I'm a small-town Minnesota dietitian and triathlete.
I help endurance athletes reach their performance and body composition goals through a flexible eating style.
Menopause is a natural and normal part of life that all women, including female endurance athletes, will have to go through.
It’s a stage of life that’s accompanied by hormonal and body changes that may alter training and nutrition routines. But this doesn’t mean you can’t implement strategies that will help you perform to the best of your ability.
As a dietitian for performance athletes, it’s frustrating that there’s a lack of research studies done on female athletes in the menopausal stage of life.
Even though there is limited information, it’s best practice for female athletes to focus on building a foundation as an everyday athlete going through menopause. So let’s get into it!
One of the biggest changes within the female body that occurs during menopause is a shift in hormones. This shift can lead to both physical and mental barriers for performance athletes.
The hormonal shift is mostly due to a decline in two hormones: estrogen and progesterone.
In fact, research shows that it’s the decline in estrogen that’s responsible for a loss of strength and bone density and an increase in fat mass (especially in the abdominal region).
Therefore, if you notice a drop in athletic performance when entering menopause, make sure to give yourself some grace. Instead, focus on diet and lifestyle modifications that can help.
This can be a tough one for some women athletes to embrace, especially for those that want to lose weight.
This frustrating side effect of hormonal shifts may lead some women to take part in low-calorie or restrictive “fad diets” in an attempt to lose excess pounds.
But low-calorie diets can have negative impacts on endurance performance, especially around longer workouts and race days. They can also increase cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, due to under-fueling, which makes it even harder to lose weight.
This is why fueling your body should be the priority over striving to lose weight.
As mentioned earlier, a decline in estrogen levels can lead to a decrease in bone density and muscle mass in menopausal athletes.
Protein is an important macronutrient for building strength, preventing bone loss, and aiding in recovery. Several studies even showcase that high amounts of dietary protein can help prevent osteoporosis and osteopenia, which are common in adults around the age menopause starts.
Make sure to focus on getting in your daily protein requirements, especially from sources of complete proteins. Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, which are needed in order to build muscle.
Examples of complete protein sources include meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, soy, and quinoa. You can also combine incomplete proteins to get the right combo of amino acids. Think like rice + beans or pasta + peas or whole-grain bread + peanut butter.
For more information on protein needs, check out my article on how much protein you really need to gain muscle.
Having a diet composed of a variety of whole foods will ensure you are getting the vitamins and minerals that your body needs during this delicate life stage.
Another side effect of a decrease in estrogen is your body may become more resistant to insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels.
This insulin resistance can affect the way our bodies utilize and process carbohydrates. Because of this, menopausal athletes may be more sensitive to simple sugars and refined carbohydrates.
My recommendation is to focus on complex carbohydrates from whole food sources such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Use simple sugars to fuel your workouts when you’re in need of quick, easy-to-digest carbs as energy.
Lastly, also make sure you’re getting an adequate amount of vitamin D and calcium. This will further protect your joints and bones involved with endurance training.
You deserve mid-life happiness in all areas of your life, including your sports performance.
Since some research has shown that weight loss at this stage of life can be really slow, be patient with your weight loss goals and body composition and instead focus on creating sustainable, eating habits that you can enjoy lifelong.
Feel like you’re going to need some support to build that foundation of healthy, balanced eating for your athlete lifestyle? Reach out to learn more about my nutrition coaching program, my dietitian team is ready to help you continue to be your healthiest, strongest athlete self at any stage of your life. Reach out to me and apply for my nutrition coaching here!