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Sinead Brophy Aug 30, 2020 12:15:00 PM 22 min read

Fuelling Female Performance - Part 2


Welcome back!

I hope you enjoyed my previous blog on Fuelling Female Performance - Part 1, where we covered ‘What is Low-Energy-Availability’ and Why it matters’. In part 2, I will cover’.

If you haven’t read it already, then I would encourage you to do so before we crack on with today’s blog, which discusses ‘Why it happens’ and ‘How to fix it’.

If you aren’t bothered to read Part 1 (tsk tsk), here are the highlights:

What is it?

  • In simple terms, low-energy-availability (LEA) is underfuelling
  • We underfuel when our energy output (day to day activities + purposeful exercise) is greater than our inputs (food + drink) causing us to be in a state of chronic energy deficit
  • This can be intentional (misguided attempt at losing weight) or unintentional (simply not realising how much energy you are burning day-to-day)
  • This is commonly known as RED-S or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (and can also affect males)


Why it matters

  • Underfeulling can lead to a whole heap of issues, such as:
    • Decrease in your resting metabolic rate (the amount of calories you burn day-to-day)
    • Fertility issues
    • Osteoporosis (yep, even for 20 year olds)
    • Mental health issues
    • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
    • Poor performance, mood, and overall health


Why it happens


Reason 1 : Not Getting Enough Calories

Not consuming enough food and particularly, not consuming enough food, around your training is one of the main contributors to being in a negative energy balance, and the resulting menstrual disturbance and poor performance.


What does this actually mean?

The ideal threshold is 45kcals per kilogram of fat free mass. Say that again?

For most of us, we won’t know what our fat free mass is (unless we have had a DEXA scan or BOD POD), nor do we want to spend time figuring out exactly what 45kg/ffm per day looks like.

For the majority of women who are active throughout the day (eg. walking to work, working on your feet) it is going to be around 2,000-2,500 calories per day BEFORE EXERCISE.

I know, I know I can hear you know “but {insert app or wearable technology here} tells me that I should be eating 1,200 calories a day to lose weight…..”

But, if we want to be HEALTHY athletes and women who are fertile, then our reproductive systems like our body fat % to be in and around 20-23% body fat (Rinaldi, 2019; Loucks et al, 2011; Institute Of Medicine, 2005).


What does this actually look like?

Here is what that 20-23% looks like according to Precision Nutrition’s handy infographic



For most of us this is going to be sufficiently lean in a way that allows us to fit our exercise and nutrition plans into our day-to-day lives without sacrificing too much

Remember 23-25% body fat is still considered ‘fitness’ and 25-30% considered within the healthy range, as is 16-19%, but if you are on the lower end of the body-fat percentage scale you will need to up the calories as your lean mass is greater.

So, what if you do want to get down to 16-19%, either for your sport or as a goal for a specific event? This leads us to our second reason.


Reason 2: Too much of a deficit - Cutting calories drastically

Thanks to the ever-present diet culture, we are bombarded with messages that smaller is better, skinnier is better, leaner is better. We are told to measure our portions, weigh out our macros, sip coffee or water to stave off hunger etc. etc.


Weight Loss - Pexels


We essentially trick ourselves into an extreme calorie deficit that is too large and too drastic in a bid to shed pounds quickly. Add in our new found zeal, we add a new exercise regime and now we are in a double-whammy situation. This large calorie deficit shocks our system into shut-down mode and we can burn out

If we want to get down to the ultra-lean category for a short term goal, you are best to do it in a slow and sustainable way.

Reduce calories slowly, say by 250cals, or add on an additional training session, but only pick one and build on it each week, don’t go hell for leather at the start.

Also make sure to prioritise eating nutrition, well-balanced meals of carbs, proteins and fats in and around your training sessions. You can then reduce some of the starchy carbohydrates in the evening to elicit a calorie-deficit (as long as it isn’t around intense training sessions)

Which leads us on to the next reason.


Reason 3: Poor nutrient timing - Not fuelling your training correctly

In a bid to lose weight, we often turn to fasted training or intermittent fasting. This can work well for males, particularly overweight, deabetic males, but women, this can lead to hormonal disruptions and increased cortisol levels, which actually causes us to store fat around our mid-line…..the complete opposite of what we want.

Then if we are skipping our breakfast after our morning training session because we have to hop in the shower and then leg it to work (either in person or online) we a missing a window of opportunity to give our bodies the energy it needs to build lean muscle and support the training adaptations that we want.

Furthermore, by not fuelling correctly around training, we are putting ourselves at a higher risk of menstrual cycle disturbance due to RED-S - Looking at a group of high level athletes in Sweden who ate approx 3,500 cals a day and burned approx 1,000 through training, Farenholtz et al. found that the only difference between those with and without a healthy cycle was those without a period were in an energy deficit for approx 4 hours longer during the day.


This highlights the importance of fuelling regularly if you are someone who trains regularly and prioritising your intake around your training sessions.


Female Training FFS GYM


But I am not hungry after training?

The two big players when it comes to appetite regulation are Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and Leptin (the satisfaction hormone).

