Endurance events such as marathons and triathlons are gaining popularity as more people recognize the benefits of physical activity. However, physicians at Loyola University Health System have issued a warning for inexperienced female endurance athletes. The physicians are concerned that many women athletes are ill-prepared for these events, which they say can lead to serious health risks like menstrual irregularity, fertility issues, stress fractures and osteoporosis. “Many who participate in these events are inexperienced athletes who do not properly care for their bodies while training,” stated Neeru Jayanthi, MD, medical director of primary-care sports medicine for the university health system. “This can lead to irreversible damage to their health.” Jayanthi suggested that female endurance athletes often increase training demand without altering their diet.

IDEA author and presenter Pamela Nisevich Bede, MS, RD, LD, agrees with the concerns but believes some information may be omitted. “When a female athlete drastically increases amounts of physical activity yet does not increase nutrient intake, deficiencies in both macro- and micro-nutrients can occur,” she says. “However, the researchers failed to mention that when women increase activity levels, changes in hormone levels follow; these changes often drive an increase in appetite and consequent energy intake.”

To promote optimal health and safety among female endurance athletes, Bede suggests the following:

  • Encourage adequate energy intake throughout training.
  • Avoid a focus on weight loss during peak periods of intense training. Weight loss should occur in very early training only.
  • Focus on nutrient timing; make sure athletes are fully fueled with carbohydrates and arrive at training sessions well-hydrated.
  • Refer athletes to a medical doctor or registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition if you suspect that they are deficient in energy, macronutrients or micronutrients.