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When we add exercise and running 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. Nutrition for runners, after all, can look different than for other sports or non-athletes.
And female runners, specifically, 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.
Nutrition Requirements For Female Runners
To be sure that you’re not under-fueling, these are the six vitamins and minerals you should be paying attention to when you’re building a meal plan.
Protein is essential when it comes to nutrition for runners. 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.
Variety is often preached in fruit and vegetable selections, but it could be wise to eat a variety of protein types too. For example, a 2021 study by the American Heart Association found that women who had around 7 percent of their protein derived from plant sources (tofu, nuts, beans, and peas) had a lower risk of both cardiovascular disease and dementia-related death than those who ate just animal-based proteins.
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). People who menstruate need 18 milligrams per day and should routinely have ferritin and hemoglobin levels checked by their doctor.
You may be wondering how to increase iron intake without resorting to supplement. Iron-rich foods include red meat, spinach, beans, and fortified foods. If you think you do need an iron supplement, have your blood work 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 2018 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, 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. It may also play a role in the immune response. For example, there has been some research surrounding vitamin D supplementation helping individuals suffering from COVID-19 complications. And a small retrospective study found that vitamin D deficiency also made people more likely to contract COVID-19. But there is still much more research that needs to be done to determine a definitive link.
Get it from the sun or eating fatty fish, egg yolks, dark chocolate, and mushrooms.
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.
Folic acid might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about nutrition for runners, but it can be quite helpful. 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. Supplement both at once by eating foods like beef, turkey, salmon, eggs, fortified almond or coconut milk, and shellfish.
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.
If you have a hunch that you are not getting enough of a certain nutrient, or would like to know how to fuel for your specific body type and training needs, a registered dietitian is a great person to turn to for personalized information and recommendations. Look for a sports dietitian who is well-versed in nutrition for runners.