Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life
Do you know this book? Have you read it? If you’re a female athlete, you should.
It was written by Stacy T. Sims, PhD, with co-author Selene Yeager, aka the Fit Chick from Bicycling magazine. Prior to becoming a nutrition scientist and exercise physiologist, Dr. Sims was an athlete who competed in triathlons, including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, and Xterra Worlds in Maui, Hawaii. At that time, Dr. Sims, like every other female athlete, trained and fueled like a man. After ending up with serious hyponatremia at Ironman Kona, Dr. Sims asked her women teammates how their races went. She noticed a pattern in that the women in the high-hormone phase of their menstrual cycle (a few days prior to their period) had issues with hyponatremia and the women in the low-hormone phase (day 1 through 14 of their cycle) had no issues with heat or fluid and had great races.
At that point, Dr. Sims changed her PhD topic from altitude to heat in order to figure out why the women in the high-hormone phase had difficulty. In the course of her research it became clear that sex differences extend way beyond the one week a month women have their periods, and Dr. Sims soon developed her mantra:
Women Are Not Small Men
To really get the benefit of the information contained in Roar, I recommend you read it. In this post, I’m going to outline just a few key points from the book.
The book is broken into three parts: “What it Means to Be a Woman on the Move” (chapters on female physiology, menstruation, menopause, and pregnancy), “Your Female Fitness Foundation” (overview of eating; building strength, power, and strong bones as a female athlete), “Your Plan for Peak Performance” (daily fueling, sport-specific fueling, hydration, recovery).
I think one of the most important things the book explains is how hormonal “perturbations” in women affect their training and recovery. A lot of women dread the thought that they’ll get their period in time for an important race. Coaches and athletes have even gone so far as to use hormonal treatment in order to alter the female athlete’s cycle to avoid starting menstruation right before or during an event. But, “in reality, your hormones are favorable for performance once your period starts.” [Roar, p. 19] British long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe was one such athlete who tried coordinating her cycles with her race calendar. But in 2002, when she competed at the Chicago marathon while enduring menstrual cramps, Radcliffe actually broke the world record for fastest marathon. Upshot? You are fastest and strongest in the low hormone phase of day 1 (when menstruation begins) through day 14.
Almost twenty years ago, when I was pregnant for the first time, it was not that common for women to continue exercising during pregnancy. And for pregnant women through much of the 20th century, it was not advised to exercise during pregnancy at all. But of course, throughout history, women have continued to do the hard work of feeding a family, cleaning house, working in farm fields, and more, all while pregnant. In chapter 4, “Do You Need to Take a Pregnant Pause,” there is a long list of former recommendations for exercise during pregnancy along with the updated recommendations. Among them “Maternal heart rate should not exceed 140 beats per minute. (No longer true.)” and “Avoid exercises that employ the Valsalva maneuver. (True. […])” The Valsalva maneuver is when you create pressure in your abdomen by forcing breath out while keeping mouth and nose closed, for example when lifting something heavy. This causes too much pressure in the abdomen and “can cause unsafe changes in blood pressure.” [Roar, p. 59] Taking up a new sport in pregnancy is not advisable, but continuing activities you already do, being mindful of current guidelines, is important to maintain health. Being fit for delivery is a good idea. Not for nothing is it called “labor.”
The section of this book I was most excited to read is called “Moving through Menopause.” Finding information about menopause is really difficult, and so much of it is unreliable and contradictory. Menopause seems like the Wild West of health issues. This chapter of Roar answers questions like: Why do we gain fat and lose muscle, even with no changes to eating or exercise habits? Why the heck can’t I sleep through the night anymore? Why am I so forgetful? And who turned up the heat? If these questions plague you, read the book, but Spoiler Alert: Your ebbing hormones are at the root of it all. Fortunately, the book has some solid advice about changes we can make to our eating and exercise habits that will help.
The other big mantra that Dr. Sims uses is “Food in your pocket, hydration in your bottle.” She strongly encourages us to avoid prepackaged bars and to get nutrition from actual food rather than trying to drink the calories we need to support a workout. She advises things like low-fructose fruit with nuts, or small potatoes cooked and salted, or plain old PB&J cut into bite-sized pieces. There are even recipes for ride-friendly bite-sized foods. You probably don’t need special refueling after every ride. A good guideline is to eat after a ride that leaves you feeling “wrung out and depleted.” [Roar p. 186] The book also contains guidelines on how much to eat to support a long, hard workout.
And the first thing to do after a serious ride is to take in some protein. Women have a narrow recovery window of about 30 minutes within which they should consume 25 to 30 grams of protein. “Remember, progesterone exacerbates muscle breakdown in women.” [Roar, p. 186] It’s important to refuel with carbs, too, but the time frame there is more forgiving.
Roar is a look at female physiology and how that affects women athletes’ performance and health. It includes recipes and exercises, brief profiles of real women athletes and how they eat or train to succeed, plus examples of what not to do, and diets and nutrition plans that work and don’t work for women. (Don’t get her started on paleo and fasted training. Spoiler alert: Don’t do it. [Roar, p. 176]).