A study in 2012 found that ghrelin was muted and leptin increased in menstruating athletic and non-athletic women after exercise (Ackerman et al. 2012). In normal english, this means that although we need to fuel ourselves post exercise are hunger hormones are often upside down, meaning we don’t feel hungry.


Reason 4 : Psychological & Exercise-induced stress - Stressing out

Stress hormones, particularly cortisol, also have a big impact on the menstrual cycle. According to Dr. Rinaldi, numerous studies “found that women with hypothalamic ammenorhea (period loss) have elevated cortisol levels in their blood and spinal fluid”.

Cortisol levels are increased by high intensity interval training and when training in a fasted state. A study found that exercising at 60% (moderate intensity) increased cortisol levels by 40% and exercising at 80% intensity (high intensity) raised cortisol levels by 83%(Hill et al, 2008).

According to Dr. Stacy Sims, training fasted in the morning is counter-intuitive as our cortisol levels are already raised and then we compound it by putting our bodies under stress from the exercise. Cortisol not only promotes fat storage around the midline but also uses the same building blocks as your other steroid hormones, oestrogen and progesterone. This often leads to us cutting calories and upping the training, which further compounds the issue.


Note: Some stress is good and we need it to adapt, but having chronically elevated stress levels or ONLY doing crazy high intensity means we are missing a trick and missing out on strength and body composition gains.


How to fix it


There is a difference between being at risk of low energy availability and full-blown period loss.. Both require an increase in energy intake (eg. food) but they need slightly different approaches.

If you have completely lost your cycle for more than 2-3 months are not pregnanct, it is important to go and talk to your GP and go to see a registered dietitian to create a strategy for regaining your cycle. Nevertheless, there are some strategies that can help if you are at risk of underfulling or have lost your period.


  • Ensure you are in neutral or slightly positive energy surplus to fuel your training
    • Eat 2,000-2,500 cals per day
    • If you are comfortable with it, track your calories for a few days to 1 week to see how many calories you are currently using and then adjust up if needed


  • Generally speaking, aim for 3-4 meals a day of the following portion sizes with 1-2 snacks. Adjust up or down as needed



  • Refuel after training:
    • Our bodies enter a catabolic state (muscle-break down) after exercise; ensuring that we refuel our bodies and muscles with protein after training is important to improve recovery
    • Refuel with 25-30g of protein 30 mins post-session
    • Follow this with a full meal within 2 hours after training - mix of complex carbs, proteins, fats.

Top Tip: Have a protein shake with you in your bag for straight after sessions

  • Don’t train fasted
    • Slice of toast with natural peanut butter/nut butter protein mix
    • Banana with natural peanut butter/nut butter protein mix
    • Homemade energy protein balls
    • Protein powder, milk & coffee shake
    • Training fasted increases cortisol which promotes fat storage and can decrease the available building blocks needed for your other hormones, like oestrogen and progesterone.
    • If you haven't eaten in the past 2 hours, have something to eat 30-45 mins before training, especially if before a heavy training session
    • Fast releasing carbohydrates and some protein (15-20g of protein) is ideal



  • Recovery days
    • It is essential that you give your body 24-36 hours recovery between sessions, especially heavy or intenseones.
    • You can do two days on 1-1.5 days off to ensure adequate recovery.
    • Look to get some low intensity training and active recovery, such as a walk, hike, gentle yoga or a swim.


FFS Yoga

  • Deload weeks
    • Incorporating a week into your programme that is slightly less load will allow you to adapt to the training goal of that block
    • Sometimes life throws us recovery weeks (like a holiday), whereas other times we need to consciously plan it in


  • Reducing overall intensity for period loss
    • If you have lost your period due to a mismatch in energy balance, it is recommended by Dr. Rinaldi to reduce the amount and the intensity of your exercise. Her short-term recommendations are:
      • Cut out high intensity exercises
      • Engage in low intensity exercises
      • If you choose to continue exercising more than this, eat an additional two calories for every one you burn during exercise.


A Final Note

Please remember, if you have lost your period then it is important to go and speak to your GP to rule out any other underlying issues.

Sinead is passionate about female health and performance. She holds regular workshops on the topic of menstrual cycle health, fuelling female performance, and working in sync with your cycle, as well as working with 1:1 clients.

If you are interested in learning more, follow her instagram account dedicated to research backed information on how to work with your body, not against it - @gowiththeflow_workwithyourbody

If you would like to attend a workshop or work with Sinead, fill in this interest form or email her at sinead@ffs.ie


Additional Reading

Newspaper Articles


Books & Author’s Instagram accounts





Please see sources listed in previous blog (here)




Sinead Brophy

Coach Sinead is a certified Personal Trainer, Movement & Mobility Coach, Modern Pregnancy & Postnatal Exercise & Wellness Trainer, and is trained in Female Physiology and Nutrition. Sinead is particularly interested in the female athlete, from how the menstrual cycle impacts training to coaching women in strength and aerobic training during pregnancy. Sinead is leading the way in Dublin in educating women about how to work with their bodies, to harness the power of their hormones, and get the most out of their training. Sinead is heading up Small Group Personal Training for Pregnancy in the new FFS location across the road from the Rotunda, FFS Ivy Exchange Parnell Street - Dublin 1. Email Sinead at sinead@ffs.ie. Find Sinead on Instagram at @sineadbrophy