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Women Endurance Athletes and Carbohydrate

Women Aren’t Men

A quick search of google for “endurance nutrition” will bring up an array of feeding and supplementation protocols all centred around one common theme; you need carbohydrate for optimal endurance performance. Despite doing extensive research on low carbohydrate exercise performance, I’m not going to argue with the concept of carbs = performance. However, when we’re talking about the female endurance athlete, I think the idea of “more carbohydrate is better” is a lot less applicable than it is for men.

Sports Drinks and Gels

It is often said that women are better fat burners than men and that as the duration of exercise increases, women can compete more closely with men. However, through my research, I found that women burn less carbohydrate than men; women don’t burn more fat.

Other researchers have shown that when women take exogenous (external) carbohydrates during exercise (i.e. sports drink or gels), they burn more of the external carbohydrates than men. BUrning more external carbohydrate may sound beneficial to women, but it’s not. Women are forced to burn more exogenous carbohydrate because men can burn more of their endogenous (internal) carbohydrate stores (glycogen) during exercise than women.

“Women should operate at the lower end of the recommended carbohydrate intake spectrum, not only in day-to-day nutrition but also during endurance exercise.”

Carbo-loading

The goal of a carbo-load is to stock up your glycogen stores. When a male and female athlete carbo-load before an endurance event, the man will benefit more than the women. Not only will the male athlete benefit more, but the female may reduce their ability to burn fat by carbo-loading and subsequently reduce their performance potential.

A simple way to look at it would be; when men carbohydrate load, they benefit more than women do and when women take a sports drink, they benefit more than men.

Women Don’t Need As Much Carbohydrate As Men

Before, I said women can’t burn as much carbohydrate per hour as men. This means the recommended carbohydrate intake during exercise (60-90g carbohydrate/hour) is far too high for women, who, on average, only burn a maximum of 60g/hour.

Women should operate at the lower end of the recommended carbohydrate intake spectrum, not only in day-to-day nutrition but also during endurance exercise. Recommendations – Carbohydrate Intake for Women Carbohydrate intake during exercise;

  • 40-60g/hr during hard endurance competition.

Carbohydrate intake during high carbohydrate diet;

  • 3-5 g per kg body weight per day for day-to-day training (e.g. 70kg female @ 5g/kg/day; 70×5 = 350g total carbohydrate per day).

Carbohydrate intake low carbohydrate diet;

  • < 2 g per kg body weight per day for day-to-day training (e.g. 60kg female @ 2g/kg/day; 60×2 = 120g total carbohydrate per day).

When you are heading out for a long training session or race (> 3 hours), try to avoid eating or drinking any carbohydrate supplements for the first hour to help your muscle adapt to burning fat at maximum capacity before topping it up with carbohydrate.

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