, right?

Easy there, tiger. While you and I both LOVE to go all in, it’s important not to turn the "Fueling Active Females Titanic" in one day, one week, or even one month. Reprogramming how the cycle and active life performance interacts takes time, and sometimes some trial and error. It’s important to take baby steps so you can see how each step you take impacts how you (or the girl in your life) feels!

Over the course of the next 30 days:

  1. Get a handle on her (or your) menstrual cycle. Just start paying attention to your moods, energy, and cravings. Use a journal, the notes app in your phone, or simply just talk about it.

  2. Focus on trying to add or change ONE element of each phase. Maybe focus on intake in the menstrual phase, output in the follicular phase, and mind and spirit in the luteal phase. Believe me, just one little change in each phase is a HUGE success!

  3. Rest is the key. Be mindful of your sleep routine. See if you can cut off your screens just 5-10 minutes earlier 3-4 nights per week and spend that time doing something mindful: like journaling, meditating (use an app if you’re a newbie!), or practicing some visualization.

  4. Draw a picture (literally!) of how many things are on your plate. You don’t have to let go or say no to all or any of them, but the key is to start to become aware of how committed or overcommitted your (or her) energy is to all of the amazing things you do!

Want to go the extra mile? Get your hands on my new e-book, Fueled and Fabulous, the perfectly detailed period and nutrition guide for girls and moms! It’s written in “girl speak,” so even kids and teens will understand the material! After all, she LOVES to be in charge, right? What’s better than allowing her to take charge of her own health?

One caveat to note: all of these factors assume a normal, non-irregular menstrual cycle and absence of other health factors that may affect a female's ability to absorb and digest nutrients (like food allergies and sensitivities) and to maintain a normal state of rest.

Not everyone will fit into this box, which is exactly why I am here to help! I l LOVE to support girls and women to not just become masters of their health, but also their lives! Reach out and let me know your questions and let's chat!

I can't wait to hear how this goes for you!

#girlathlete #periodhealth #menstrualhealth #energydeficiency #nutrition #femaleathlete #healthcoaching #lifecoaching #teenhealth #girlhealth #sportshealth #Nutrition #ParentingAthletes #Functionalmedicine

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