In order to keep your body running in peak form, you need to make sure you’re meeting these women-specific nutrition needs.

Strong Like A Woman

When we add exercise to already hectic lives, it becomes vital to meet our nutrient needs—especially for women, who have to pay attention to specific nutrition requirements in order to run and feel our best.

Female runners have higher-than-average total energy (calorie) needs to support our training loads. Studies show that female athletes’ total energy intake and availability should be 45 calories per kilogram of fat-free mass plus exercise expenditure to maintain menses, bone health and other critical functions. Therefore, a 120-pound runner with 18 percent body fat needs 2,000 calories per day. Add a 5-mile daily running average, and that ideal caloric intake jumps to 2,500.

Protein

Protein needs are generally 1.2–1.6 times higher in female athletes than non-athletes. Without adequate protein intake (65–87 grams per day for the 120-pound runner above), runners experience poor muscle recovery, inability to build/maintain muscle mass/strength and constant hunger. Ensure that you eat 15–20 grams of protein four times per day. Good sources include chicken, turkey, fish, tofu, eggs, cottage cheese and beans.

Iron

Iron helps red blood cells carry oxygen to muscles and convert carbohydrates to energy during exercise. Inadequate iron intake leads to decreased performance, exhaustion, extreme coldness and even depression. Vegetarians and all female distance runners may need 1.7 times the recommended daily allowance (RDA), due to losses in sweat and hemolysis (red blood cell destruction due to pounding). Menstruating women need 18 milligrams per day and should routinely have ferritin and hemoglobin levels checked by their doctor. Iron-rich foods include red meat, spinach, beans and fortified foods. Supplementation is often needed, but have your bloodwork checked first to avoid unexpected complications. Note: Women taking oral contraceptives often have lower menstrual blood flow and thus may require only 11 milligrams per day.

Calcium And Vitamin D

Calcium and vitamin D are both important for bone health, muscle contraction and performance. Calcium is lost in sweat and urine; thus, runners have increased needs. A recent survey of more than 10,000 female athletes showed fewer than half consume the minimally recommended 1,000 milligrams per day. Amenorrheic runners need 1,500 milligrams per day. Get more from milk, yogurt, sardines, eggs, low-oxalate leafy greens, soybeans and fortified cereals. If supplementation is necessary, take 500 milligrams twice daily.

Vitamin D helps increase absorption of calcium from food and prevents muscle fatigue. Supplementation is commonly needed for those living at latitudes with limited sun-converting ability and those who run or work indoors much of the year and wear sunblock, as these tendencies circumvent our natural vitamin D–making capabilities. Get it from fatty fish, egg yolks and mushrooms.

Folic Acid

Folic acid and B12 are B vitamins important for metabolism and cell growth. Folic acid helps prevent birth defects, and B12 is needed for the production of “feel-good hormones” serotonin and dopamine. All women should take 10 milligrams of folic acid per day for more than a month prior to trying to conceive and throughout pregnancy. Four weeks of folic acid supplementation has been shown to decrease cardiac risk and improve blood flow in amenorrheic runners. Get it from spinach, broccoli, lettuce, beans, peas, lentils, bananas and melon. Caution: Folic acid supplementation can mask B12 deficiency and lead to neurological complications. Supplement both at once by eating foods like beef, turkey, salmon, eggs, fortified almond or coconut milk and shellfish.

Fiber

Fiber is a key nutrient in maintaining gut health. The general fiber recommendation is 20–35 grams per day. Adequate fiber intake is correlated with better blood glucose levels, lower LDL cholesterol and fewer GI complaints. Good sources include apples, broccoli and lentils. Caution: More fiber is not necessarily better, as high-fiber intake can lead to absorption issues with other nutrients as well as gas, bloating and discomfort.