Why female endurance athletes need protein after workouts (maybe more than men)

I’m a big advocate of eating foods that you can recognise! A colourful plate with a variety of shapes and textures is pleasing on the eye and usually means its covers a lot of bases when it comes to essential nutrients. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, especially when you are pushing your body to it limits. Repeatedly taking yourself to your limits and carefully nudging a little beyond, paired with time to recover and adapt is basically the definition of training so it’s important to recognise that some exceptions are helpful in supporting the recovery and adaptation process.

It’s well known that people who are training strength or endurance benefit from higher protein intake than is needed on average. For endurance athletes in particular, consuming protein after a long or hard session helps to prevent the body from breaking down muscle tissue for energy and recovery. But what is less well known is that there are differences for men and women. The way men and women generate energy from carbohydrates, fats and protein is different and so is the way our bodies repair and refuel our bodies following a workout.

Female hormones are geared towards making the body more conservative in its use and storage of energy. This has a big advantage for endurance athletes as estrogen slows down the rate that stored carbohydrates can be accessed and burned for energy, meaning that women burn more fat during exercising and are less likely to ‘bonk’ or ‘hit the wall’. However, it also slows muscle tissue growth, while progesterone encourages the use of protein as a fuel, both of which make it harder to maintain or indeed increase muscle tissue. As hormone levels fluctuate through the month, it means the type of training and what you eat can either work with or against your training goals.

Progesterone levels increase in the second half of the menstrual cycle, so this is when consuming protein directly after a workout is really beneficial to counteract the effects of breaking down protein for fuel. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), in particular, are used to rebuild muscle tissue so consuming a protein with plenty of these helps. Branched-chain is a way to describe some of the amino acids that are present in most proteins – the levels of different amino acids vary from one source to the next. Whey protein from milk is a good source of these but I keep a note of amino acid profiles from a few different sources to get an idea of how they compare. You can mix and match to get a balanced profile. Here are a few others for anyone who, like me, has trouble digesting milk products or other sources:

protein-sources-for-vegetarians-and-vegans

These are the essential amino acids – think of them as primary colours for mixing paint. The body can make any amino acid it needs if it has these essential ones coming in through the diet. The three starred amino acids are the BCAAs which are particularly important for stimulating muscle repair and growth. You can see that whey protein is richest in leucine and isoleucine, but the egg has proportionately more valine (this is a percentage of all the amino acids, including the non-essential ones). After whey, the rice protein scores pretty well in BCAAs especially considering it a plant-source.

But apart from getting a good amino acid profile, you also need to get enough of the protein within a short window after your workout, so you may need to find a balance of nutrition and convenience that works best for you. I’ve been making recovery smoothies with pea protein and a dollop of tahini with whatever other flavours I fancy at the time (I can recommend banana and nutmeg!) but the pea protein does lend a lentil-like taste and since looking again at the BCAA content I’m going to go for rice protein this time which has a more neutral taste, which hopefully will add to the convenience factor as I won’t need to mask the taste with other ingredients making it easier to prepare.

I have contributed some blog articles to Pulsin’ and in return they have given me a discount code for 10% off for my clients and followers – get in touch if you’d like me to send it to you!

References

  1. Details about how women differ from men in their energy metabolism and response to exercise are from ROAR, by Stacy T. Sims, PhD and co-authored by Selene Yeager, published by Rodale, July 2016.
  2. Amino acid chart: the boiled chicken egg values were sourced from the Department of Health Nutrient Analysis and are presented since a boiled chicken egg is often used as a benchmark against which to compare other sources. For the other four protein sources, I have used the breakdown from Pulsin’ product labels. Pulsin’s protein powders are pure with no flavours or other ingredients so these are a fair representation of the profile for those generic ingredients.

Disclosure

The link above to ROAR is an Amazon affiliate link, but you can purchase the book elsewhere. I am not paid or sponsored by Pulsin’ nor do I receive any commission, I have simply provided content for their blog which they have promoted to their customers and followers.

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