5 min read

Fuel Your Training as a Female

Published on
October 16, 2023
Zoe Summers
Zoe Summers is a degree-qualified Naturopath and Medical Herbalist.
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In clinical practice, I encounter active women, both recreational enthusiasts and athletes, who push their bodies to the limit but often neglect proper nutrition to support their energy levels and recovery.

To achieve our health and fitness goals, we must place greater emphasis on the recovery process.  In this blog post, we will delve into the science behind recovery and nutrition, shedding light on why females have unique needs when it comes to training and their recovery nutrition.

Understanding Exercise as a Stressor

Exercise is inherently catabolic, a process that involves breaking down tissue to facilitate rebuilding and strengthening. It is a stressor on the body. During a workout session, microscopic damage occurs in muscles and bones, hormonal and enzyme levels fluctuate, and inflammation increases. When we engage in physical activity, we challenge the body's delicate state of homeostasis, a balance it strives to maintain continuously. 

Our recovery and ‘gains’ hinges on how quickly the body can return to homeostasis. Delayed recovery, attributed to factors such as insufficient pre- and post-exercise nutrition, poor sleep, inadequate hydration, or living a stressful lifestyle, can compromise our homeostasis. Over time, this can lead to a weakened immune system, rendering us more susceptible to injuries, illnesses, reproductive hormone imbalances, conditions like hypothalamic amenorrhea, RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport), and the pitfalls of overreaching and overtraining.

Why Training Fasted Isn't Ideal for Females

Women's physiology differs significantly to our male counterparts, as aptly put by Dr. Stacy Sims, an internationally recognized exercise physiologist and nutrient scientist reminds us that "women are not small men!". 

Fasted cardio gained worldwide recognition as an effective weight loss strategy, yet I see many women continue to grapple with the concept of eating before their morning exercise sessions and why they’re struggling to shift weight and perform well.

Our mitochondria, the cellular powerhouses that create ATP for energy, initially require carbohydrates to "switch on" before they can effectively utilize fatty acids (our body fat) as a source of energy for physical activity. Therefore, engaging in your 6am long run, 20 minute HIIT session, or gym class in a fasted state hampers your fat-burning capabilities.

Fasting can also disrupt the production of Kisspeptin, a neuropeptide vital for supporting sex hormone and reproductive function. Kisspeptin plays a crucial role in regulating body composition, appetite, and glucose levels.

When Kisspeptin production is disrupted, our brain perceives we are in a nutrient deficiency, leading to increased appetite and reduced insulin sensitivity. Over time, this can result in impaired glucose tolerance, potentially contributing to weight gain, sugar cravings, and diabetes (1,2).

 When exercise stress is added to the mix, our production of the stress hormone cortisol is significantly elevated. Cortisol, a long-term stress hormone, naturally surges between 4-6 am. Consuming a pre-training snack and a nutritious breakfast in the morning can mitigate this cortisol peak, reducing the sympathetic (fight or flight) response (3). However, abstaining from food before an intense morning workout can exacerbate this cortisol peak, with long-term implications such as compromised thyroid function, weight gain around the abdomen, sleep disturbances, afternoon sugar and caffeine cravings (3), and disruptions to the menstrual cycle (4).

 For optimal support of muscle growth, nervous system function, mental health, and menstrual regularity, it is recommended that women consume approximately 30-60g of carbohydrates (or 1g of carbohydrate x body weight) before their morning gym, pool, or track sessions (5). It’s been well documented that ingesting carbohydrates 30 minutes before exercises improves performance and general exercise capacity (5). Some examples include: 2 medjool dates, half a large banana, 1 piece of toast with honey, or 200ml of 100% fruit juice. 

The Importance of Post-Exercise Nutrition

After your training session, it's essential to eat your breakfast within 45 minutes to 1 hour. This time frame is often referred to as the "anabolic window," during which it is imperative to refuel and rehydrate adequately to kickstart the recovery process.

 Following exercise, our muscle fibers are damaged, hydration levels are compromised, and glycogen stores in the muscles are depleted.

Remaining in a catabolic state, whether by training fasted or delaying your breakfast, signals to the brain that the body is in a state of famine or food scarcity. Instead of burning fat, the body tends to store it as a protective mechanism. This delay in restoring homeostasis can perpetuate inflammation generated during exercise, hamper the return of the nervous system to a parasympathetic state, and deprive tissues of the essential building blocks required for repair and growth, which can adversely affect overall performance.

 Insulin, a hormone responsible for glucose transport into cells after eating, naturally peaks after exercise (6). This presents an ideal opportunity to replenish glycogen stores within the muscles and initiate the repair process. For females, this window of opportunity lasts for approximately 30-45 minutes, while males can benefit from this period for up to 3 hours (7). After this time, insulin sensitivity diminishes, causing muscles to absorb glucose from the bloodstream at a slower rate.

 A well-balanced breakfast, rich in both carbohydrates (1-1.5g x body weight) and protein (1-1.2g x body weight) [5], facilitates the transition from a catabolic to an anabolic state, reducing cortisol levels and enhancing the uptake of glucose and protein by muscles.

 Below is an example of a post-workout smoothie for a 60-70kg female:

  • 1/3 cup wholegrain oats (approximately 23g carbohydrates)
  • 1 large banana (approximately 30-40g carbohydrates)
  • 1 scoop of protein powder (approximately 30g protein)
  • 1 tablespoon of peanut butter (approximately 3g protein)
  • 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseeds (approximately 2g protein)
  • Unsweetened almond milk
  • Optional: 2 tablespoons of raw cacao powder and a handful of spinach.

In conclusion, I stand by the belief that you need to recover harder than you train, especially if you’re a female! By fueling correctly for your runs, gym sessions, and HIIT classes, you will be able to get the most out of your training along with having great energy throughout the day, better recovery, sleep, and menstrual health.

  1. Intermittent fasting dietary restriction regimen negatively influences reproduction in young rats: A study of hypothalamo-Hypophysical-gondal axis. Kumar & Kaur (2023).
  2. Metabolic impact on the hypothalamic kisspeptin-Kiss1r signalling pathway. Wahab et al. (2018).
  3. Female breakfast skippers display a disrupted cortisol rhythm and elevated blood pressure. Witbrachet et al. (2015).
  4. Evaluation of serum cortisol levels in patients with hypothyroidism at a tertiary care hospital, Telangana, India: A case-control study. Yaamarthy et al. (2023).
  5. International society of sports nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. Kerksick et al. (2017).
  6. Improved insulin sensitivity after a single bout of exercise is curvilinearly related to exercise energy expenditure. Magkos et al. (2008).
  7. ROAR. Dr Stacy Sims (2016).

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