Fueling the Female Gymnast

In the sport of gymnastics, there are some obvious differences between the "men's" and "women's" programs. There are differences in the events trained (in addition to vault and floor, the men include pommel horse, rings, parallel bars, and high bar while the women include uneven bars and balance beam). There are differences in the code of points. There are differences in the "peak age" of performance (women seemingly peaking between 16-22 and men between 18-30). But, did you know, that there are also differences when it comes to fueling male and female athletes?


Biologically, men and women are different - from puberty, there are different hormones circulating the body and as a result can lead to different fuel uses, different fuel requirements, and as a result, may benefit from modified training to be most effective. For many female athletes, these changes start to appear around the age of 13 or 14, with the start of the menstrual cycle.


The Menstrual Cycle lasts approximately 28 days and includes two phases: the Follicular Phase and the Luteal Phase:

  • The Follicular phase encompasses menstruation (approximately days 1-6) and ovulation (days 7-14).

  • The Luteal Phase lasts approximately from day 14-28, when menstruation begins again.

The hormones that play a big role include orchestrating not only this cycle, but ultimately how the body works, include Estrogen and Progesterone.

Estrogen is the hormone primarily responsible for female secondary characteristics. Estrogen is "anabolic" meaning it helps the body build bone and muscle. Estrogen increases the breakdown and use of fat for energy and decrease the use of carbohydrate. Estrogen levels are at its highest at days 13 and 21 of the menstrual cycle.


Progesterone works as the opposite partner of Estrogen. It is responsible for the thickening of uterine lining and preparation of fertilization. Progesterone is "catabolic", meaning it is more prone to break down bone and muscle. Progesterone increases the use of carbohydrate for energy. Progesterone levels are at its highest around day 21 of the menstrual cycle.


So, what does this mean for a female gymnast?


When it comes to training and fueling a female gymnast, different aspects of fueling and training can be emphasized or adapted depending on where you are in your cycle.



Menses (Day 1-5)


During menstruation, hormone levels are at their lowest but the body's overall energy requirements are at their highest. To help the body keep up, it is beneficial during this phase to:

  • Increase carbohydrate intake (either with your portion or proportion of your athlete's plate)

  • Maximizing your recovery meal (which should include .4-.5g of protein per kg of body weight and 1.2-1.5g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight)


It is also important to prioritize nutrients lost during menstruation, including:

  • Iron (like animal proteins, lentils, leafy greens, and fortified cereals)

  • Magnesium (like nuts, seeds, whole wheat, potatoes, and dark chocolate)

  • Zinc (like animal proteins, beans, pumpkin seeds, fortified cereal)


Menstruation also leads to a higher level of systemic inflammation. To help combat this, it may be beneficial to include additional servings of anti-inflammatory foods:

  • A rainbow of fruits and vegetables

  • Blue and purple fruits and vegetables (like tart cherries, blueberries, and pomegranates)

  • Omega-3 rich foods (like salmon and other fatty fish, walnuts, and chia seeds)

  • Curcumin and turmeric

This phase may also lead to an increased risk of illness. To help combat this, it may be beneficial to include additional servings of foods high in:

  • Protein (like meat, poultry, soy, eggs, dairy, beans, etc.)

  • Vitamin C (like tomatoes, bell peppers, oranges, and kiwis)

  • Zinc (like animal proteins, beans, pumpkin seeds, fortified cereal)

Drops in hormones during this phase may result in diarrhea. If this is something you struggle with, be sure to focus on:

  • Hydration (drinking enough fluid and replacing electrolytes)

  • Limit or avoid caffeine

  • Fueling with very simple, easy to digest carbohydrate foods (like bananas, rice, applesauce, toast, etc.) around practice or competition time if your stomach is upset

Additionally, cramps may decrease appetite. However, if you are still training or competing during menstruation, you will need to continue to fuel your body for performance, even if you don't feel "hungry". Try:

  • Liquid fuel (like juice, smoothies, milk, sports drinks, etc.)

