With the growing popularity of the women’s game and with the Women’s 6 Nations is well under way I wanted to focus my blog this month on the major nutritional considerations for women athletes.
Now as we know, rugby is a physically demanding game – it requires a number of physical attributes so when we look at nutritional considerations for a female athlete/s it is important to consider three important areas; Energy Availability, Menstrual Cycle and Bone Health. These three areas are more commonly known as the Female Athlete Triad.
What is the Female Athlete Triad?
The Female Athlete Triad can best be described as an interrelated syndrome between low energy availability, bone mineral density and menstrual function. The diagram on the left demonstrates how the three are interlinked.
What causes problems with the Female Athlete Triad?
In general, repeated low energy intake (i.e. not eating enough) by the athlete/s is one of the major causes of problems with the Female Athlete Triad. Again, being very general, it is found more commonly in endurance-based sports (marathon running, long-distance cycling etc.) or sports that require you ‘make weight’ (boxing, martial arts etc.), however, it is something that females in all sports need to be aware of, and rugby is no different!
Athletes (both men & women) that suffer with body image issues are more likely to reduce their food intake in a bid to lose weight – in this case we are talking about female athletes, and if energy restriction is not done properly with the help/monitoring of a professional it can cause problems with the Female Athlete Triad.
Energy availability is defined as the amount of energy from food available to your body after exercise. Maintaining healthy energy availability through a suitable diet will help with optimum health and avoid complications with the Female Athlete Triad. The human body is designed to cope with small fluctuations in energy availability, however, what happens if these fluctuations drop too low?
When the amount of energy in the average female drops below 30kcal per kilo of lean mass it begins to affect health and causes problems along the scale of the Female Athlete Triad.
Now whether you are a player, coach or spectator of female rugby, there are a number of signs/symptoms to keep an eye out for, which include:
• Irregular/no menstrual cycle
• Poor immune system (i.e. player is getting ill a lot)
• A player noticeably restricting their energy intake or have a poor diet (i.e. don’t eat regularly)
• Regular bone breaking in training/matches (may be an indication of poor bone mineral density)
Long-Term Risk Factors
Some of the longer-term risk factors associated with complications within the Female Athlete Triad include:
• Poor immune function
• Poor hormonal function, including menstrual cycle
• Irreversible losses to bone mineral density – bone mass in young adulthood is a critical factor of post-menopausal fractures (i.e. if you have weak bones from a young age, you increase your risk of fracturing bones when you get older)
How can we avoid Low Energy Availability?
• Do not undertake drastic energy restricting diets
• Aim to eat every 3 – 4 hours, if possible (approximately 3 meals & 2 snacks per day)
• Monitor the regularity of your menstrual cycle – if irregular or no menstrual cycle, it may be due to low energy availability
• Adapt your energy needs with your training (e.g. pre-season = higher intensity training, so energy demands are greater than in the off-season)
What to do if there is a problem?
If you think that either yourself, or one of your teammates is at risk it is important to seek professional advice from either a GP or registered nutritionist/dietician.
Alternatively, please visit www.femaleathletetriad.org for more information on the Female Athlete Triad – it is a really useful website with some great educational tools and factsheets available!
It is important for female athletes to be aware of the damages that dramatically restricting their energy intake in the short-term to achieving sporting or body composition goals can have on their body in long-term.
It is always advisable to seek the advice from a professional before embarking on any form of energy-restrictive diet.
The Female Athlete Triad is something that all women should be aware of, however it is, probably slightly more important for female athletes to be aware of given the amount of physically activity they undertake and as such energy demands are greater, if you don’t put enough in to your body to cover these demands then you will eventually cause health problems.
I hope this blog has helped raise awareness of the potential problems for the female players out there and please remember, if you or you think one of your teammates is at risk then talk to somebody about it!
As always, comments and thoughts are welcome!