Finishing five Ironman triathlons has taught Michelle Ginsburg a thing or two about eating for performance. "(Before the first race) I had no background in knowing how to eat for long-distance training, so I'd bonk," says Ginsburg, 35. But through trial and error, she honed her nutrition strategy, being careful not to skimp on the calories it takes to power through all-day training sessions.
"You can't be afraid to eat -- before, during and after," Ginsburg says.
You may not need to load up like Ginsburg, but whether you're training for a triathlon or a 5K, a good nutrition strategy can make all the difference in your performance and overall well-being. But, unfortunately, many women get hung up on their weight and the desire to look good, leaving them inadequately fueled and even endangering their health.
Running on empty
A recent study commissioned by Dove reports that only 38 percent of American women are satisfied with their body weight and shape. And athletes may be some of the most critical about their bodies.
"Women athletes under-eat all the time," says Molly Kimball, R.D., a sports nutritionist with Ochner's Elmwood Fitness Center, a multi-sport training facility in New Orleans. "In fact, it actually surprises me when I don't see it. No matter what the sport, (under-eating) is always going to be detrimental to your body."
When female athletes don't take in enough to meet their energy and nutrient needs, more than performance suffers. Health professionals have long encouraged high school and college coaches to talk to their team members about the dangers of the female athlete triad -- disordered eating (under-eating and unhealthy eating), amenorrhea (lack of menstrual periods) and osteoporosis (literally "porous bones"). The triad usually strikes girls and young women, but older athletes are not immune.
It works like this: Disordered eating keeps the body from getting adequate nutrition, and low calorie intake can lead to hormonal changes that cause amenorrhea. And, amenorrhea lowers the levels of estrogen, a hormone responsible for bone development, increasing the likelihood of bone fractures and breaks. In its Handbook to the Athlete Triad, the National College Athletic Association discourages coaches from setting weight requirements or having female athletes weigh-in, stressing that they focus on overall health and good nutrition instead of weight as a means to improving performance.
Although there are no official numbers, experts estimate the triad is prevalent among young female athletes because of the high rate of amenorrhea reported and the number of young women who suffer from eating disorders (specific, life-threatening types of disordered eating). The National Eating Disorders Association reports that as many as 10 million women fight a daily battle with anorexia or bulimia.
Sometimes an athlete with previous bouts of disordered eating will recover only to experience a relapse later in life. Kathleen Lawler, a 37-year-old attorney from New Orleans, was hospitalized for anorexia as a high school soccer player. She overcame the disorder and remained free of symptoms for 15 years. But six months ago, Lawler slipped back into disordered eating. Now on a swim team, her coach pulled her aside and told her she needed to stop losing weight. "I didn't have energy, my times were getting slower, yet it seemed out of my control." Lawler is now in therapy and getting back on track.
While male athletes tend to be more concerned with their performance than their weight, "it's different for women," says Susan J. Hewlings, Ph.D., assistant professor of health sciences at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. "Women are constantly trying to maintain a step-above anorexic 'ideal' and make their bodies look a way that doesn't necessarily work with how they should function."
Body-image obsession is worse with females because of the pervasiveness of sports body stereotypes (runners are thin, gymnasts are small, etc.), as well as the onslaught of media imagery of pencil-thin models and actresses. For many, the number on the scale is often the main measure of whether they're achieving this ideal.
But weight is a poor gauge of body condition, according to Ashley Koff, R.D., of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and founder of The HealthXChange. "Two women at the same height and weight may look dramatically different. You have to look at the end goal: to be healthy," says Koff. The scale can't tell the difference between fat and muscle, nor can it reveal anything about performance. "The scale is often a point of control with some women, but it shouldn't be a measure of fitness," adds Hewlings.
A better measure may be body composition, the percentage of fat to lean muscle mass. But this can be problematic, as well, especially if a woman strives for a fat percentage that's unrealistic or unhealthy. And unless you're dealing with big disparities, there's no solid research to support a direct correlation between body fat percentage and performance.
"Sure, there's a difference between a woman with 40 percent body fat and someone with 20 percent, but not when you start nitpicking over 18 and 20 percent," says Hewlings, also a 37-year-old runner. And for a lot of women, dropping that two or three percentage points means restricting calories so much that muscle is lost along with fat, hindering performance and possibly health.
Making peace with your body
"You need to consider at what point you're going to be happy with your body," says Koff. The same is true for your abilities. No matter how hard we work at it, many of us won't be able to weigh 120 pounds or look like a sub-three-hour marathoner, nor could we run like one.
Every body is different. Your ideal weight and physique should be defined as the point where you have the most energy and strength to perform at your best.
If you're healthy, exercising regularly and eating right, weight should be only one of many ways to measure fitness. How well you feel and perform should be the main measure. Koff suggests focusing more on distance gains, strength improvement or faster times. You may also notice shorter recovery times and less muscle soreness.
Ginsburg adds that athletes shouldn't be worried about small fluctuations in weight; it's all part of the process. "You get used to eating so much and not having to pay for it during training, but off-season is tough. Every year I pick up a few pounds off-season, so I just adjust my intake."
Linda Melone is a personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise and the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and a fitness and health writer and professional speaker. To learn more visit LifeBeatFitness.com.
By Linda Melone