  • Low volume foods (like dried fruit, nuts/seeds, nut butters, avocado, grains)


Follicular Phase (days 6-14)

The follicular phase is "anabolic", meaning this is the most effective time for building strength. Fueling considerations that can help support this goal include:

  • Meeting protein needs with high quality protein choices at meals and snacks

  • Maximizing your recovery meal

Estrogen levels will also peak during this time. To help keep up, it may be beneficial to:

  • Include additional foods with fats (like avocado, nuts, seeds, nut butters, olives, and plant-based oils).

  • Decrease carbohydrate intake at meals or snacks outside of the training and recovery window


Luteal Phase (days 15-28)

The luteal phase comes with an increase in progesterone (which is "catabolic"), so the body is more likely to break down muscle to support energy needs. Fueling considerations that can help minimize these effects include:

  • Increasing carbohydrate intake as part of your pre workout meal or snack

  • Meeting protein needs with high quality protein choices at meals and snacks

  • Maximizing your recovery meal (which should include .4-.5g of protein per kg of body weight and 1.2-1.5g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight)

Progesterone levels will also peak during this time, increasing carbohydrate utilization, which often results in an increase of cravings or feelings of hunger. To help keep up, it may be beneficial to:

  • Increase carbohydrate intake at meals or snacks and within the training and recovery window

  • Increase intake of higher-fiber carbohydrates (like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) at meals and snacks outside of the training window

  • Decrease fat intake back to "baseline" (while continuing to include unsaturated fats regularly at meals and snacks)

  • Include "cravings" foods as a regular part of your meals and snacks. Examples of this might be

  • Refueling with a chocolate cherry recovery smoothie

  • Including M&Ms in a trail mix

  • Adding chocolate granola to a yogurt parfait

During this phase, core body temperature increases slightly, meaning hydration needs may also increase. It may also be beneficial to include 8-12oz of an electrolyte drink prior to training.


What if I haven't started my period yet?


While the average onset age of menstruation is 11-13 years old, the average age of menarche may be later for a gymnast. If you are younger than 14 or 15 years old, you do not need to be too worried (although it's probably a good idea to keep your doctor in the loop).


If you have not started you period by age 15, it is probably time to talk with your doctor.


While starting your period "late" may be common in the sport of gymnastics, it is not necessarily "normal" or a "good thing".


Often, the late onset of menstruation in gymnasts is a result of an energy deficit or low energy availability. Energy availability is the difference between the energy (calories) you take in (through eating) and the energy you use through every day activities and exercise each day.


When the energy available for the body to use is not enough, the body will start to adapt. The body will actually slow or even shut down many functions to save energy to make sure it has enough for absolutely essential functions (like breathing and digestion).


One of the biggest, most well know red-flags of low energy availability is the female athlete triad (also known as RED-S). The female athlete triad is the relationship between energy availability, menstrual function, and bone health. When energy intake is sufficient, hormones can be produced at adequate levels to support menstruation and keep bones healthy. If there is a prolonged energy deficit, hormones will not be produced at a high enough level to support menstruation. This also leads to decreased bone health and bone density, increasing risk for overuse injuries such as stress fractures as an athlete, as well as increasing your risk of fractures later in life.


If a female who previously had a regular period stops getting her period altogether (o it becomes highly irregular or infrequent), this is called "amenorrhea", which is a sign of improper hormone and reproductive system function. This is a major signal that you need to speak with you doctor and would likely benefit from working with a Registered Dietitian to help you restore energy balance and fuel for performance.


What about birth control pills?


Many teenage gymnasts are taking oral contraception pills for many reasons (including pregnancy prevention, cycle regulation, skin conditions, and more). These pills often "override" the body's natural hormone cycle and instead produce an "artificial" cycle OR may lower hormone levels enough to eliminate the cycle all together. If this is the case, it is less likely that fueling considerations will need to be adjusted throughout the cycle, since the body is not experiencing peaks and valleys of estrogen and progesterone.


However, please realize, if your doctor prescribed these pills as a way to regulate or get your cycle back, this is not addressing the underlying causes of amenorrhea in the first place, and you still may be at increased risk for fractures and other implications of low energy availability.


 

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Fueling your body doesn't have to be a guessing game. And you don't have to figure it out on your own.

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