Whilst females in sport are becoming a lot more common and accepted, female athletes must take into consideration many aspects when preparing or training for fitness. These considerations include; eating disorders which affect energy levels, iron levels which get altered due to menstruation, and bone density due to the amount of calcium in the bones. It is also important to be aware of risk factors when participating in exercise whilst pregnant.
Due to the pressure from the media and social expectations, female athletes have a heightened risk at developing an eating disorder as they strive to reach the ‘desired look’. Eating disorders are an issue because they lead to low energy levels and malnutrition. When an athlete is expending more energy in exercise than they are inputting into their body, they will create an imbalance which can greatly affect their health and performance. Common eating disorders found among female athletes include anorexia which involves becoming obsessed with looking underweight and bulimia which involves binge eating and then vomiting the food up to avoid gaining any weight. Sports which female athletes are commonly found to have eating disorders include marathon running and triathlons as they require low body fat as well as sports such as gymnastics, diving and dance which idealise a thin physique and reveal a lot of the body. For example, if a gymnast has just eaten right before a performance, but has vomited it back up to look thin for the judges, she will be extremely lacking energy and may fall out of a movement and injure herself really bad, ending her season and career immediately. Ways that coaches can improve eating disorders in female athletes include: making sure that you are aware of signs and symptoms of eating disorders, create training and diet plans for athletes which are specific to their personal needs and don’t focus only on winning and what the judges want.
Iron deficiency or anaemia is a result of the blood not having the required amount of haemoglobin (11 grams per 100mL of blood) to form red blood cells which are required carry oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the muscle tissues. Females are far more susceptible to being iron deficient than males as not only do they eat less meat than required due to their desire to look thin but they also lose up to about 40mL of blood during menstruation. Iron deficiency in female sports is a big problem due to the fact that it contributes to fatigue and therefore loss of energy which can reduce performance and could create injury or leave the athlete disappointed as they won’t perform as well. For example, a female marathon runner with anaemia will struggle in their performance because they will fatigue earlier in the race than someone who is on top of their iron levels as their body will struggle to produce enough oxygen to supply the working muscles during sustained high intensity. A coach should consider creating a balanced diet for a female athlete which includes eating red meat at least three times a week. They should be aware of signs and symptoms and if needed, have iron supplements if a problem occurs.
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Bone density is directly related to calcium intake and refers to how strong an athlete’s bones are. Bones with low calcium levels are more likely to fracture or break if used continually at high intensity during training. In general, females generally have lower bone density than males but in particular, this is found after a woman goes through menopause. This means that older women will be at risk of fracturing bones during high-intensity sports. For example, if an elderly woman is playing basketball and takes an accidental hit, she could fracture her arm whereas this would only slightly bruise a male athlete. Low calcium levels can also lead to diseases including osteoporosis and arthritis, both of which could leave a female athlete very sore and completely reduce sports participation to even nothing at all. When coaching females in sport, particularly those who are older, it is important to focus on safe training which could include water aerobics or yoga. You should also be aware that they are maintaining a balanced diet which includes many calcium-rich foods such as milk and cheese.
For a very long time, it was widely believed that exercise was bad during pregnancy because it could hurt and cause stress to both the baby and the mother. Although it has now been proven that exercise is actually extremely beneficial. Benefits of exercising during pregnancy include: maintaining fitness and therefore well-being, helping to control weight that is not from the baby, rather from eating irrationally and also improving muscle tone. A doctor should be contacted before exercise is undertaken to ensure it is safe and okay as some woman, particularly those with high blood pressure, should refrain from exercise. When coaching a pregnant woman, it is important that it is moderate and regular, as well as not in a heated environment. You should also ensure that water is consumed regularly and contact sports must be avoided.
Together, eating disorders, iron deficiency and bone density form the female athlete triad. It is important that all female athletes get tested for each component of the triad before participating in any sport that could put them at risk.