The Female Endurance Athlete

by Exercise Physiologist, Rod Cedaro

As women push their bodies further and further they are presented with a host of concerns that were largely unheard of 15-20 years ago.

Female athletes can't train in the same manner as males. They are different - physiologically, biomechanically and even psychologically. But with a little planning of training routines and diets, females need not curtail their active lifestyles.

In this article I'll to focus on running, but the principles are the same for all endurance sports.

Women need to train differently to menThe Right Training Mix

Some female athletes can absorb huge volumes of training and others suffer crippling injuries from what is generally considered a modest workload. So be conservative - advantages gained by hard work can be lost if an athlete is sidelined.

Female distance runners should base their training regimes around running; however a great way to avoid injury is to supplement some sessions with cross training. For example, recovery sessions could be spent on a bike: cycling promotes muscular balance by strengthening the front of the legs and it doesn't stress the skeletal system to the same extent as running.

If training is rotated (hard sessions then recovery sessions) then workouts such as pool running can be incorporated into the program. These move the limbs in a similar manner to normal running without the stress associated with landing on solid surfaces. Hence water running can exhaust the runner without the same instance of lower limb problems.

Iron: Eating for Energy

Female Distance Runners Need IronFemale athletes are at a high risk of developing iron deficiency, and as such should be very wary of misguided diets.

The body needs iron to service the demands of working muscles. Iron is lost through perspiration, urine and faeces, heel strike haemolysis and menstrual blood losses in females and the symptoms of iron deficiency may include impaired performance, tiredness, headaches, cramps and shortness of breath.

It's recommended that female distance runners have blood tests every six to 12 months to check their levels of iron and the related compounds haemoglobin and ferritin.

The best way to prevent iron deficiency is to ensure an adequate diet. Furthermore, some studies suggest that heel strike haemolysis can be alleviated by running in well-cushioned shoes and choosing to run on softer surfaces such as bush trails or lawns.

Avoiding Amenorrhoea

Female Athletes Need a Well Balanced DietFemale runners are suffering an increased incidence of amenorrhoea, or the absence of regular menstrual periods. Another worrying trend is that the highest incidence of the disorder is amongst younger athletes.

The hormonal changes that accompany amenorrhoea appear to increase the risk of osteoporosis. Although exercise can strengthen bones, there appears to be a certain threshold beyond which there are detrimental effects on the skeleton.

A well balanced diet should ensure adequate calcium intake, however certain groups of sports people and females suffering from Amenorrhoea must boost their calcium intake. The best dietary sources of calcium are dairy foods such as low fat cheese and skim milk. These low fat options contain as much calcium as their high fat counterparts but leave more 'room' for carbohydrate rich foods.

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