Toolbox: Over the past few years we have been witnessing a very positive growth in women’s cycling, with not only an increasing number of athletes in the pro ranks, but also in the number of amateur and recreational riders. While some of the best WorldTour cycling teams such as Astana, CCC Liv, Lotto Soudal, Michelton-Scott, Sunweb, Trek-Segafrefo and Movistar have a female UCI team, information on specific nutrition for female cycling It is still scarce.
Looking back a few years, these names wouldn’t ring a bell. But today, these names are easily recognized as some of the best female cyclists on the planet that both inspire other women in the sport and could easily embarrass some male cyclists.
For many, the main difficulties of eating well are the time constraints of work, family and social life. To make things worse and increase the pressure over these athletes, endurance sports encourages women (and men alike) to be lean and maintain a certain body composition to maximize their performance.
When these challenges are combined with the media bombardment of food paranoia such as cutting radically with a given food group, cutting with carbohydrates for no reason, training fasted without any criteria, avoiding gluten, dairy or cut with anything that is not approved by the “guru X that you follow on Instagram,” you get the perfect recipe to jeopardize your performance and confuse yourself.
In these troubled time where reliable information is so scarce, here are some key principles to take into consideration not only for the elite female cyclists, but for those getting into the sport and who are willing to take one step forward in optimizing their performance and health throughout the entire season.
This is the first on the list for a very good reason: it is a common problem in many female endurance athletes. Recently renamed as ‘Relative energy deficiency in sport’ (or RED-S), the syndrome goes beyond what was previously known as the female athlete triad and evolved into a model that recognizes other factors that can affect metabolic rate, bone health, Immune function and nutritional deficiencies that may affect female cyclists. Some of the signs and symptoms you should know and follow up with your medical professional include:
● Amenorrhea (cessation of menstruation for more than 3 months);
● Disordered eating patterns that may include excessively restricting intake, such as skipping meals or using unsafe weight loss methods;
● Poor bone health with a bone mineral density below normal;
● Depressed mood or irritability; and / or susceptibility to get sick very often;
Even if you are not an elite cyclist, you must face this problem with the same seriousness as a professional cyclist. For that, you must be accompanied by a good dietitian/nutritionist (those who really went to college) with experience in cycling create an adequate food plan taking into account the huge physical demands of the sport and the female physiology. Searching the internet, getting influenced by food documentaries and following the opinion of influencers is not the way.
In general, active women need more energy and fluids than non-athletic women. As for specific micronutrient, while most of these can be achieved with a varied diet, female cyclists should take extra care to ensure that some micronutrient levels are consistently adequate. The ones that may require extra attention are:
Two words: bones and teeth
Two fundamental anatomical structures that appear to be weakened in endurance athletes (1, 2). And why? Low bone mineral density due to the lack of impact activities that characterize the training of cyclists. On the other hand, the inevitable dependence on sugar-rich products such as energy bars, gels and isotonic weakens the teeth and makes these athletes more prone to have poor oral health.
Calcium is necessary for the maintenance and normal development of these two structures. Therefore, calcium requirements for adult women are approximately 1000mg per day. Amenorrhea women with anorexia nervosa have decreased calcium absorption and higher urinary calcium excretion rates, as well as a lower rate of bone formation than healthy women  and should aim for the upper limit of calcium requirements of 1500mg per day.
So how can you get at least 1000mg of calcium per day?
First, eliminating the phobia of dairy products! If you have no lactose intolerance, skimmed milk and low fat dairy products are a convenient, concentrated and especially a low budget source of not only calcium but also highly bioavailable and protein sources. Still, fortified soy milk and other alternatives (calcium-fortified almond, rice or oat drinks) are viable options.
While it may not be easy to get your calcium by eating 1kg of spinach a day (with only 5% bioavailability), there are indeed other vegetables like broccoli and cabbage that indeed have high calcium availability, but the amount of these foods to be ingested is normally very high and not fit into a regular meal context.
Therefore, it is important to consume milk or derivatives such as low-fat yogurts and sugars. White cheeses are also a good option that can be part of a breakfast on a whole wheat toast.
This is a big deal! Iron is a functional component of oxygen transport and energy production in humans and therefore is a critically important micronutrient for sport and exercise performance. Women in general have higher requirements than men from 14 to 50 years of age (even higher during pregnancy and lactation). Female cyclists need more iron than the man, especially due to the increased losses that occur in menstruation. Since iron participates in energy production and plays a key role in training capacity and health status, priority should be given to optimizing iron levels for both health and performance. Foods such as the “red meat”favorable (beef, lamb, veal), but also chicken or turkey together with seafood should be a part of the diet of women cyclists.
It is possible to meet the needs of iron with non-meat sources (non-heme iron) such as spinach, cabbage and broccoli. However, absorption is much less efficient and, therefore, a very large amount of vegetables is necessary to reach significant levels of iron. This may require careful iron status monitoring through ferritin levels and according to it, supplement with iron throughout the season and always with medical supervision.
Properly fueling for your workouts is not only useful to make sure you get home “alive,” but also offers advantages in “training the gut” for competitions.
In events or sessions that last more than 60 minutes, carbohydrate intake is one of the most critical factor to sustain high intensities. This becomes even more critical during long lasting races and multi-stage events. This helps you replenish your depleted muscle glycogen stores and allows you to maintain a greater intensity of exercise on the following day(s).
Current trends in social networks and influencers around the world insistently recommend that you only have to eat natural foods (bananas, nuts and dehydrated) and avoid processed as bars, gels and isotonic, scientific evidence suggests that there is no difference between consuming processed or natural foods as long as the carbohydrate is absorbed as quickly as the exercise demands.
There is however an advantage in having a ratio of 2:1 Glucose:Fructose provided during the exercise, which may increase the amount of total carbohydrate used during exercise.
Bananas may be a good option (especially if they are very ripe) because of their high amount of carbohydrates, low amount of fibre and favorable ratio of glucose fructose.
Feeding for cycling is easier than it seems and it is essential to get rid of food phobias against sugary foods. Bars, bananas, gels, rice cakes, paninis, sports drinks and even gummies have been some of the staple foods in the training routines of professional cyclists. While it’s good to have some variety and prioritize individual gastric comfort and preference, I don’t believe that restricting convenient packed snacks that are a little bit more “processed” is positive for the athletes. If they like it and it’s well tolerated. Go for it. Your health is not going to be ruined just because of a processed cereal bar. There are much more important factors on your daily diet that account for that.
Female cyclists have unique nutritional issues. These require support by an actual dietitian/nutritionist to plan a diet that meets the demands of your chosen cycling phase (i.e., attainment/maintenance of musculoskeletal strength, power, and/or endurance), while maintaining a focus on overall athlete health and well-being.
In case you are interested, I have just launched an episode on this topic on my Fuel the Pedal Podcast.
About Gabriel Martins:
Gabriel Martins is a Portuguese Nutritionist with a Master’s degree in Sports Nutrition. He currently lives in Spain where he works with cycling teams and integrates the research group on sports physiology at the University Camilo José Cela in Madrid. Additionally, Gabriel is the Host of Fuel the Pedal Podcast. A show where he interviews researchers, sports nutritionists and cyclists discussing topics related to nutrition and physiology.
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